The Ywca established a branch in Indianapolis in 1895, but African Americans could not attend or belong. Minnie Whitaker sought to change that. In 1914, she partnered with Alice Kelley, Ella Settles, Emma Da Vale, and Madam C. J. Walker to form a committee to garner support for the opening of a YWCA branch to educate and empower women and girls of Indianapolis’s African American community.

The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 1929
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The Indianapolis Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, named for the first published African American woman poet in the U.S., opened its doors in 1921 in a building on California Street whose previous tenant was the Senate Avenue Ymca, a branch of the YMCA for African American men and boys. The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA occupied this space until 1922 when they moved to 1202 North West Street.

In 1923, May B. Belcher, nationally known in YWCA circles for organizing African American YWCA branches throughout the U.S., became the executive director of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. Also, during this time, the branch moved again—to 601 North West Street. Recognizing the need for a more functional and permanent facility, money was raised for the construction of a new building at 653 North West Street. Architect Fermor Spencer Cannon, a graduate of the University of Illinois, was commissioned to design it.

The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 1929
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Completed in 1929, the new Phyllis Wheatley YWCA stood three stories high and included amenities such as a swimming pool, classrooms, meeting space, library, gymnasium, and dormitory.

Members participated in classes and projects devoted to life skills and community engagement. They were also treated to events, programs, and guest speakers on a variety of topics. On April 25, 1948, Lionel F. Artis, civic leader, and community activist, was the keynote speaker at a program given by the branch in celebration of National YWCA Week.

The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA remained open until September 1959 when it closed. Several organizations and institutions were integrating, and the YWCA was among them. The building was later occupied by the Prince Hall Masons, the oldest recognized and continuously active organization founded by African American men, until 1983 when it was razed to accommodate the expansion of West Street (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street).

Revised July 2021

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