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The Harlem YWCA and the Secular City, 1904-1945 Judith Weisenfeld Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10: 7-11 During the first half of the twentieth century, increasing urbanization led to certain shifts in the religious lives of African Americans. Among the most significant of these changes was the increasing availability of religious options outside the traditional Baptist and Methodist denominations of African-American Christians. The rise of groups like Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement, Daddy Grace's United House of Prayer for AU People, W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad's Lost Found Nation of Islam, among others, have captured the attention of scholars, with studies of the urban "sects and cults" and of smaller independent "storefront churches" dominating the picture of the religious scene of the urban North and of black New York, in particular. Various scholars of African-American religious history have argued that the masses of African Americans moved away from the mainline churches in favor of these "sects and cults" and in favor of the secular lures of the city. Gayraud Wilmore argues that this period saw the "deradicalization of the black church" and the "dechristianization of black radicalism," emphasizing that African Americans could no longer find in their religious institutions a drive to engage with the struggle over daily life issues facing them. If one accepts this argument, it follows that existing historiography focuses almost exclusively on the "sects" and "cults."1 In recent years, however, this traditional approach has been challenged . Studies of urban churches in locales like Harlem, Brooklyn, and Chicago have demonstrated that the influence of the new religious movements was not as great as had been previously thought. Even this new research is based largely on traditional church studies, which have tended to limit the definition of activism and obscure the contributions of women by emphasizing the institutional role of the minister. In contrast, I befieve that the Harlem Young Women's Christian Association2 was an institution © 1994 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 6 No. 3 (Fall) 1994 Judith Weisenfeld 63 through which African-American women in New York responded to the religious, social, and political pressures of the new century. The women who founded and nurtured the institution made it a venue for rehgious work and for community activism that defied narrow definitions of "religious" and "secular" and yet upheld the black church tradition of religiously grounded social engagement. While the Harlem YWCA did not have direct contact with new movement leaders like Father Divine, it was influenced by the milieu in which such movements emerged. Examining the role of institutions like the Harlem YWCA in the response to urbanization expands our vision of the urban religious scene, as well as of AfricanAmerican women's religious work in the early twentieth century. The Harlem YWCA, founded in 1905, was one of the key institutions created by African-American women in New York City in the early twentieth century and perhaps the most visible and developed of all AfricanAmerican YWCA's in the country. After spending many years in rented quarters, the branch's newly constructed faculties at 137th Street and Lenox Avenue opened in 1921. The basement housed the cafeteria and its kitchen and had a capacity of one hundred. The main floor had reception rooms, meeting rooms, classrooms, offices, and the information desk. The third floor had locker rooms, showers, and a laundry, as well as gymnasium rooms. The fourth floor housed the pool. An annex was built a number of years later to provide additional classroom space and the branch also constructed an adjacent building which housed the residence. The Harlem YWCA's faculties set a high standard for African-American YWCAs across the country. Women like Cecelia Cabaniss Saunders, Emma Ransom, and Virginia Scott, principal guiding figures for...


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