Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Josephine Clement, July 13 and August 3, 1989. Interview C-0074. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Integrating the YWCA and the League of Women Voters

Clement involved herself in both the YWCA and the League of Women Voters soon after arriving in Durham, making her one of the first black women to enter the leadership of both groups. She reflects on the black community's hopes for integration and her conviction that she could not separate her identity as a minority from her identity as a woman. Ultimately, this led her to greater involvement in the women's movement than was common among black women during the classic civil rights era.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Josephine Clement, July 13 and August 3, 1989. Interview C-0074. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KATHRYN NASSTROM:
We were talking earlier about your involvement with the League of Women Voters and the YWCA. Do you recall what year it was that you became involved in those organizations?
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Well, actually I had a relationship with the YWCA as soon as I came here. I had been a Girl Reserve in Atlanta at the Phyllis Wheatley. My mother had been president of the Phyllis Wheatley, and she was always giving pieces of furnishings or what not that we didn't need. I remember she gave an old Victrola to the "Y" which would be collector's item now [laughter] when she was president of the Phyllis Wheatley branch. So the YWCA was a very important part. Here again, as I said, I could not be too active in too many organizations, but I did work with the "Y" somewhat. I was a member of the board of the Harriet Tubman which was the black branch. Then when the directive came down from the YWCA, the national YWCA, to integrate, the plan was to put two black women on the board each year for, I think it was, three or four years, until they got the number that they wanted. I was one of the two black women that they put on the first year. So I had a part in that, in integrating. And I think this is the way my role has evolved, that very often I was asked to be the first one to open a door and to go in. And because it was a part of me, I guess it came a little more easily to me than it did to other people. [Interruption]
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
As for the League of Women Voters, I did not know as much about a national directive, although what I remember fits in with such. But since I was already active in the black branch of the YWCA, I knew about that. But evidently the League of Women Voters actively solicited black women in their membership. Don't even remember exactly who mentioned it to me, but I did join. Because here again, I felt deep down inside of me if this organization is going to integrate and to open up, I should be a part of it and help to open the door for others. At that time it was the sense of the black community that integration was the panacea for all ills. We'd grown up that way. If you got your education and behaved yourself and so forth, everything was going to be all-right. Unfortunately, we have learned better and are a little bit disillusioned, and the young people have shown us that it's much more complex than this. But anyhow, I still believe that we ought to be a part of everything that's going, so that was why I went into the League of Women Voters.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
I imagine that we could, looking through records, establish these dates, but my own sense is that the directive for integration from the National League of Women Voters came in the late fifties, and I'm wondering if you have a recollection of when it was for the "Y?"
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
Not the exact date, but I would certainly concur with the late fifties.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
I ask that because I was interested in placing it in context of before or after the Brown decision. Not that they're about the same thing but in terms of the climate, the anticipation of change if there was such a thing.
JOSEPHINE CLEMENT:
I think that was very much a part of the same thing. Here was a concept that's being talked about and actually expressed by the Supreme Court. As I just mentioned, the Supreme Court in 1857 with the Dred Scott and then 1897 with Plessy v. Ferguson which established separate but equal, and now in 1954, although it was an educational decision, it struck down the concept of segregation. So we were beginning to get the first opening up of this sort of thing. It's very much in keeping with the League of Women Voters, I would think, to do a thing like this, because you can't fight for one segment or one part of a person and not for equal rights for all. This is how I think I came to the women's movement because I had been brought up to fight for the rights of black people and Negroes--colored as we were called then. And I realized that I couldn't divide myself up. I am not only black, I am a black female, and it goes together. I couldn't go out and fight the white community and come in and fight the black men, [laughter] again. I had to be a black female. So now I feel that whatever concerns the rights of any human being for whatever reason, I think has to be dealt with. We must have equal human rights for all people.