By Jaimie Julia Winters
In the early 1900s, about 50 YWCAs existed for African American women and girls, all of them offshoots of white chapters except one — the YWCA of Montclair-North Essex in Montclair, founded by Alice Hooe Foster, the first African American alumna of Montclair High School.
On Saturday, May 5, Montclair resident Betty Holloway will share the story of Foster and her family, and their contributions as business leaders that laid the framework for what was to become a middle class actively engaged in the community. Foster contributed to Montclair’s social justice initiatives in the early 20th century, including the founding of the YWCA. Holloway is a Montclair resident, former teacher, educational consultant, historian and archivist at St. Mark’s Church.
The Hooe family migrated to Montclair from Virgina in 1874. The father, Charles Hooe, was a gardener and his three sons born in Virginia helped him grow the business. After renting homes for a few years, the family bought a home on Maple Place where they lived with their 10 children, one of which died in the great Typhoid Epidemic in 1894 and another of tuberculosis a year later. The neighborhood was mixed with Italians, Scottish and Swedish, said Holloway.
“The neighborhood was very integrated,” said Holloway.
When the Hooes first moved to Montclair the overall population was 5,147, with the African American population at about 180. By 1885, it was 280 and by the 1900s the African American population had tripled as families took advantage of finding domestic work in the large estates, said Holloway.
But Alice’s family had bigger dreams. As her family acquired property and moved into the news store business, she was the first African American to graduate from Montclair High School in 1894. She went on to graduate from Howard University and taught in Marshallville, GA for two years before returning to Montclair to help with the new family business, a newspaper store at 449 Bloomfield Ave.
In “Legendary Locals of Montclair” By Elizabeth Shepard and Mike Farrelly, the newspaper store is described as a “little box.” But Holloway said a Sanborn map depicts the store as an attached store and much bigger than a box.
“The entire family worked at the store. They did well for themselves selling out of the store and delivering the newspapers, they didn’t have competition,” said Holloway.
The family was an energetic group of entrepreneurs. The father also had a carpet laying business, and Alice and her sister Grace owned a building with retail and six residences at 415 Bloomfield Ave, said Holloway. Grace was a bookkeeper most of her life.
In 1911, Alice married Walter Howard Foster whom she met at St. Marks Church. Walter was an insurance salesman. Alice was active in her community and seeing the need for the growing population of African American women to be trained and supported, she founded the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1912. The women and young girls received training in childcare, nursing and dress making, said Holloway.
They soon outgrew the first location at 89 Forest St. The Crane House was bought by the YWCA of Montclair-North Essex to be used as the headquarters in 1920.
In the first half of the 20th century, YWCAs were segregated. A “white” YWCA would deem it appropriate to establish a “colored” YWCA as an offshoot if the population would support it. There were about 50 YWCAs for African American women and girls in the United States. Although a group of white women did assist in financing and incorporating the Montclair’s Y, it was the only one in America not affiliated with a white YWCA, according to the Montclair History Center.
Alice served on many committees including the Female Stars, the black men’s YMCA committee, the NAACP and the Women’s Educational Club and the Inter-Racial Committee with its purpose being to foster a better understanding between the races. She was part of a group that sponsored a program with Prof. Alain Locke who was credited with Harlem Renaissance and was the first black Rhodes Scholar.
“She wanted others to understand there were different classes of African Americans than just servants,” said Holloway.
The YWCA was used for offices, dormitories and as a social center for African American women until 1965.
It became a safe, respectable place for domestic servants to stay when they arrived in Montclair looking for work and a civic and social hub for African American women. Says Carrie Allen McCray in her book Freedom’s Child, “When we were young, the colored YWCA was located in a wonderful old house known as the Crane house. We knew every nook and cranny of that old house, which wrapped itself around us like a comforting blanket.”
Alice, who never had children, retired as director in 1937 but continued to work part time at the Y until her death in 1940.
The program of “guts and glory against the odds” will be held at 4-6 p.m. at The YMCA of Montclair, Geyer Branch, 159 Glenridge Ave. Please RSVP to the church office at 973-744-2345.