Debutante Daughters: Celebrating Black Life at Cotillion

This is a guest post by Lanai Huddleston, Archives History and Heritage Advanced Internship intern in the Manuscript Division, winter 2021. Lanai is a 2021 graduate of Howard University and majored in philosophy and history.

A woman in a white dress with flowers appears on the cover of the 25th Alpha Kappa Alpha annual debutant ball program

25th Alpha Kappa Alpha annual debutante ball program cover. Box 71, DuPree African American Pentecostal Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The DuPree African American Pentecostal Collection was acquired by the Manuscript Division in 2019 for its rich documentation of several denominations and congregations of African American churches, especially the Church of God in Christ. The collection is an essential resource, which traces the history of the Black church and reflects many aspects of African American culture, not typically preserved in archival repositories. One such example from the collection is a pamphlet commemorating the 25th Annual Debutante Ball hosted by Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Theta Omega Chapter of Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1962.

In 1908 on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., nine collegiate women founded Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first African American Greek-lettered sorority. These women distinguished themselves both on campus and in the community as women of culture, class, and refinement. Believing the cultivation of African American culture was the key to community uplift, Alpha Kappa Alpha members have always embraced the beauty of Black womanhood and sisterhood. Over the years, the women of this illustrious organization, including notably Kamala Harris, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and many other outstanding Black women, have continued their celebration of Black life through programming. This work is carried out through membership units known as chapters assigned to specific colleges or territories.

The Alpha Theta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded in 1928 by South Regional Director, Vivian Mason, and International President, B. Beatrix Scott in Raleigh, North Carolina. The tradition of the Alpha Theta Omega chapter’s debutante ball, formally known as the Debutante Scholarship Program, began in 1937 through the efforts of its founder, Susie Vick Perry, who sought to create scholarship opportunities for promising young Black women. Perry’s efforts within her chapter and community resulted in her induction to the Raleigh Hall of Fame in 2007.[1]

The history of debutante balls began in seventeenth-century England, where they were used to present young women formally to society. Initially, debutante balls existed for “upper-class” women, as they allowed aristocratic families to vie for better marriage prospects for their daughters.[2] However, the tradition took root in the American South after the first American debutante ball in Savannah, Georgia, in 1817. Afterwards, the practice of debutante balls, otherwise known as “cotillions” in the South, became a rite of passage for well-off young women, establishing them as cultured members of their community. However, cotillion balls were segregated and expensive, and as a result, young Black girls were excluded.[3] Debutante balls finally appeared in Black social circles during the 1930s, in large part due to the efforts of Black sororities, fraternities, and community organizations that would come to host them.[4]

Thumbnail photos of members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Theta Omega Chapter

The women of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Theta Omega Chapter, 1962. Box 71, DuPree African American Pentecostal Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

While it is not uncommon for debutante balls to require several weeks of formal instruction before presentation, Alpha Theta Omega’s debutante ball required a full year of preparation filled with rich vocational activities such as etiquette-oriented “charm” clinics, a tour of the governor’s mansion, community service, and much more. The immersive nature of the program enabled the women of Alpha Theta Omega to bond closely with the debutantes through mentorship and networking. Debutante balls also served as scholarship competitions; many of the participants in them held long-term professional and academic goals.[5] By spending a year with Alpha Theta Omega, whose members were often the professionals and academics of the Raleigh community, Alpha Kappa Alpha debutantes gained an early professional edge through the cultivation of Black debutante ball culture. The festivities commemorating the completion of the program lasted three days. The formal introduction of the debutantes was the final event of the second night, and the third day was the young women’s first outing as full-fledged Alpha Kappa Alpha debutantes.

The debutante ball served as testament to the sorority’s commitment to the community. One example of such a commitment is the relationship forged between the Alpha Theta Omega Chapter and the J. W. Ligon Junior-Senior High School community. For instance, the Basileus (president) of Alpha Theta Omega in 1962, during the 25th Annual Ball, was Harriett Webster, a Raleigh native and alumna of the high school. A historically all-Black high school not integrated until 1971, the presence of Alpha Kappa Alpha undoubtedly meant the inclusion of young Black women in aspects of southern social culture they would have otherwise been excluded from, much like the exclusion the founders of the organization faced in Washington, D.C., social life in 1908. It is not difficult to imagine that perhaps during her matriculation, Webster envisioned participating in a nearly identical event to the debutante balls she would later plan with her sorority. As the participating high schools varied from year to year, similar relationships likely existed between other members and their alma maters.

Though aimed at scholarship and refinement, debutante balls also served as an opportunity to build relationships. Participation in the ball for some functioned as a segue into sorority membership later on. The Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Theta Omega Chapter Debutante Ball program, preserved in the DuPree African American Pentecostal Collection, illustrates the significance this tradition has had in the lives of young Black women. The program, an invaluable artifact of Black cultural history, is the product of intergenerational sisterhood and proof of the immeasurable value of developing Black cultural tradition.

 

[1] “Inductees, 2007,” Raleigh Hall of Fame, accessed April 2021,  https://www.raleighhalloffame.org/inductees/2007-2

[2] Cynthia Lewis and Susan Harbage Page, “Secret Sharing: Debutantes Coming Out in the American South,” Southern Cultures, vol. 18, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 6–25, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26217391.

[3] Susan Saulny, “No Cinderella, No Ball, No Black Debutante,” New York Times, March 2, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/02/us/nationalspecial/no-cinderella-story-no-ball-no-black-debutante.html.

[4] Miya C. Carey, “’That Charm of All Girlhood’: Black Girlhood and Girls in Washington, D.C., 1930-1965.” (PhD diss., Rutgers University, 2018), https://doi.org/doi:10.7282/T3Z03CMJ.

[5] Christopher Hann, “The Lost History of Black Cotillions,” Drew University, accessed April 2021, http://www.drew.edu/news/2010/11/15/thelosthistoryofblackcotillions.

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