Tradition of Excellence

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Club’s name is its goal for 110 years

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by Desiree Cooper
Detroit Free Press

I still remember the rainy days and winter nights I used to spend as a teen, cuddled up with a book. Some of those characters became my friends, my advisers, my confidantes.

If I could live that again with my daughter, I thought, we’d always have some common ground to begin a conversation. So when she started high school, I vowed to read every book she had to read for her literature classes.

I haven’t always kept up with her assigned reading, but we have now developed the habit of trading books. I hope we’ll do that for years to come. It’s a way of sharing a love for learning, a love for literature and, at its core, our love for each other.

In Detroit, there’s a group of African-American women — friends, mothers and daughters — who have been doing something similar for more than a century.

This month, the Detroit Study Club celebrates its 110th birthday.

‘They weren’t domestics’

It started back in 1898. Gabrielle Lewis Pelham invited five of her female friends to her Detroit home to discuss the poetry of Robert Browning. Such circles were fashionable in those days, and Pelham, the wife of an attorney, had the time to pursue literary interests.

The group did so well that within months it had widened its scope and adopted the name Detroit Study Club.

By the late 1800s, Detroit had a significant number of prominent black families headed by men who were attorneys, doctors, engineers, druggists, and teachers. Their wives were often fulltime homemakers.

“Few would believe that there was a group of affluent black women after the Civil War who did what other affluent women did in those days. They studied issues, literature and music. They weren’t domestics,” said Jane Thomas, 73, Pelham’s great-niece and president-elect of the club.

Thomas, the retired assistant dean of student affairs at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, was invited to join the group in the late 1950s. By then her mother had been a member for years. “I didn’t question joining,” said Thomas. “It’s a part of who I am.”

The Detroit Study Club is limited to 45 members. Women join by invitation only.

One reason for the limit was for convenience because they met in each other’s homes, said Catherine Blackwell, who has been a member for 20 years. “They’d have a speaker, then dinner.”

Despite its Victorian tenor, the club has been nimble. Since the membership is now largely made up of professional women — many who are also philanthropists and volunteers — and not women of comfortable leisure, they often meet in restaurants instead of homes. At first, the group met weekly. Members now convene monthly between September and May. And even though they still have sessions dedicated to Robert or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the issues they discuss are as divergent as race relations, parliamentary procedure and the state of Detroit’s children.

Several years ago, I was asked to address the group. I remember being charmed by their elegant attire and Sunday-afternoon manners. But the prim air disappeared as soon as the women began to raise questions and debate among themselves.

Over the years I have been a part of book clubs and writing groups. The intellectual stimulation opened new worlds for me, helped me make new friends and offered interesting insights into current issues. But too often, my participation fizzled. Like many busy parents, I didn’t have time for strictly intellectual pursuits.

Still, what is more satisfying than civilized conversation on a Sunday afternoon?

Tradition for generations

When Thomas was about 7, she remembers attending Detroit Study Club meetings with her mother, Gladys Pelham Roscoe.

“Back then they met in the Blue Room at the old Lucy Thurman YWCA,” said Thomas. “I sat in the elegant lobby with my school books. When the meeting was over, I got to go to the cafeteria and have dinner with the members.”

Thomas’ mother, who died in 1993 at the age of 99, was a life member. “This is a part of the history of our community,” said Thomas. “We can’t let it die.”

Dana Rice agrees. At 32, she is the youngest member of the Detroit Study Club. She is also the fifth generation of women in her family to belong.

“It’s a rare opportunity to get educated black women for generations and generations to discuss things that are relevent in society,” said Rice, of Southfield, a doctoral student in public health at Boston University. “Sometimes it’s been eye-opening to see that they feel similar to the way I feel about issues.”

When Rice joined two years ago, she was filled with pride.

“My great-great-grandmother was a part of something I’m now a part of,” she said. “This is something special that a lot of people can’t share.”

At 110 years old, the Detroit Study Club is important not because it has transformed history or impacted a corner of the city. It’s important because it was formed at a time when few women, let alone black women, went to college. So they gathered in each other’s homes and educated themselves. As Thomas said, “The notion of lifelong learning, the cultivation of a wide range of interests and a connection to the community was the water in which I swam.”

Those are values that will serve us another 100 years.

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2 Responses

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