Asheville’s Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) made history in 1963 as the first southeast branch to integrate, thanks in large part to the work and leadership of Julia Pauline Greenlee Ray and Thelma Caldwell. 

Ms. Ray, born in Marion, North Carolina, in 1914, has long been a trailblazer among Black business owners in Asheville, having established businesses on Eagle Street dating back to 1936, including a cleaners and a funeral home she co-founded with her husband, Jesse Ray, Sr.

Ms. Caldwell was the branch director of the Asheville Phyllis Wheatley YWCA Branch in 1961. She addressed the YWCA’s early hypocrisy and shortcomings concerning its own integration in an article entitled “What We Saw and What We Did”: 

“In 1962, we as a Public Affairs Committee of the Asheville YWCA looked at our community and saw challenging conditions. We saw many things which needed changing in order to create a better, more livable world for more people to enjoy. Lunch-rooms needed to be opened to all on an equal basis; motels needed to be made available to all people; job opportunities needed to be enlarged; education needed to be revitalized; integration needed to be reinspired; and new job training plans needed to be undertaken. We began work to help accomplish some of these changes.

Then a telephone conversation — rather a rude conversation — changed our outlook!

A local motel owner, furious because of suggestions which had been made to him regarding the opening of his place of business to people of all races, called the Y.W.C.A. His comments were curt and barbed. His questions were sharp — our viewpoint was challenged and changed by one of them: “How integrated are you at the Y.W.C.A.?” After our honest reply, his next remark, “I don’t think that you are much more integrated than I am,” needled us into action.

We then undertook to see our own faults. They were many, so we started to face up to the areas in which we were not open freely to all women and girls or were integrated in words only. Here was much to be accomplished as we sought to clean our own house; and as we did so we gained insight into the internal problems we were asking business leaders to face in their establishments.”

Both women continued to make history in their community and beyond. 

Ms. Ray was the first Black person to serve on the Asheville Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Board of Directors. She was also the first Black person to serve on UNC Asheville’s Board of Trustees, and the first Black woman to serve on the Board of Directors of Mission Hospital. She served alongside the Friends of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) and helped establish a local Goombay Festival, a national cultural celebration of Black and Caribbean people. Ms. Ray will turn 110 in 2024.

Ms. Caldwell became executive director of the Central Asheville YWCA in 1965—the first Black woman to hold the title in the South. She went on to become branch executive director for several YWCA branches, both in the United States and abroad. 

From its current South French Broad Avenue location, the Asheville YWCA continues to support the dignity and rights of all people.