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Class, Color, and Clubs

“The Black Elite formed executive organizations that jealously limited membership to the small black upper class.”
Darlene Clark Hine, The African American Odyssey, 1999

When a group of New York City’s wealthiest black male professionals formed the Ugly Fisherman Club in the 1860s, they did not share the concerns of many other people of color. Like the Philadelphia physicians, dentist, and pharmacist who, 40 years later, came together to form Sigma Pi Beta, also known as the “Boule,” their goals were to “Inspire, relax, have intellectual stimulation and brotherhood.” These men did not form a club to protect themselves from community hardships or to serve others. Instead, they created exclusive social networks for themselves and their families. They hosted lavish dances, dinners, and balls. They owned their own clubhouses and competed with other groups for preeminence.

Many adopted values and standards that mirrored white American notions. To many in these groups, light skin and straight hair were equivalent to beauty. Central Virginia’s blacks were well acquainted with such groups but did not closely adhere to their practices. Local graduate chapters of national fraternities and sororities sometimes followed standards and traditions established elsewhere. Professional men and women tended to join the same clubs as others with similar status.

Exhibit Items

  1. Amity Social Club
  2. Debutantes, Bronze Woman’s Club
  3. Grand Marshalls Mrs. M.C. (Wilhelmina) Allen and Mr. C.W. Seay
  4. Revelers Club

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