Where civility, history and black culture meet

The ladies wore gloves and hats, the tables were set with the good china and the white lilies filled the front hall with the scents of spring.

Nannette K. Mitchell, the hostess, had misplaced the silverware she uses for entertaining, so she reluctantly rented stainless steel flatware and served creamed chicken in pastry shells, rice, string beans, peas, baked chicken, molded ice cream and iced tea with lemon slices. Someone recited a poem, another woman played "Climb Every Mountain" on the grand piano and everyone listened attentively to a speech about justice, murmuring politely at the most rousing parts.


It was this month's meeting of the Du Bois Circle, an African-American women's club established in Baltimore before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was created, before women could vote and decades before the civil rights movement. Members of the club, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, think it might be the oldest such group in the country.

The spring finery, the menu and some other period flourishes were planned as a nod to the circle's history, but even on ordinary occasions, the club is a throwback to a bygone era. Here -- where Mitchell half-seriously claims the average age is 79 (she is 59) -- honorifics are typically employed and Wedgwood china, volunteer work, manners and morality are held in high regard. Differences of opinion, if they exist, are shooed aside in favor of respectful discourse.


"It's learning that we want, not arguing," said Betty Williams, the straight-backed, white-haired octogenarian who wore a hat festooned with pink flowers and animatedly recited Andrea Paul Razafkeriefo's poem "The Negro Woman."

"We're not a little social club, dressing up and showing off," Williams said adamantly, occasionally squeezing the nearest arm for emphasis. "We're supposed to learn, then use that information in the community. ... Every lady among us has been a community leader, working for the betterment of the community."

The elite group of Baltimore's cognoscenti boasts an impressive array of educators, lawyers and business people, including Yvonne Lansey, the president of Ideal Federal Savings Bank, and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

But, while some members such as Jessamy and Mitchell (whose son, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., is on the City Council) have political commitments, that business is left at the door. The club doesn't endorse political candidates or organize marches. Rather, it practices a steady, quiet kind of activism that has remained largely unchanged for the past century.

On the third Tuesday of the month, from October to May, the group invites a speaker to talk about a contemporary topic, from education to health care, culture, art and science. By intellectually enriching themselves, they hope, in a trickle-down kind of way, to enrich those around them.

In 100 years, a meeting has never been canceled -- and they have minutes going back to 1907 to prove it.

"Even in ice and snow," said Maxine Wood, the club president, who is referred to at meetings by the formal title "madame president." "Who ever heard of such a thing?"

This long history is a source of pride for club members, who read minutes from meetings of yore at their monthly gatherings and just distributed 100th-anniversary commemorative pins.


"It's important to have a sense of where you came from," said Lansey, 59, who has been in the club for 20 years. "When I came along in the '60s, because I'm light-skinned, I wasn't considered black. Well, I'm not white. You have to have a sense of who you are and where you came from."

Lansey is part of an old Baltimore business family. Her father and grandfather operated Druid Hill Steam Laundry, which handled all of the B&O; Railroad's laundry, and she is the third generation to run the bank, which her grandfather founded. Her sister, mother and aunt are all members of the circle, and her great-grandmother, Minnie L. Gaines, was one of the group's founding members.

According to Du Bois Circle's meticulously kept history, the group grew out of W.E.B. Du Bois' Niagara Movement, which was established in 1905 and was a precursor to the NAACP.

Several young women were invited to be hostesses and ushers at a meeting held in Baltimore's Lyric Theatre to publicize the Niagara Movement. But wanting to do more, a handful formed their own auxiliary group, Du Bois Circle, named after the scholar and activist who was their mentor.

Their purpose, as enumerated in the first printed constitution, included the following:

"To seek truth, beauty and knowledge;


"To study literary, cultural and civic questions;

"To participate in establishing the rightful place of the Negro in American life."

The early meetings, according to a history written by current archivist Patelle Harris, were held in members' homes. (They decided to limit the group to 30 because of parlor sizes.) Business matters were followed by talks or presentations on books, music and repast.

Dues have increased (from a nickel a month to $100 a year) and the women no longer have to host in their homes, as they did during the era of segregation when hotels and restaurants weren't open to them.

But as former member Jean Turpin noted in the history she prepared for the club's 75th birthday, "the more things change, the more they are the same."

The group is still limited to 30 women, and members tend to join for life. (They are at 29 now because after a member dies, they always wait six months to vote on a replacement.) It is still a forum for what member Edmonia T. Yates described as "prominent, respectful ladies." Many of them have graduate degrees and they care tremendously about education. They still give a scholarship each year to at least one graduating Baltimore high school student. The legacy of Du Bois, whom several of the women met, still looms large.


In recent years, speakers have included state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Eugene DeLoatch, dean of the school of engineering at Morgan State University, and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The speaker at this month's meeting was Judge Marcella A. Holland, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court.

"In administration, I'm pushing papers all the time, not interacting with people," member Clara Adams, a former chemistry professor who is the special assistant to the president at Morgan State University, said over dinner. "It revitalizes you. Even some evenings when I came in stressed out. It's very calming to hear speakers and enjoy the fellowship of these women."

Being among black women "means I'm talking with and associating with people who have similar ideas. They want to address some of the same problems I'm interested in addressing," said Yates, 75, a retired principal and a former deputy superintendent in the city school system. "You don't have to wonder, 'Are they with me or against me?'"

The evening was coming to a close. The women had discussed plans for the closing dinner meeting and had passed out the cream invitations with gold lettering. (They expect at least 300 guests at the dinner, where radio journalist Juan Williams will be the speaker.) They finished dessert, asked the judge a few questions and clapped politely.

"See how we do it? There's no reason for dissent," Betty Williams said.

A tired-looking Mitchell, who this year is serving as the circle's treasurer and the co-chairwoman of the centennial committee, sat in the front hall of her capacious St. Paul Street house. As the last of her guests headed out into the spring night, she turned pensive.


Her daughters don't live in Baltimore, and the elder one would find the club's proceedings too "froufrou chi-chi." But somehow she hopes she can pass on the circle and its century of traditions.

"As antiquated as it is," Mitchell said, "I'd like my daughters to hold onto it."