YWCA dining room sheltered honest conversation in days of racial strife

civil rights historic

The modest room at the front of the YWCA on Augusta Street seems an unlikely relic of Greenville's civil rights past. From afar, the small space that once held the Y's dining room looks like a typical meeting room, with tables, slightly worn chairs and a few posters on the wall. But the kitchen off the back hints at a time when integration, friendship and chicken pie converged within to change the face of the city.

"The YWCA, in my view, was one of the two or three most important aspects of Greenville's relatively smooth integration," says Dr. Judith Bainbridge, Furman University professor and Greenville historian.

During the late 1950s to early 1960s, the small room inside the YWCA was the only place in Greenville where blacks and whites could dine together.

In the face of staunch opposition to integration, the YWCA quietly opened its dining room doors to both races.

In 1950, in accordance with the national Y's new interracial charter that called for "integration and full participation of minority groups in all phases of American life," local Y buildings were opened to interracial meetings. And though a city ordinance at the time made it illegal for blacks and whites to eat together in public, the Y skirted the issue by opening the dining room at its former West North Street location to private interracial groups.

By 1960, Greenville was in the throes of the civil rights struggle. Sterling High students held lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth's and Kress' downtown, and several were arrested when they attempted to integrate the public library.

When the ordinance governing the segregation of public eating places was repealed in 1963, the Y immediately opened its integrated dining room to the public.

In 1964, with its programming and membership growing, the Greenville Y built two new facilities, one on Birnie Street that catered mainly to African Americans and another on Augusta Street (the Y's current location), which housed an integrated public dining room.

The small lunch counter did a booming business, especially on Wednesdays, which was chicken pie day.

"The food was just outstanding, best Southern cooking you can imagine," says Dorothy Brown, a Y board member at the time. "We used to try and bribe the cook into giving her recipe for chicken pie and macaroni and cheese."

Claudette Cureton, a former Y board member says the Y "allowed for you to sit down face to face, race to race and have a good open conversation."

The cafeteria is where she often met her friend, Ann "Tunky" Riley, who later became South Carolina's first lady. The Y became an immediate commonality, but the women often discovered they shared other things as well.

The YW's approach was a model of peaceful integration, says Xanthene Norris, who served on the Y board. The Greenville County Council member recalls a feeling of satisfaction that things were changing. She ate in the dining room and met frequently with fellow Y members.

"I could have gone to some of the cafeterias on Spring Street, but I wanted to go into a cafeteria where it was different, where people of different races were all together and, to me, that meant we were going forward with eliminating racism," Norris says. "To be able to sit there and talk was so important."

Today the space is no longer a dining room, but it is still bringing the races together, says YWCA Executive Director Jil Littlejohn. Last year the Y launched the Claudette Cureton Lecture Series in an effort to "cover the past, present and future of racial issues in Greenville County" and to honor the pioneering work of Cureton. The series is part of the Ann "Tunky" Riley Elimination of Racism Center, named after Cureton's friend and colleague at the Y in the volatile 1960s.

"This idea has been a part of our makeup and who we are and what we believe in," Littlejohn says. "We believe in a culturally diverse and inclusive community. So when you look at issues that arise or open dialogues, I believe we're able to say we've been doing this for 90 years, or at least since '48."

Other YWs were challenging racial norms at the time too. In 1960, Atlanta's YWCA integrated its public dining room, making headlines around the nation and becoming the "first desegregated dining facility in the city," according to a December 1960 Associated Press article. In 1965 the YW's national board created the Office of Racial Justice to lead the civil rights efforts.

"I think it was a soft approach," says former local board member Brown. "It wasn't that we announced it and you can come and eat in our dining room. It was just, it was voted on, it was known, and so I think in its quiet way it was a very decisive move, and one that influenced other things."

Bainbridge says the YW helped lead the way toward Greenville's smooth school integration by providing a place where people could meet and talk about how to make things better.

"When you meet over chicken pie, it's a lot easier than if you're stonewalling in a conference room," Bainbridge says. "Everybody loves chicken pie, and it was a very good chicken pot pie."

Jo Ann Walker recalls a conversation during one of the committee meetings where the group began sharing things about their lives in Greenville. Two of the young black members shared their experience going to school using secondhand textbooks and equipment that had been cast aside by white schools.

"I was in my 20s and so were these young women," says Walker, who is white.

"That was a life-changing moment for me when I really realized that this is what we had done to a group of young children, that we had made secondhand students out of them. I think that it was that kind of influence that the Y had in everything that they did during that period."

In recent years, the Y's influence has shifted to other areas like women in politics and business. The YWCA's dining room closed in the mid-'80s. But those who remember the Y in those early years can't help but think fondly of a time women came together to sit, eat and move Greenville forward.

You just can't underestimate the power of talking to someone face to face over a really good meal, Cureton says. It can make all the difference in the world.

"For some reason, when you sit down and eat with someone you will carry on more of a conversation where you get a chance to know people."

Lillia Callum-Penso