When Roberta “Bobbi” Yancy enrolled in Barnard College in 1959, she was one of only two Black students in her class. “I was an integration,” she recalled, but despite the racial isolation on campus, Yancy found a vibrant world of Black culture and movement activity in surrounding New York City. She often volunteered at SCLC’s New York office headed up by Jack O’Dell. When the student sit-ins rippled across the South during her second semester, Yancy joined picket lines at the local Woolworth’s and other chain stores targeted by the sit-ins.
During her sophomore year, Yancy helped organize a Race Relations Committee on campus “to study Barnard’s position in regard to integration and discrimination problems in the South.” As the group’s chairperson, Yancy became enmeshed in the rising tide of student activism nationally. In late 1961, she spearheaded a regional civil rights action conference that laid the groundwork for continued northern student activism. Peter Countryman, the founder of the Northern Student Movement (NSM), attended the conference, as did SNCC’s chairman Chuck McDew, who encouraged attendees to support SNCC’s work in the South.
Yancy’s involvement with the Race Relations Committee taught her invaluable administrative and organizing skills that she brought south when she started working as a campus coordinator for the YWCA in 1962. “Basically what we were doing,” explained Yancy’s white colleague Mary King, “was trying to identify students in campuses in about ten southern states, who were probing kinds of students, asking questions.” The duo organized clandestine meetings between Black and white students as well as sponsored intercollegiate conferences that brought student groups together. But overall, their work was severely limited by the oppressive racial climate that dominated southern college campuses.
However, since the YWCA project was based out of Atlanta, Yancy often rubbed shoulders with SNCC people, some of whom she had known since her time at Barnard. She joined SNCC’s staff in 1963, serving as both a campus coordinator and a conference organizer. One of her first SNCC tasks was to organize a three-day leadership training institute at Howard University. Drawing on SNCC’s organizing experience in the rural South, the conference focused on the economic exploitation of poor Black southerners. “Machinery is replacing the Negro sharecropper,” read SNCC’s advertising letter for the conference. “We must now carefully outline programs to house, clothe and feed our nation’s dispossessed.” The conference, which featured James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, was a harbinger for SNCC’s organizing around Black economic power in the mid and late 1960s.
Yancy’s role in SNCC was largely administrative, but she also participated in direct action protests in Atlanta. One time, Yancy and fellow female staffers staged a sit-in at SNCC’s Atlanta office in protest of the fact that women almost always took the minutes at organizational meetings. Yancy was also involved in SNCC’s on-going protests against Toddle House restaurants and their parent company, the Dobbs Corporation. She, Prathia Hall, and Lillian Gregory all bought stocks in the corporation before staging a sit-in a Toddle House in Atlanta. They were refused service, despite being part owners, and spent the Christmas of 1963 in jail. The protests gained national attention, and within weeks, the Dobbs Corporation agreed to desegregate its businesses.
In 1964, James Forman asked Yancy to head up SNCC’s fundraising efforts in New York City. She worked closely with a group of professional fundraisers, using innovative techniques such as direct mailings, dinner parties, and benefit concerts, to raise money for SNCC. Yancy remained with SNCC until 1968, working behind the scenes to ensure that the organization ran smoothly and that people in the field were able to do their jobs. Her administrative talents eventually led her to a leadership position at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.
Interview with Ella Baker by Sue Thrasher and Casey Hayden, April 19, 1977, Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina.
Interview with Mary King by Sara Boyte, July 24, 1973, Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina.
Brief Job Descriptions of Personnel in Atlanta Office, undated, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Personnel Credentials of the Atlanta Office, 1964, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Minutes of SNCC Executive Committee Meeting, September 6-9, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Report from the Freedom School Curriculum Conference, March 21-22, 1964, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website.
Rough Minutes from Meeting Called by the National Council of Churches to Discuss the Mississippi Project, September 18, 1964, Mary King Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Fund Raising for SNCC report, September 1965, Lucile Montgomery Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Letter from Bobbi Yancy regarding SNCC’s Conference on Food and Jobs, November 7, 1963, Social Action Vertical File, Wisconsin Historical Society.
Advertising Letter for SNCC’s Conference on Food and Jobs, November 1963, Arthur Ocean Waskow Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.
New York SNCC Office Newsletter, May 1967, Faith Holsaert Papers, Duke University Libraries.
“Southern Guests View Integration Problems,” Barnard Bulletin, February 13, 1961, Barnard Digital Collections.
“Race Relations Group Abets Exchange Plans,” Barnard Bulletin, February 23, 1961, Barnard Digital Collections.
“Race Relations Committee Plans December Civil Rights Conference,” Barnard Bulletin, November 6, 1961, Barnard Digital Collections.
“Race Relations Committee Plans Regional Civil Rights Conference,” Barnard Bulletin, November 30, 1961, Barnard Digital Collections.
“Conference Sets Aims on Civil Rights Action,” Barnard Bulletin, December 7, 1961, Barnard Digital Collections.