Mrs. Helen Jackson Wilkins Claytor made it her life’s work to break down racial barriers, before the term “civil rights” became part of the country’s lexicon.
She was born in Minneapolis on April 12, 1907 and was a 1928 cum laude graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she was one of the few black students. In one of her early jobs, she was a caseworker supervisor for the federal Emergency Relief Administration in Jackson County, Mo.
She had been a member of the Young Women’s Christian Association since grade school and by the late 1930s, she was working for the organization — then racially segregated — in Trenton, N.J., and Kansas City,
She first traveled to Grand Rapids to speak at a convention in 1942 as secretary for interracial education for the national YWCA. She was a widow and mother at the time. Her first husband, journalist Earl Wilkins, died in 1941.
She met Robert Claytor, a Grand Rapids doctor, and they married a year later. She moved to the western Michigan city.
She could not get a job teaching in Grand Rapids in the early 1940s, which she attributed to racism.
Meanwhile, her husband became the first black doctor on staff at St. Mary’s Hospital. When his wife resigned her national YWCA post, joined the Grand Rapids YWCA board and became president in 1949, three white board members resigned in protest, saying the city was not ready for a black YWCA president.
In the early 1950s, she led the Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission to look at race relations. She led a study on de facto segregation in Grand Rapids public schools in the early 1960s and made recommendations on integration.
The elimination of racism was a key goal of Mrs. Claytor’s tenure as president of the national YWCA, and one of her proudest achievements was to get the organization to support that principle at the 1970 convention.
Mrs. Claytor received many awards during her life. The Grand Rapids YWCA established the Helen J. Claytor Merit of Distinction Award, making her the first recipient in 1983; she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984; the Helen Jackson Claytor Civil Rights Award was created by the city of Grand Rapids; and Helen was named a “Woman of Courage” by Michigan Women’s Foundation in 1994. And of course, the city of Grand Rapids erected a statue of her as part of the Grand Rapids Community Legends project.
Michigan History, March/April 2015
“Helen Claytor: Activist in Civil Rights, YWCA“, Washington Post, May 14, 2005.
“Helen Claytor Statue Dedication“, MLive, July 23; updated July 24, 2014.
Cindy Lang, “Dr. Robert W. and Helen J. Claytor“, HistoryGrandRapids.org, April 13, 2010.