Help For The Junior League
September 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
Help for the Junior League
Reviewers and bloggers have talked little about the stereotypes of white people created by the recent movie, The Help. The portrayal of the white women of the Junior League made me wince as much as the portrayals of some of the African American women, so I thought I would provide some information about the real Junior League. The Junior League is an international organization of women committed to promoting volunteerism and to improving the community through effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. In my hometown of Greenville, SC, a local group of women, which included my great aunt, started a Junior Charities in 1929. My mother was president of the organization in the fifties, when it became the Junior League of Greenville. My older sister was president from 1983 to 1984.
In the 1970s, it was my time to join. I declined to be considered for membership because I felt it was an elitist organization mostly based on someone’s idea of who “came from a good family” and who had social status. (Now, I realize, those with social connections are usually the most effective fundraisers.) And there were no black members then. According to the Greenville, SC, 2011 manual, after a period of organizational soul searching beginning in the 1980s , the first black woman was invited to join the Greenville Junior League in 1988. A multi-League diversity task force initiative and a joint service partnership with the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a national black women’s sorority, was conducted in 1993. The national Association of Junior League International elected its first black president in 1998.
Early Greenville Junior League activities included fundraisers such as the Follies, bridge tournaments, and rummage sales, events that raised enough money to create a Baby Diet Kitchen for underprivileged children. They hired an accredited Social Worker and a family services director. They supported such organizations as the Maternity Shelter, the YWCA, Travelers Aid, Council of Social Agencies, Juvenile Court, Family Welfare and many others. In the fifties, when my mother was president, they focused on support of the arts and a corrective reading project (which I attended for a stuttering problem).
I remember distinctly my mother leaving the house for meetings in her trim business suit and cocked hat and the mounds of paperwork she would take back and forth from meetings and that would be spread out on the dining table for weeks. She took her job seriously. And it was during this time that I got to spend a lot of time with our African American housekeeper, Theresa Mitchell, and our cook, Louvenia Duckett, who took care of me when my mother was volunteering for the Junior League and other organizations. I feel privileged, now, that I had that time with Theresa and Louvenia who unavoidedly showed me their compassion and dignity. I did not think of them as “magical negroes” from the movies who transform whites but people with their own lives who were tested by segregation and discrimination every day.
In the 1980s, when my sister was president, there were four main initiatives: child abuse and neglect, teen pregnancy prevention, substance abuse, and public education. There were many successes in developing programs in those areas such as a temporary shelter for abused children, a teen pregnancy prevention council, support for a substance abuse program in the public schools, and a successful advocacy effort for a sales tax increase devoted to public education.
I don’t remember seeing or hearing about afternoon bridge parties and silly, superficial women running the League. Some, I’m sure, must have treated the League like a social club rather than a professional volunteer organization. The Junior League women I saw worked hard for their communities.
I do not minimize the prejudice and bigotry I know was present in some individual League members or the League’s discriminatory practices during their early existance. I’m sure each member had some kind of “help” and I’m sure that these relationships were complex, confusing and often painful on many levels.
I don’t remember my family talking about race issues or the help in front of them. My mother, who most definitely believed that blacks were inferior to whites, told me many times that she was raised to “reserve your best manners toward people who could not defend themselves.” Not exactly a positive statement on the relationship between black and white people, but some recognition of the dangerous challenges confronting blacks during that time and today.
Felicia, I very much appreciated your taking the time to reflect
in a nuanced way about the role of the Junior League over the years.
As you remember, I was a member briefly here in Washington in the
early 1970s, but like you, felt a great deal of discomfort about what
then seemed the League’s narrow association with the affluent and “well-
born” — women who “had time on their hands” because there were only
beginning to be opportunities of substance for them in the world of work. After a
couple of rather challenging League placements in after-school programs, I resigned,
in large part because my own career was demanding more of my time and energy.
Interestingly, like your own mother, my Alabama-born mother had been
President of the Junior League of Brooklyn during my childhood (c. 1958 -60).
There’s no question that that opportunity for leadership was of crucial importance in her
life. Now in old age, she looks back with a great sense of accomplishment
at the projects she initiated and led, one example being a children’s
playroom at a big public hospital in Brooklyn that had never had anything of the kind
available for kids during long-term hospitalizations. While, at the time, I felt a tiny bit
neglected when she was at night meetings, I also know that her involvement in the League
offered me a valuable model of competence and effectiveness.
I have not yet seen The Help, but do think it’s important to set the
record straight that, while some individual League members were (are?) lightweight or
frivolous and, worse, racist, these qualities were not fostered by the organization itself.
Quite the contrary. In my experience, the League has historically evoked
both seriousness of purpose and an openness to unfamiliar realms of experience. I
chuckle to myself as I write this defense, remembering how vehemently critical I was in
my twenties of the League’s monochromatic and exclusive membership. My resignation, a great
disappointment to my mom, was a major act of differentiation, but with hindsight,
I’ve become aware that my short period of membership gave me much more than I was able
to acknowledge at the time.