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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Dr. Robert W. & Helen J. Claytor

by Cindy Laug

published: April 13th, 2010

Dr. Robert W. Claytor and Helen Natalie Jackson Wilkins married in 1943 and made Grand Rapids their family home for the next 60 years. Helen moved to Grand Rapids during a time when racial problems were not yet at the forefront. Turbulent times occurred during the late 40’s, and both Robert and Helen shared the same philosophy of improving the lives of their black community and never lost sight of that. Each worked to accomplish this goal in very different settings. Dr. Claytor operated through the Community Chest and Grand Rapids Urban League and quietly through his day-to-day dedication to his patients giving health care to those in need regardless of their ability to pay. Helen was a staunch advocate for racial equality and worked tirelessly to ensure minority rights. Her work with the YWCA, both locally and nationally, and later in the GR Human Relations Committee was far reaching. (Find more information to your right in Related Items)

Robert W. Claytor, born September 26, 1897 to a farming couple in Floyd County, Virginia, was the youngest of 13 children. As youths, Claytor's parents were slaves in the pre-Civil War South. To obtain his education Claytor traveled 250 miles from home to attend a black high school, Virginia Normal Industrial Institute, in Christiansburg, VA, because he wasn't allowed into the all-white facility two miles from his home. He graduated from high school at age twenty-five.

He enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, but he left convinced there was no future for blacks in business at that time. He entered Northwestern University in Chicago where he received his Bachelor of Science degree. He was refused entry into medical school at Northwestern because the quota for African-American students was filled. Not giving up, he entered Meharry School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated in 1934.

Because job opportunities were limited in the South Claytor decided to settle in Grand Rapids where, in 1936, he became the area's third black doctor. His first office was above the Burkhead and Collins Drug Store at the southeast corner of Monroe Avenue and Michigan Street. During the 1950’s he moved his practice to 1424 Madison Ave. SE.

Dr. Claytor received privileges at Saint Mary's Hospital shortly after his arrival. His acceptance at Butterworth took another 10 years and the intervention of Bishop Lewis Bliss, a member of the hospital's governing board and former head of what is now St. Mark's Episcopal Church, who threatened to resign from the hospital board if Claytor was not appointed. Bishop Bliss and Claytor were co-founders of the Brough Community Association which evolved into the Grand Rapids Urban League.

Claytor was a highly respected citizen and pillar of the Grand Rapids community. He was named "Family Physician of the Year" in 1976 by the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians. They also honored Dr. Claytor in 1984 for 50 years of family practice. Claytor died February 27, 1989, after a long illness. In 1997, St. Mary's Health Care honored Dr. Claytor by naming their new health center at Hall and Madison the Browning Claytor Health Center.

Helen Jackson Claytor was born and educated In Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father, a Pullman porter, had read law while traveling all over the country on the train. Although he was admitted to the bar in South Dakota, he decided to settle his family in Minneapolis. In his travels he had learned that the University of Minnesota was the best place for his children to receive their education, and they could attend while living at home.

Helen graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1928 with a degree in teaching. However, jobs were scarce to non-existent for black teachers so she accepted a job with the YWCA in Trenton, New Jersey and later in Kansas City. This began a career and lifetime commitment that extended over six decades.

One of her first assignments was to conduct a nationwide study on race relations for the National Board of Directors. This assignment led to travel throughout the country speaking and conducting workshops on this subject. These travels brought her to Grand Rapids in 1943, at which time she met Dr. Robert Claytor. Following her marriage to Dr. Claytor, she was elected President of the Grand Rapids YWCA, the first black woman to serve in this capacity.

Racial problems had swept the country in the late forties. Helen was appointed to a committee formed to study racial problems in the city. After months of hard work this committee gave its report to a skeptical City Commission that was startled by the facts and statistics, as was the community. As a result the first Human Relations Commission was formed; it has evolved into the Office of Equal Opportunity, an integral part of the City government.

The Grand Rapids YWCA established the Helen J. Claytor Merit of Distinction Award, making her the first recipient in 1983; she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1984; the Helen Jackson Claytor Civil Rights Award was created by the city of Grand Rapids; and Helen was named a "Woman of Courage" by Michigan Women's Foundation in 1994. Helen died at the age of 98 on May 10, 2005 at her home in Grand Rapids.

Dr. Robert W. Claytor

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Dr. Robert W. Claytor (1897 -1989), co-founder of the Urban League and pillar of our African-American community.



Items Available at the History & Special Collections Dept., GR Public Library

  • Biography and Portrait File
  • Collections 113, 141, 164, 167, 249, 264, 308, 358, 363
  • Seven Women Who Made A Difference. Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council, 1991.



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