Helen Claytor was the first black president of the National YWCA. She worked endlessly to better the organization and worked to ensure minority rights. Claytor was born in Minneapolis in 1907; she was one of four children. Her father was a Pullman porter from Ohio, and her mother had decided to raise their family. Her parents wanted their children to get a good education, so they planned to live near a university. Her parents later built a new home near the University of Minnesota campus. There were many attempts by white people to buy them out of their property, but they were unsuccessful.
Claytor had long been involved in the YWCA. As a young child in the seventh grade, she joined the YWCA Girl Reserves and remained active throughout high school and college. In 1928, Claytor graduated cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She considered teaching but was soon faced with the reality that there were just no jobs for blacks in the school system. As a young woman, she made a promise to her mother that she would work a long time before considering marriage. She did just that before meeting the love of her life, Earl Wilkins. They spent the next ten years married in Missouri until Earl died of tuberculosis in the 1930s. She met her second husband in 1943, Dr. Robert Claytor, who was the first black physician in Grand Rapids. While in Grand Rapids they endured several racial incidents, even housing discrimination. The Claytor’s did not give in and move away; their home became a permanent location for the family.
In 1949, Claytor was nominated to the YWCA’s highest position-president of the board. There was a lot of negative feedback from the community, and no one wanted a black person in such a high position. A significant amount of pressure forced Claytor to resign. She later led the 1950s Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission to explore improving race relations. In the 1960s, she led a similar committee to make recommendations to integrate the Grand Rapids public schools. Claytor later became the president of the National YWCA Board of Directors in 1967. Throughout the years, Claytor received much recognition for her involvement and contributions to public service. She died at the age of 98 on May 10, 2005.