Photo by Tyrone Sanders on
Julia Harris was a charter member of the Charleston Club of Washington, D.C.

As graduation day at the Avery Institute drew closer, Julia Harris’ brother encouraged her in 1941 to leave Charleston and come live with him in Washington, D.C. Instead of accepting his offer, the 18-year-old Harris packed her bags, hugged her family on Lee Street and went to teach at an elite boarding school for Black girls in Asheville, North Carolina.

Harris eventually made it to the Washington, D.C., area where she spent 37 years teaching in nine schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. Harris will share her memories during the 75th anniversary celebration of the Charleston Club of Washington, D.C., July 7-10 in Charleston. 

In 1948, Harris along with her brother William Magwood Jr. and another displaced Charlestonian Edward Deas founded the “homies-only” Charleston Club. They formed the club to socialize with other Charlestonians as they shared news from home that reached the D.C. area not by cell phone texts or Facebook posts, but by handwritten letters.

The celebration’s schedule includes the showing of a video on July 10 of Harris sharing her memories as the last of 26 charter members of the club. The presentation, however, will take an unexpected somber and reflective tone. Julia Ursuline Magwood Harris passed away June 2 at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. She would have been 100 in August.

For the video, club members Ben and Rose Randall interviewed Harris in March at her home in Bethesda. As her condition weakened, Harris decided not to attend the celebration in Charleston.

Rose Randall was at a women’s conference at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, when she was told Harris had died. “I was already in prayer mode when I received the first text that Julia’s condition had worsened,” she said. “When I got the second text to inform me of her transition, it was deep sadness, but I believe that God had it all under control, and that she was at peace with her Lord.”

Club historian Ned Felder, a retired Army colonel who lives in Burke, Virginia, recalls that moment 35 years ago when his comment during a meeting drew a sharp correction from Harris. “She looked at me and said, ‘I know you didn’t say that.’ She corrected me. She had a powerful influence on me and all the other members.”

The next generation of the Charleston Club

It’s estimated that from the 1910s to the 1970s, 6 million Black people like Harris across America were swept up in a “great migration” from the South to Northern, Midwestern and Western cities for higher-paying jobs and a respite from the racially violent Jim Crow South, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. These accounts are told in sepia-toned family pictures alongside oral histories, traditions and favorite recipes.

In his 1971 book, The Chickenbone Special, journalist and writing coach the late Dwayne E. Walls, said during the great migration Black people knew only three places to go: Heaven, Hell and Baltimore… Baltimore-or Washington or New York or Newark, was surely the land of milk and honey, the Promised Land.” The title of Walls’ book is drawn from the experiences of Black families who packed home-cooked meals — which of course included fried chicken — before they began a journey lined with whites-only restaurants. 

In her 2010 highly acclaimed book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson wrote: the migration “set into motion changes in the North and South that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined. … Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century.”

Today, more than 90 club members live in the Washington, D.C., area and other parts of the country. The Randalls joined the club for the reasons that attracted Harris, who befriended them as they grew closer while interviewing her for the video.

Shortly after the U.S. Air Force in 1984 assigned CMSgt. Ben Randall to the Pentagon, the Randalls and their four younger sons joined Ebenezer AME. The following year, a church member from Charleston steered them to the club.

The club met five times a year initially at members’ homes and later at Ebenezer’s fellowship hall. The business part of the meetings gave way to social conversations over familiar hometown foods, red rice, okra soup, fried chicken with collard greens, and stories of sharing Johnnie Cakes and other treats with friends.

The club was a slice of Charleston sweetened with “home folk who spoke [our] language,” said Ben Randall, who was born in the carriage house behind the Sword Gate house on South Battery where his grandmother, Lavinia Washington, was a domestic worker. Randall, his older sister, Shirley, and their cousin, Joan Shine, also were born in the carriage house. His mother, Rena Brown Randall, was a beautician who conditioned the hair of civic rights and education icon Septima P. Clark. 

Rose Chisolm Randall, lived on Blake and later Hanover streets with her adoptive mother and namesake Rosalie Chisolm. The family attended church with legendary blacksmith Philip Simmons. Rose Randall, the club’s president emeritus, said sharing memories of home was “one of the unique things about the Charleston Club because we all could identify going through the same things. We were all poor, but we didn’t realize it because neighbors shared whatever they had.”

Prior to the pandemic, the club’s community service included making sandwiches to feed homeless people and supporting Martha’s Table and So Mothers May Eat in Washington, D.C. The club will hold a fundraiser during the celebration events in Charleston to benefit the Lowcountry Food Bank.

Currently, the club has 94 members. By the time of the Charleston gala, the goal is to boost membership to 100 people. The pandemic halted in-person meetings that are scheduled to resume in September and with the option to join virtually, Ben Randall said. Membership is not limited to people who live in the Washington, D.C. area, he added.

Felder predicts that as the club’s membership grows it will cross racial lines. “We will change simply because younger people are joining, and they bring a different perspective as far as integration,” he said. “They don’t have to contend with all the problems we experienced. There will be interracial marriages and that will [led to an integrated] Charleston Club.”

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