Sixty-five years is a long time to be involved in anything — a career, a cause, heck, even a marriage — but when those 65 years have been spent with a women’s charitable and book club? That’s real commitment.
That’s how long Cynthia McCottry-Smith has been a member of the Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club, a local women’s club that dates back to 1916. The club was founded by Jeannette Keeble Cox, the wife of the principal of the Avery Normal Institute (now the Avery Research Center). Avery was the first accredited secondary school for African-Americans in Charleston, so many of the women who became founding members of Phillis Wheatley were teachers. Cox handpicked the women she invited to join, placing a membership limit of 20 (which still holds today) in order to keep discussions manageable. In her 1934 handwritten club history, which you can read at the Avery Center, she says, “Those were chosen who were said to be ‘the literary lights of Charleston.'”
The ladies of Phillis Wheatley wasted no time in getting down to meaningful, educated discourse. “They liked to have debates,” McCottry-Smith says. Norma Davis, another member of Phillis Wheatley whose grandmother-in-law was a founding member, adds, “They debated whether women should work — whether married women should have careers.” Other topics they covered included vivisection and the nation’s first congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin of Montana.
Of course, they also read books, including W.E.B. DuBois’ autobiographical Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. They read essays on, as Cox says in her history, “the Negro experience” in South America, India, and Africa. DuBois later visited the club, along with famous Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, the celebrated contralto Marian Anderson, portrait artist and local Edwin Harleston, and composer Edmund Jenkins. The women even formed a drama committee to produce plays, most notably Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, which they performed at South Carolina State College. “When Phillis Wheatley was founded, African Americans couldn’t go to venues to see plays,” Davis says. “So they were really providing a cultural exposure that nobody else was doing.”
By the time McCottry-Smith, who was a teacher at the Avery Normal Institute, joined, the plays were a thing of the past. But the high standards for conduct, intellect, and discussion were — and are still today — central to the club’s purpose. “When I first joined it, I was the youngest thing in there and I was a nervous wreck. All of the women seemed so old. I guess they were about 50, I think, but that was old to me because I was 20 years old. The meetings were held at the members’ homes and that was the time when everybody brought out the silver, and china, and tea — it was just so lovely,” McCottry-Smith says. “Everyone dressed, and sometimes they had on their little gloves.” Each member hosted a meeting at her home, and everyone always cooked. “You know what I used to have? Flaming ice cream for dessert. I know how to do that,” says McCottry-Smith. She still makes it from time to time, too.
The women gave time to charitable work as well as intellectual pursuits, particularly focusing on the Jenkins Orphanage during McCottry-Smith’s early years as a member. They also had more book discussions back then, she says, because there was simply more time. “We got out of school around 3 p.m. So we had from 3 till 7 p.m. to do what you had to do at your house. And then if you were going to a meeting you’d leave at 6:30 or 20 minutes to 7. Because at that time, everybody lived in the city — it didn’t take more than 5-10 minutes to get where you wanted to go. It was easy then.”
The fact that Phillis Wheatley has survived in today’s hustle and bustle is a testament to the members and to the spirit of the club. Joan Bonaparte, a member who joined in 2003, says that the reason people are still committed to attending meetings is “the quality of the members. They are such outstanding women. They don’t get down into arguments or bad moods. In many women’s clubs they do, but we don’t.”
And sometimes they even break out the china and gloves, just for fun. At a recent committee meeting, McCottry-Smith made a pretty lunch for the three women in attendance. “I just wanted it to be sort of how it used to be, so I had the napkins and the silverware. Just for funsies.”