Ruby Garrett Photo by Isaac Harrell
Ruby Garrett has witnessed many changes in her days, but none more stark than the change that occurred between the time she played tennis some 75 years ago at Richmond's segregated Phyllis Wheatley YWCA and the day she learned that Carmen Foster, a family member by marriage, was chosen as one of the Richmond YWCA's 10 Outstanding Women in 2004.
The Phyllis Wheatley branch, originally opened in 1911 and incorporated into the central YWCA in 1914, was named for a freed slave whose name was alternately spelled Phillis. She was named after The Phillis, the ship that brought her from West Africa to America. John Wheatley purchased her as a servant for his wife. She was taught to read and write and also studied Greek and Latin while she lived with the Wheatleys in Boston. She eventually was emancipated when her owner died. Wheatley became the first black poet to be published in the United States, but she died a pauper at age 31 in 1784.
"There were many branches of the YWCA named for Phyllis Wheatley in different cities," Foster explains. "That's one way you could tell it was for blacks. The Y affiliation was always a wholesome, positive part of the development of young women."
Foster's mother, Dorothy Hisle Foster, was an executive at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Augusta, Ga. In 1950, while in Richmond attending a conference, she met her future husband, Dr. Francis Foster, on a blind date. They had three children.
Dorothy Foster, now 87, was very pleased about her daughter's honor. "The black YWCAs were always strong and helped build the character of black women," she says.
"At the ceremony, I recognized my mother as a former YWCA executive," Carmen Foster adds. "I always acknowledge her. I was humbled and grateful to be honored by the YWCA, " she says. Foster previously worked at Harvard and at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies and directed the Grace Harris Leadership Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in education at the University of Virginia.
Foster's mother and Ruby Garrett both live at Imperial Plaza. Garrett grew up in Richmond's Navy Hill section, between Third and 10th streets.
"I could stand on my front porch and see John Marshall High School, which was for whites. My four brothers and I walked to Armstrong High School about 10 blocks away," she says. "Listen," she continues, pointing her finger for emphasis, "I have to be honest with you. We weren't badgered and taught so much about black and white then."
Garrett, now 91, recalls time spent at the YWCA with great fondness. "I played tennis, learned to sew, knit and crochet and made candy in the kitchen — you know, the kind that you pull. I must have been 15 or 16 and was part of what they called the Girl Reserves... There was no swimming pool, but I remember playing tennis. I took private piano lessons, and I used to play piano for the dance classes."
Garrett continued attending YWCA activities even while she was a student at Virginia Union University. She later moved to Washington and worked in the Treasury Department, enlisted in the U.S. Navy when she was 22 and served in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II. She married Albert H. Garrett Jr. in 1948.
"We had two daughters. I now have five grandchildren and six great-grands," she says. Her face lights up when she speaks of the YWCA and Carmen Foster's honor.
"I think recognizing those women is one of the greatest things that's happening at the YWCA now," she says.
An exhibit on the Richmond YWCA's 125-year history is on display at the University of Richmond's downtown campus through Feb. 28.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.