Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Gather Together

It owed its origin to the philanthropy of Eleanor Coffin Henley, the well-off widow of a Lawrence-based manufacturer of barbwire and cement plaster. Its first purpose was to serve as the center for the University of Kansas chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association. Its goal was to provide KU women, particularly those not affiliated with a sorority, with a place to meet and socialize.

And during a brief period in the mid- to late-1940s, it also became the venue for an organized venture in interracial student living, an “experiment” that caused no small share of controversy at a time when both the University and the Lawrence community still sanctioned various forms of de-facto segregation.

Known as Henley House, this three-story residence at 1236 Oread Avenue entered the KU orbit on January 12, 1922, when it was formally deeded to the YWCA for use as the first recreational center for KU’s female students. Eleanor Coffin Henley had been moved to make the gift after Ora Lee Risk, secretary for the University’s chapter of the YWCA, approached her about donating a building for this purpose.

Henley’s contribution of the Oread Avenue residence was truly progressive. In 1922, Corbin Hall, KU’s first women’s dormitory, was still under construction, and the Kansas Memorial Union was still on the drawing board. Non-sorority women had no common place to get together, and many endured living arrangements lacking proper facilities that met cooking and personal hygiene requirements. Henley House addressed all of these needs while furthering the YWCA mission of employing “worship, study and action” to advance Christian ideals and “eliminate the discrepancies between theory and practice.”

The building’s donor had become a widow in 1919 following the death of her husband Albert Henley, an inventive and entrepreneurial industrialist who had come to Lawrence in 1878 to establish a barbwire factory, and later with his brother, built a thriving multi-plant enterprise manufacturing cement plaster and other building materials. When he died, Albert Henley left his wife Eleanor with a sizable inheritance. She focused her time and money on various philanthropic and civic endeavors in Lawrence, often working behind the scenes without much public notice.

She also served on the board of the city library, assisted in the rebuilding of a Lawrence church, and was instrumental in the creation of Robinson Park, located south of the Kansas River bridge on the site of the former city jail. Henley seemed to have a particular interest in helping women. “The greatest pleasure I have had in my life,” she once said, “has been in doing things for women with stubborn husbands who would not let them have anything.”

Given this mindset, the proposal from the YWCA’s Ora Lee Risk appears to have been well in line with Henley’s philanthropic objectives. In 1921, Henley purchased the Frank E. Ward residence at 1236 Oread, and several months later bequeathed it to the YWCA. “I want the house to be a home for the women and a gathering place for not only members of the YWCA, but for all women on the hill,” remarked Henley at the official transfer of the deed. KU Dean of Women Anne Dudley Blitz echoed this hope, contending the new facility would offer “one of the biggest opportunities for women that is found in any college of which I know.”

Henley did not want the facility named for her, preferring the appellation “Fair Haven.” But according to the January 20, 1922, edition of the University Daily Kansan, Henley “consented…to let the house be called Henley Hall” at the request of the YWCA’s student and adult leaders. (“Henley Hall” may have been its official designation, but it seems almost everyone referred to it colloquially as “Henley House.”)

As its core mission, Henley House served as the center for YWCA operations at KU. On the main floor, the building offered living rooms and a dining room for social gatherings, as well as a kitchen stocked with utensils. There also was “a large supply of soft water,” presumably from a cistern on the premises, that women could use to do their laundry and shampoo their hair, aspects of civilized life that often were unavailable to non-sorority residents of boarding houses. The YWCA offices and meeting rooms, plus living quarters that were rented to female graduate students, were located on the second and third floors. Henley House, intended to “fill the place of a Union building for women,” became a fulcrum for the University’s female students.

By the late 1930s, Henley House had also become a center for social activism, most particularly in the struggle against racial discrimination. The national YWCA organization put the improvement of race relations at the forefront of its mission, and “encouraged [its] members to speak out against lynching and mob violence, for interracial cooperation rather than segregation and for efforts to protect African American’s basic civil rights.”

The KU YWCA chapter embraced this ideal. In the 1938-39 academic year the YWCA sent an African American student as its delegate to the KU Women’s Student Government Association (WSGA), which heretofore had been an all-white preserve. The YWCA’s action effectively integrated that body. During the next two years, YWCA members also became involved in ending segregation in women’s swimming classes at KU and in integrating dances held at the Kansas Union building.

By 1942, as KU and the nation wrestled with the realities of World War II, members of the YWCA and their brother organization, the YMCA, continued to see improving race relations as a critical area of emphasis. The persistence of discrimination against African Americans and Japanese Americans mobilized both “Y” groups, and minutes of the monthly meetings at Henley House frequently touched on this issue.

For example, when the Kansas Board of Regents voted to deny Japanese American students admission to all Kansas state universities, the YWCA and YMCA responded with a statement condemning the decision. “Since we are citizens of a great democracy fighting in a war against nations who deny the rights of minorities,” the student activists argued, “it is imperative for us to work toward . . . the equal participation of all groups in the rights, opportunities, privileges and responsibilities inherent in the American ideal.” KU Chancellor Deane Malott also went on record opposing the Regents’ decision, but could not violate the Board’s governing directive.

In the fall of 1944, members of the YWCA student cabinet decided to take additional steps to address the issue of race relations at the University. With the support and guidance of YWCA Secretary Rachel VanderWerf, the women envisioned using Henley House as a physical symbol of the YWCA’s overall commitment to equality for all people. The group “wished to make Henley House a [residential] cooperative for undergraduate girls, open to all girls regardless of race or color,” recalled Mary Wisner Lees, who eventually became a Henley House resident.

After an extended discussion, the YWCA cabinet members – many of whom were student leaders at KU – decided to approach the chapter’s Advisory Board for approval of the plan to turn Henley House into integrated housing. This board was comprised of University faculty members, faculty wives, and Lawrence townswomen. Representative of the community status quo, the board was decidedly cautious regarding this request. The board’s trepidation ranged from concerns that the idea would arouse neighborhood opposition to the fear that the Lawrence Community Chest (a predecessor to the present-day United Way) would withdraw its financial support of the YWCA in protest against an interracial cooperative house.

But the YWCA student cabinet members persisted. Another discussion ensued, this time between the students and their advisory board. The students ultimately prevailed, as the board granted them approval of their plan by a two-thirds majority vote. The University administration subsequently gave its consent, simply concurring with the decision of the YWCA Advisory Board. The first integrated women’s cooperative at KU was poised for occupancy.

The sanction of one final group was needed before Henley House could commence operations. Given the groundbreaking nature the proposal, the parents of each resident had to give written permission for their daughter to live at Henley House. All of the families supported their daughters’ plans. With consent in hand, ten pioneering KU undergraduate women moved into Henley House in the fall of 1945 – six whites and four minorities.

More than half of these women were members of the YWCA cabinet; all were exemplary students. The inaugural residents included Mary Jo Cox, president of the All Student Council (the successor student government at KU created in 1943 by the merger of the WSGA and the Men’s Student Council), two members of Mortar Board (an honorary society for senior women), plus representatives to the Student Religious Council and two members of the Jay Janes. Given their track records, the YWCA considered these women “ideal for the task of operating an organized university house under the conditions” of an integrated residence. The first Henley housemother was Mary McCracken, a Quaker who was committed to racial equality.

As predicted, some members of the Lawrence community were decidedly opposed to Henley’s interracial living arrangements. One of the most prominent was J. Clifton Ramsey, a Lawrence lawyer and businessman who lived next-door to Henley House and was renting a portion of his home in which he and his wife lived to 15 KU women students.

Prior to the creation of the housing co-op, Ramsey had been supportive of the YWCA. He furnished an automatic stoker for the coal furnace at Henley House and also had provided maintenance for the device. In the winter of 1946, after he had voiced his opposition to Henley’s interracial objective without achieving any satisfaction, Ramsey removed the stoker from Henley House and refused to service the unit until the YWCA’s experiment was brought to an end. A replacement stoker could not be found, and the Henley residents were forced to assume the duty of hand-firing the furnace. As Henley resident Marjorie Wright Robbins recalled, “We chopped wood, scooped coal, banked the fire at night and kept that house quite comfortable.”

Confounded by the women’s determination, Ramsey issued an ultimatum to the KU administration. As reported in the August 18, 1946, edition of the Kansas City Star, Ramsey announced that if the co-op continued in its present form, he would close his home to KU students. This was a real threat, as the loss of even 15 beds had real consequences for KU, which was then facing a dire housing shortage due to the enrollment boom that followed the end of World War II.

As it happened, though, KU administrators could do little about Ramsey’s threat even if they had wanted to heed his wishes. Since the YWCA owned Henley House, it was not University property. University regulations did not apply and KU could not interfere with the YWCA’s prerogatives. Ramsey subsequently closed his house to KU boarders. The Henley House Co-op remained open.

Though victorious in this incident, Henley residents still faced restrictions attributed to the house’s integrated living environment. In 1946, Dean of Women Margaret Habein and the YWCA Board refused to approve a Christmas dance at Henley House because the home was interracial. As an alternative, the residents held a sit-down formal dinner at which Habein and others served as waiters. “[W]e probably were the only group on campus waited on by the Dean of Women and other dignitaries,” recalled Joanne Michener Ross, noting that Habein was “very interested in the success of Henley House and did not want us to unnecessarily create antagonism” by holding a dance that would be open to whites and blacks.

The Henley residents faced continual reminders of the groundbreaking nature of their venture, and at times “resented [the house] being called an ‘experiment,’” remembered Robbins. However, even under the watchful – and at times critical – eyes of KU and the Lawrence community, the women of Henley found their living experience to be decidedly normal. “I remember Henley House as our having a good time,” noted Meredith Heinsohn Austin, resident of Henley from 1946-47. “There were some very funny people there – we did a lot of laughing.” The women roomed on the second and third floors, and shared the first floor kitchen, dining room and living room with the YWCA. Bathroom facilities were limited, with one full bath on the second floor and a half bath on the main level. One telephone was available for the residents’ use. Maximum occupancy was approximately a dozen women.

The women divided the tasks of maintaining the house amongst themselves. “We cooked lunch and dinner in shifts. Breakfast was on our own,” noted Joyce Harkleroad Smith, adding that the women were responsible for keeping their rooms and the public areas of the house clean. One resident was appointed to plan meals and buy groceries for the house, another coordinated the laundry duties and a third the cleaning shifts. When Austin assumed the meal-planning responsibilities, she once “bought a case of 40 percent bran flakes cereal. I don’t think anyone else ate them so I did – I became very fond of them . . ..” The Henley residents were quite forgiving when it came to meals and “had a rule that there was to be no complaining” recalled Robbins. “All in all we survived and to my knowledge no one lost weight.”

Economy was the house mantra. Henley did not have an electric refrigerator and instead made use of an icebox. An iceman regularly came to the house to bring the ice needed to keep food cold. Due to the nature of the icebox, “that meant no ice cream unless we ate it as soon as we bought it,” noted Robbins. She also remembered that the house residents chose to use margarine instead of butter as a cost-saving measure. The margarine was white and came with a ball of yellow food coloring. The cooks “were to break the ball and knead the margarine until it was uniformly yellow, like butter.” On at least one occasion however, this cost saving measure was also the cause of embarrassment for Robbins. “One time we had dinner guests and the margarine was on a plate. I was so embarrassed as there were fingerprints all over it,” she recalled.

Frugality inadvertently caused embarrassment for another Henley resident when Dean Habein was invited to the house for dinner. Antonia Martinez Miller, a resident from 1946-47, was on kitchen duty that night, and decided to reuse coffee left from a YWCA event the previous day. “I chose . . . to reheat the coffee and serve it,” recalled Miller. “Dean Habein took a sip of [it]. The gasp was audible! [She] never forgot who I was after that.”

Henley’s interracial experiment spurred discussions at the other KU women’s cooperatives regarding their own embrace of integration. Two years after Henley’s opening, the Harman Cooperative House voted on whether to admit an African American applicant for the 1947-48 school year. When the cooperative turned down this applicant, Smith and “four or five others resigned” from Harman. These women moved to Henley House in the fall of 1947, and brought the Harman houseparents, Erma and Ralph Smith, with them. Their decision was a factor in Henley’s full occupancy that year, and was seen as an affirmation of Henley’s interracial mission.

This seeming success also inadvertently contributed to a shift in Henley House’s focus. What had been initially a YWCA-sponsored project undertaken largely by YWCA members was now on the road to becoming more like the other KU student housing cooperatives, with the majority of the residents having little or no affiliation with the YWCA. This subtle change, apparently not recognized at the time, would ultimately prove problematic.

In the short-term however, Henley became an established campus residence. As it matured, the cautious conservatism that had prevented the 1946 Christmas dance was gradually abandoned. When Joyce Harkleroad Smith moved to Henley House in the fall of 1947, she found that African American and white residents were not allowed to share a room even in this interracial co-op. Smith, along with the other former Harman residents, would have none of this. “I found these restrictions unsatisfactory,” she recalled, “and the second semester Shirley Elliott and I roomed together.”

Henley residents also began holding integrated Christmas dances and other social functions in spite of the continuing concerns of the YWCA Advisory Board. As for dating, Robbins did not recall any interracial relationships, but noted that the house’s interracial emphasis did not result in “the fellows hesitating to call on any of the women in the house.” Added Smith, “I am sure that many of us white girls had little understanding of how difficult it may have been for the African American girls because of the treatment they had [historically] received from whites.” But the brusque treatment was not reciprocated, Smith remembered, noting that “[the African American residents of Henley] graciously invited us to their sorority formal dances.”

The Henley House experiment did not take place in a vacuum. Integration was becoming a hot issue on the KU campus in the late 1940s, particularly with regard to the cafés that dotted the edge of Mount Oread. The Kansas Union was the only place on campus that served African Americans, and it closed at 7 p.m. The off-campus cafés refused to seat African American patrons. Members of the local Committee on Racial Equality (then known as CORE and renamed the Congress on Racial Equality in 1950), including some members of the Henley cooperative, decided to address this discrimination. They planned a sit-in at one of the establishments, Brick’s Café, which was located across the street from Henley House, and chose April 15, 1948 as the date for the protest.

In Smith’s recollection, “only [male demonstrators were] allowed [to enter Brick’s] and occupy seats. I was allowed to hand out leaflets outside to inform people what was happening and the Henley girls watched from across the street." The demonstration ended when members of the football team and other “huskies,” at the owner’s request, physically carried the protestors out of the café.

Although Henley House functioned as a co-op and its members were included in the social functions of KU’s larger co-op community, it did not have a formal connection with the other student housing cooperatives. But the arrival of the former Harman House members in 1947, followed by a continuing influx of other cooperatively oriented women, was beginning to have a marked effect on Henley House dynamics. This was most evident in the increasingly tenuous ties between the co-op’s members and the YWCA. By the fall of 1949 there were only a few YWCA members living in the Henley Co-op, and as Ross recalled, the orientation workshop for that year “had no input from the YWCA.”

Concerns about the deteriorating relationship between the Henley residents and the YWCA seem to have surfaced at least a year earlier. In 1948, the YWCA Advisory Board, the YWCA Cabinet and Henley Co-op members convened a meeting to address these issues. According to the minutes of this session, the shared physical arrangements of the house were proving to be a source of conflict. The minutes note that the YWCA had intentionally tried to defer to the Henley residents, limiting its use of the building for regular organizational meetings and “perhaps the [YWCA] program [had] suffered somewhat in consequence.” The YWCA members requested that their organization be given priority usage of the first floor rooms.

House membership was another concern. Although the Henley residents, in co-op fashion, chose members of their household, the Advisory Board asked for a role in the selection process. The Board members noted that they “[were] responsible to the Administration and the community for the house and everything that goes on in it,” and received authorization to act in “an advisory capacity to consider the names of new applicants and . . . be informed of withdrawals.”

This decision notwithstanding, the 1948 meeting failed to resolve the conflicting interests of the Henley residents and the YWCA. In the fall of 1949, a group of YW members launched another series of meetings to reassess their housing endeavor. In October the Henley House Evaluation Committee concluded “the real purpose of Henley House as a YW project of inter-racial living has ceased to be real and that such a house can be carried on more adequately in a house devoted exclusively to co-operative living.” In subsequent recommendations the committee suggested turning Henley House into a home for graduate students devoted to interracial living so that “the [Lawrence] community could not feel that the project had failed.” Graduate housing would also provide more financial stability for the house from the perspective of committee members.

After 1951, the KU Student Directory no longer referred to Henley House as a co-op residence for undergraduate women. However, a number of former Henley residents did move on to the Jayhawk Co-op at 1614 Kentucky Street, which had been serving as a men’s co-op through the spring 1951 semester.

However, Henley continued to function as a YWCA-sponsored interracial residence for graduate women until the late 1950s when it was purchased as an annex for the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. In 1967, the KU Endowment Association acquired the house and Henley became the home to the KU speech clinic.

Within the next decade, Henley was razed. The Kansas Alumni Association’s Adams Alumni Center, dedicated in 1983, currently occupies the land once shared by Henley and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house. KU no longer has an active YWCA chapter, but various campus organizations have arisen to provide spiritual guidance and community for the University’s student body. Other student groups provide outlets for activism and community involvement.

As a housing cooperative, Henley House was relatively short-lived. Its innovative living conditions, however, proved to be a foretaste of later student living arrangements. KU’s women’s residence halls would eventually become integrated by the early 1950s, though the housing office continued to assign roommates based upon race. Fraternities and sororities were slower to assimilate to the interracial ideal pioneered by Henley and in May 1965 the Civil Rights Council presented a 35-page document outlining discrimination in the Greek houses to the University Human Relations Committee. Their recommendations included the withdrawal of University recognition for all organizations that continued to maintain discriminatory clauses in their constitutions and by-laws.

For the women who called Henley home, their experiences in the house were definitive. “I grew up in a small town in Kansas,” wrote Dorothy Hoover Kirby, “and this was my first experience to know girls from other backgrounds and nationalities. They enriched my life!” Other residents concurred. “[Living at Henley] was a rewarding experience for me and my hope is that at least in some small way, it helped to dispel some of the prejudice which existed on the campus and beyond,” inaugural resident Mary Jo Cox Youngblood remarked.

“I remember the life at Henley more than the studies and classes which I attended at Kansas University,” reminisced Smith. “I believe I probably learned more there . . . mainly due to the diversity of the cooperative. I hope that Mrs. Henley would have been proud of the use to which her generous gift was put.” The University of Kansas certainly felt that way. In 1997, Eleanor Coffin Henley was honored when the fifth floor of the newly renovated Templin Hall was renamed “Henley House.”

Valerie A. Schrag
Social Studies Department
Lawrence High School

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Much of the content of this article was made possible by the sizable and invaluable collection of reminiscences compiled by Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing for his Henley Hall Remembrances project. Other sources include: Kansas City Star (August 18, 1946), p. 19A; University Daily Kansan (January 12, 1922), p. 1; Douglas County Tax Rolls, 1922, University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; University Daily Kansan (September 27, 1929), p. 5; University Daily Kansan (February 14, 1922), p. 1; University Daily Kansan (March 10, 1922), p. 1; University Daily Kansan (January 20, 1922), p. 1; Lawrence Daily Journal World (December 7, 1945), p. 1; Mary Wisner Lees, “The Young Women’s Christian Association in the field of Race Relations at the University of Kansas,” 1948 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; “Our History,” YWCA website, (June 27, 2005); “To the Y.W. Advisory Board” statement, 1940s file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; Clifford S. Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History (Lawrence, KS; The University Press of Kansas, 1974), p. 497-98; Letter from Roy A. Henley to Miss Anna D. McCracken, 1946 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; “Report of Henley House,” 1948 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; “Henley House Evaluation Committee Recommendation,” 1949 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; “Recommendations of the Third Henley House Evaluation Committee Report,” 1950 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; “Report to Chancellor Murphy 1958,” p. 13, 1958 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; documents and letters relating to the sale of Henley House can be found in the 1959 file, YWCA Records 1945-1958, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; University Daily Kansan (February 22, 1968), p. 9; Kansas Alumni, v. 66, no. 3 (November 1967), p. 15; University Daily Kansan (May 21, 1965), p. 1; Rochdale Rag, Series #6 (October 1998), p. 1, 1998 file, Cooperative Housing Records, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. The biographical material about Albert Henley comes from A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written & compiled by William E. Connelley, Chicago: 1918, as transcribed for the Kansas GenWeb Project, and can be accessed online at: Information on the All-Student Council can be found in an article written by John H. McCool titled "Of The Students, By The Students, For The Students …", on Information regarding the sit-in at Brick’s Café can be found in an article written by Douglas Harvey titled ""It's Been Quite A Show Tonight, Hasn't It?"", on]