Ethel Niermeyer

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Ethel Niermeyer

Ethel Niermeyer spent 48 years working through the YWCA to broaden opportunities for girls and women and to stimulate awareness of and action on civic affairs.

Born in Mitchell, South Dakota, in 1887, she obtained a B.A. from Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls and completed additional courses at Columbia University in New York. She started work in 1912 as a Girl Reserve Secretary in Akron, Ohio. Later she worked for the Y in Honolulu, spent four years at the YWCA in Istanbul, Turkey, and worked for the YWCA National Board.

Ethel came to Memphis in 1932 to serve as executive director, a position she held until her retirement in 1955.

During those years of racial segregation, she encouraged the development of a Negro YWCA branch, which was at first under the direction of an all-white board of directors. Under her leadership the board moved from having one African-American representative on a board to full participation in policy-making groups within the association. From racially integrated groups within the YWCA, the association became the only place in Memphis where integrated meetings of non-YWCA members could meet.

The Public Affairs Committee worked with people from other organizations to develop better state laws on adoption and to promote a hospital in Memphis where black doctors could intern. This was finally developed at E.H. Crump Hospital.

A Public Affairs Forum was established which held dinner meetings where local, national and international questions were discussed from various viewpoints and honest disagreement could be voiced without rancor.

Teen clubs were organized through the public schools and a summer camp was established in Hardy, Arkansas. Under Ethel’s directorship, a capital funds campaign was conducted to build a new central office and program building at 200 Monroe and a branch at 1044 Mississippi Blvd.

Work with girls and young women started in north Memphis in the Manassas area and the first black person was employed to work at the central office.

During World War II, the YWCA was one of four USO locations in Memphis. The YWCA oversaw activities at all four locations and remained open after the other three were closed.

An international group established by the YWCA led to the development of the International Group of Memphis and a group on equal rights for women led to the establishment of the Women’s Resource Center. Many outstanding women of Memphis received their early encouragement to become involved in civic affairs through their involvement at the YWCA, including 1987 Women of Achievement Heroism recipient Frances Coe.