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After a Century, a Refuge Renewed

Wheatley YWCA, Once a Center of Black Life, Expands Housing as it Tends to Shaw Area

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page DZ10

Growing up in Southeast D.C., Bonita L. Hagood never heard of the city's historic Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. Growing up in the Shaw neighborhood in Northwest, Tony Lee knew all about it -- he attended junior high school next door.

Three decades later, both know it intimately. Hagood, 38 and between jobs, has called the red brick building at 901 Rhode Island Ave. NW home for three years, renting one of its inexpensive rooms. Lee, pastor of Pillar of Truth Bible Church, holds services in the basement each Sunday.

The historic Phyllis Wheatley YWCA provides 117 rooms for women guests. Once the only "colored" YWCA in the nation, it is now an independent institution, catering to social needs in the fast-changing Shaw area. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)

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Shelter and worship -- these are two of the modern roles the nonprofit organization has created for itself after a century in which racial realities in the nation's capital have changed.

Set to mark its 100th anniversary next spring, what was once the only "colored" Young Women's Christian Association affiliate in the nation is now an independent institution that caters to any number of social needs in the fast-changing Shaw area.

"It's a place to grow, after the world has passed you by, and gives you a chance to get stronger," Hagood said. "It's very safe, very nice, and looks like a hotel. There's always someone at the front desk to assist you. You have your freedom, and it's close to everything. I love it."

Lee, who attended Shaw Junior High School, started using a small room in the basement for a Bible study group a few years ago. That group has blossomed into a 70-member church, still holding services in the multi-purpose room.

"The neighborhood is really changing, but the Wheatley YWCA has always been known for its service in the community, for providing refuge for people," Lee said.

The four-story building, which underwent a $3.8 million restoration the past two years, provides 117 rooms for women guests and hosts five church group meetings as well as neighborhood events and a bustling day-care center.

The auditorium, the afternoon teas, the ladies' gym and the cafeteria -- where historian and neighborhood resident Carter Woodson liked to have lunch -- are long gone, but the spirit of the place remains a living thing, said Dorothy P. Patton, president of the board of directors.

"The one thing I would like to have again is a book club," Patton said, laughing. "It's how the place began, and with all the book clubs around today, it is ironic that we do not have one."

In the spring of 1905, a literary book club composed of black women, known as the Booklovers, took up the issue of housing for the young black women who were moving to the nation's capital. In those days of staunch segregation, black women were not allowed at hotels or lodging houses.

"The Booklovers earnestly request your presence at . . . Berean Baptist Church, April 5, 1905, at 7:30 p.m., to consider the advisability of organizing a Young Women's Christian Association," wrote Rosetta E. Lawson, president of the book club, in a letter distributed to members.

The group opened a home for young black women the next month in Southwest D.C. -- the first such institution in the nation. The Booklovers named the organization after Phyllis Wheatley, a slave who was the first black woman in the United States to publish a book.

But the neighborhood was considered so risky that women "went always in groups, never alone," and over the objections of their husbands and male relatives, according to Milestones, a pamphlet history of the organization.

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