LIMA — Backers of a mural depicting the notable women of Germantown, Pennsylvania, had a problem: There were more notable women than available wall space. Fifty portraits, the muralist told the backers of the “Women of Germantown” mural in 2001, were far too many for the wall of the Philadelphia suburb’s YWCA.
So the group pared the list to six women, including author and abolitionist Louisa May Alcott, Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, and Clarice Gamble Herbert, the first African-American woman to assume directorship of a YWCA in Philadelphia.
Herbert was part of a remarkable family that moved to Lima from Villa Rica, Georgia, in 1916. Her father, L.C. Gamble, was one of Lima’s first black policemen, served as a trustee of Wilberforce College and helped found Bradfield Center when his sons, James and Louis Jr., were not allowed to join the YMCA. He also was active in Republican Party politics for 37 years before his death in 1961.
Her sister, Maidie Norman, who died in 1998, was a stage, film and television actress, who, among her many roles, appeared with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. In 1920, when the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified, her mother, Lila Graham Gamble, was the first woman in Lima to cast a vote. Lila Gamble died in 1989 at 99 years of age.
Herbert was 6 months old when her family moved north from Georgia. From the mid-1920s on her name often appears in the “News in Colored Circles” column in The Lima News. In 1936, she graduated from Central High School and enrolled in the Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, a historically black liberal arts school.
“Miss Clarice Gamble, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. L.C. Gamble, has returned home from Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., where she received her B.A. degree,” the News reported June 9, 1940. “Miss Gamble was also awarded a Theatre Guild key for her contribution in dramatics during her college career.”
Herbert, who, during her high school and college years was involved with the YWCA, became a volunteer desk clerk with the YWCA in Lima in the early 1940s. “Growing up black and having goals that, for a while, I thought were unachievable, the YWCA sort of helped me reach some of the goals I had for myself,” Herbert told the News Oct. 19, 1997, when she became one of 11 women inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame that year.
Herbert said she returned to Lima from college “with the idea of becoming the first black teacher in the city.” Although she applied, the call never came and Lima would not hire its first full-time black teacher until 1953. The call finally came for Herbert in 1999 when she was inducted into the Lima City Schools Distinguished Hall of Fame.
After failing to land a job as a teacher, Herbert was hired by the county, “because people knew her father,” Herbert told the News on Oct. 31, 1999. In her spare time, Herbert volunteered at the YWCA.
Herbert’s influence is seen in newspaper stories of the time. “Girls in household employment are invited to visit the Y.W.C.A. to meet other girls and use the ‘Y’ facilities Wednesday afternoon and evening,” the News wrote Oct. 20, 1940. In March 1941, the News announced a “Recreation Night” for employed girls at which Herbert, calling on her Bennett College training, would discuss verse speaking choirs at a meeting of the Debonaire Club.
Herbert left Lima in 1942. “Miss Clarice Gamble, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. L.C. Gamble, of 1419 Oakland Parkway, will leave Thursday for New York where she has accepted employment,” the News wrote May 6, 1942. “She was formerly a deputy in the office of the Allen County Auditor.” Herbert “was appointed secretary to the secretary of Student Work of the Board of Missions, Methodist Church, in New York City, having the distinction of being the first Negro to hold this position,” the News reported Sept. 12, 1943, when Herbert moved on to her next job.
That next job found Herbert headed west, where she was appointed public relations secretary of the Paseo Branch of the YWCA of Kansas City, Mo. On Feb. 28, 1945, in Kansas City, she married attorney James H. Herbert. The couple would have one child, a daughter Anne.
She arrived in Germantown in 1954. The Lima Post, which billed itself as “Lima’s Only Negro Newspaper,” reported the move. “Mrs. Clarice G. Herbert … has accepted the position as director of the Teen-Age Department of the Germantown Y.W.C.A. of Philadelphia,” the Post wrote Sept. 24, 1954. “Mrs. Herbert comes to this position with nine years professional experience in the Y.W.C.A. of Kansas City, Mo., and four years of volunteer experience in the Y.W.C.A. of Lima …” The Germantown Y.W.C.A., the Post added, “is an integrated association.”
At Germantown she continued graduate studies in social work she had started at the University of Kansas, according to her Lima schools Hall of Fame induction biography from 1999. “After leaving for a five year stint at the New Haven, Connecticut YMCA-YWCA, she returned to Germantown as the first black woman executive director in Philadelphia.”
When she retired from the Germantown post in 1979, she “was appointed by the World YWCA to be a consultant to the YWCA of Barbados, West Indies. She has been an international spokesperson for both the world and the United States YWCAs and has served until only recently eight times as interim director for various YWCAs around the country,” according to the 1999 biography.
“My main thing is helping people and being a volunteer and training volunteers,” Herbert told the News Oct. 22, 1999, on her induction into the school’s hall of fame, “and I think one of the most wonderful things a person can do is to be a volunteer, helping somebody else.”
Herbert, who was 83 at the time, told News columnist Mike Lackey a little more than a week later, “I feel like I’ve had a wonderful life. I tell everybody, if you want to get rich, don’t be a social worker. But if you want to be rich in friends, be a social worker.”
Herbert died in Philadelphia on Nov. 9, 2006. “She always told me I was as good as anyone, and I could do anything I wanted,” Herbert’s daughter Anne Perrone told the News on Nov. 29, 2006. “If I wanted to march in an all-white drum and bugle corps, I could. If I wanted to play ball, I tucked my braids under a hat and played. It didn’t matter that I was a girl, or black, or from the city.”