On November 18, 1961, President John F. Kennedy and California Governor Pat Brown greeted 28 young ladies as they made their debut into society during the Los Angeles Chapter of The Links, Incorporated's 10th annual cotillion at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The sitting president was foremost paying respect to singer Nat King Cole, whose daughter Carole was debuting that evening, yet his presence epitomized the emergent power of African American debutante culture. Social organizations like The Links, Incorporated have a long history of challenging institutionalized stereotypes that limit the role and potential of Black girls. The history of the young Black "deb" illuminates African American women's history and the complexity of racial representation. Building off of the late nineteenth-century developments such as the racial uplift movement and the women's club movement, African American social organizations melded advancement ideologies with established European debutante traditions to create a unique cultural phenomenon that persists to this day. The origins and significance of these organizations are explored in the exhibition "Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture," which I curated and is on view at the California African American Museum until February 27, 2022.
While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished enslavement and involuntary servitude in 1865, centuries of white supremacy had legitimized the persistent dehumanization of African Americans and their exclusion from participation in American civic life. In the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, policies and programs emerged that gave emancipated populations new pathways to opportunity. It offered a sense of optimism and helped expand a burgeoning Black middle class, which already included a small number of free people of color. As Black families experienced greater economic mobility, their daughters became essential to projecting Victorian values of morality and beauty, adding to existing community beliefs in the importance of education and service. African American debutantes shouldered the responsibility of challenging negative stereotypes of Blackness while also exhibiting their worthiness as women.
According to "The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America" by James Gregory, by 1900, only 740,000 African Americans — just 8% of the nation's total Black population — lived outside the South. While large populations of African Americans were relocating to northern and mid-western cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago, the city of Los Angeles offered increased potential for economic advancement and access to a more integrated educational system. By 1920, Los Angeles was the largest city in the West, with the region's fastest-growing Black population. As Black families traveled from coast to coast, visiting family members who lived in northern or southern cities, they brought back with them traditions and activities such as social clubs that already had a deep history with African American debutante culture.
Social clubs such as the Diane Athletic Club (ca. 1929) and the March Club (1931) emerged on the West Coast, but perhaps the most prominent and lasting Black women's club, which still exists to this day, is The Links, Incorporated. Founded in 1946 in Philadelphia by community leaders Margaret Rosell Hawkins and Sarah Strickland Scott, The Links, Incorporated was created as a social club and supportive sisterhood for young Black women. The club offered guidance, as well as opportunities for community-building and empowerment around the core values of friendship, service, family relations, respect for oneself and others, legacy, responsibility and accountability. The first West Coast chapter of The Links, Incorporated was established in Los Angeles in 1950, with additional chapters in San Francisco and Oakland later that year.
In 1950, Los Angeles school teacher Marjorie Eloise Bright McPherson (1906-1958) held a luncheon for a carefully selected group of Black women who she felt demonstrated leadership qualities within the community. As a result of this event, the Los Angeles Chapter of The Links, Incorporated was born and quickly became one of the most influential women's groups in the city of Los Angeles. Marjorie, born in Los Angeles and a part of an African American pioneer family, was held in high regard. She attended the University of California, Berkeley where she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Later, McPherson, was a charter member of the League of Allied Arts and of the Los Angeles Chapter of Jack and Jill, Incorporated. A longtime member of the Wesley Methodist Church and later of the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, with strong community ties, her luncheon consisted of many accomplished women, including Hilda Allen, Rheba Butler, Irene Morris, Cornelia Bradford, Sydnetta Smith, Josephine Smith, Rosemary Holloman, Birdie Lee Bright, Ursula Murrell, Della Williams, Gwendolyn Simmons, Alice Harvey, Miriam Matthews, Hortense Graham, Willa B. Johnson, Juanita Miller, Ellen Garrot and Dr. Vada Somerville. The group included fellow teachers, a librarian, a dentist and other women who, though not professionals, held active roles in public service, and whose influence could be felt.
Della Mae Givens Williams, (1895–1996) co-founded the Wilfandel Club and was on the board of the Assistance League of the Stovall Foundation (formally the Outdoor Life and Health Association). Her father Rev. Philip Givens founded the Second Baptist Church of Newton County in Missouri and was a leading agriculturist and businessman and Cordelia Perry, her mother, was also of a pioneer Missouri family. Migrating to Los Angeles with her family in 1909, Williams, one of nine children, was encouraged to be socially and civically active. Marrying the preeminent Black architect, Paul Revere Williams in 1917, the power couple regularly gave to the NAACP, hosted fundraising gatherings and personally gave to individuals in the community.
When the Los Angeles Chapter of The Links, Incorporated faced challenges finding a venue for their first cotillion due to racial discrimination, Williams informed her husband and requested he speak with some of his friends. At that time, due to discriminatory local and state laws, minorities were not yet allowed to use hotel ballrooms for their social events. With the help of his network of celebrity clients, such as Van Johnson, Eartha Kitt and Frank Sinatra, The Links gained access to Ciro's, a glamorous supper club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (now the Comedy Store). The privately-owned nightclub was widely popular with movie stars like Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and Ronald Reagan, however the only people of color who had access to the space were either celebrities like Nat King Cole or Billie Holiday and staff. When the cotillion was held on October 20, 1952, Black Los Angeles society turned out en masse to enjoy the debut of 18 young women, and music played by Sammy Davis Jr. and his full piece orchestra, and raised $500 for the purchase of a life membership for The Links, Incorporated from the NAACP.
Miriam Matthews (1905–2003) was the first Black librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). Moving from Florida to Los Angeles with her family at age two, Matthews later attended the University of California at both Los Angeles and Berkeley, where she joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. At Berkeley, Matthews earned her bachelor's degree in Spanish in 1926. Working at the LAPL from 1927 to 1960, first as a branch librarian and later as the supervisor of twelve branch libraries, she advocated to establish Negro History Week (later Black History Month) in Los Angeles in 1931, following similar national efforts by figures such as Carter G. Woodson. As a founding member of the Los Angeles Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, Matthews both identified and preserved Black institutions through her research and collection of African American history and her community involvement.
Dr. Vada Jetmore Watson Somerville (1885–1972) was a civil rights activist and community leader. Her parents were early settlers in the State, coming between 1890 and 1894 to San Bernardino County. Graduating from Commercial High School (now Polytechnic), she later attended the University of Southern California and the USC Dental College, where she received her degree in Dentistry in 1918. Dr. Somerville, was the second Black woman in California to receive her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, and the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. Marrying Dr. John Somerville in 1912, also a graduate of the USC Dental College, the couple quickly became community activists, starting the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP in their home in 1914, building the Hotel Somerville (now the Dunbar Hotel), and establishing the La Vada apartments. Seeing the need for organizations that supported Black women, Dr. Somerville, was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Council of the National Council of Negro Women, she was also an executive board member of the Los Angeles League of Women Voters, and was an active member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
In their efforts to advance education and demonstrate the importance of giving back to the African American community, African American debutante organizations like The Links, Incorporated, have created opportunities for young Black women to grow and thrive. The 2019 debutantes of the Los Angeles Chapter of The Links, Incorporated included Nia Imani Mosby, a member of the NAACP Youth Executive Council who is attending Princeton University and plans to become an astrophysicist, and Madison De Pew Burnett, past President of the Los Angeles Chapter of Jack and Jill, who held an internship for Senator Kamala Harris. The history and evolution of the African American debutante includes thousands of young women who took part in shaping a new vision of Blackness, representing not only their families' aspirations, but also those of their country in its strides toward racial equality.