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Helen Jackson Claytor civil rights collection

Identifier: Collection 308


Helen Jackson Claytor (1907-2005) was the first African-American president of the national YWCA. She lived much of her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Claytor sought to bring equal rights to women, children, widowed persons and orphans, and advocated for rights to justice, housing, education, health and death with dignity, as well as freedom from racial and other prejudices.

Locally, Claytor was the first African-American president of the Grand Rapids YWCA and, among other things, was appointed to the Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission to study racism in Grand Rapids. This collection includes publications, documents, ephemera and a few images related to her activities. The materials reflect Claytor's work in Grand Rapids, covering social issues, neighborhoods, employment, hospice care and race relations.


  • 1940s-1980s


Biographical / Historical

Helen Jackson Wilkins Claytor was born April 12, 1907 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the daughter of Amy Wood Jackson and Madison S. Jackson. She died in Grand Rapids, Michigan on May 10, 2005 at the age of 90.

Helen's father studied law while working as a Pullman porter and was admitted to the bar in South Dakota. He was the first African American at the bar in that State but, by law, as a Negro, was unable to practice and continued his Pullman job. The family moved to Minneapolis to provide a better educational for their four daughters. Helen graduated from the University of Minnesota, with honors, in 1928, with an education degree. As a black teacher she had difficulty finding work.

Helen was married twice, first to journalist Earl Wilkins, also from Minneapolis, and brother of civil rights leader Roy Wilkins (NAACP Executive Secretary/Director 1977-1977). Earl and Helen were married from 1930 until his death from tuberculosis in 1941. They had one child, Roger Wood Wilkins, who followed his father's example to become a journalist and Pulitzer prize winner (shared with Woodward, Bernstein & Herblock of the Washington Post for the Watergate coverage). Helen met her second husband, Dr. Robert W. Claytor, a physician, when speaking in Grand Rapids in 1942. They were married in 1943. Robert Claytor was the first black doctor on the staff of St. Mary's Hospital. The Claytors had two daughters, Judith A. Claytor and Sharon Claytor Peters.

Helen became active in the YWCA in Minneapolis at age 8. After graduating from college in 1928, and being unable to find a teaching position as an African American, she became secretary for the YWCA Girls Reserves. After marrying Earl Wilkins in 1930, she found work with the segregated YWCA in Kansas City. Upon Earl's death, Helen, her son, and mother moved to New York, where she headed a new race relations office for the national YWCA, as Secretary for Interracial Education. It was during that time she first developed the YWCA's anti-discrimination policy.

After marrying Robert Claytor in 1943, she came to Grand Rapids where she continued to be active in the YWCA, becoming the first black president of the local chapter in 1949. This was a controversial election, with three board members resigning in protest. She served in this position until 1951.

In 1946 she returned to active work in the national YWCA, becoming a member of the National YWCA Board and continuing in that position until 1973. Also in 1946, she began serving on the YWCA World Council, holding that position until 1952.

While continuing with the Y work, the 1950s and 1960s were filled with various special appointments and commissions for Helen. Grand Rapids Mayor Paul Goebel, Sr. appointed Helen to two committees. The most important was the Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission, to study racism in Grand Rapids. The results of her study so stunned the city leaders that the Grand Rapids Human Relations Commission was formed, on which Helen served.

Helen returned to her most important position with the YWCA in 1967 as the first national black president, serving two terms until 1973. She also served again on the YWCA World Council during this period.

Helen Claytor was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1984.


4 Linear Feet (11 boxes)

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Helen Claytor, accession number 1991.014

Related Materials

Collection 113, Black History Exhibit

Collection 175, GRPL Moving Image Collection, and also see moving images for Claytor in the regular library catalog.

Collection 249, GRPL African American history collection

Helen Jackson Claytor papers at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Processing Information

The Collection number 308 was originally assigned as the Grand Rapids Police Department Collection. But, in 2007, after six years of no growth of this small collection, the materials were moved as a series of Coll. 303, the City of Grand Rapids at the Grand Rapids Public Library Collection.

Coll. 308 was reassigned as the Claytor Collection in September 2007.

Finding aid for the Helen Jackson Claytor civil rights collection
R. Mayne
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Grand Rapids History Center Repository

Grand Rapids Public Library
111 Library Street NE
Grand Rapids Michigan 49503 USA