Editor's note: Choreographer Bill Miller was initially identified incorrectly as Bill Black.
Wilma Brown talked about the Debutante Cotillion during the program Heart of a People: Black Women in American History and Culture, at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library in Toledo, Ohio.
For nearly 50 years, cotillions have been a rich tradition in Toledo’s African-American community.
These formal balls, at which young ladies are presented to society, date back hundreds of years but traditionally were reserved for young, aristocratic white women.
In Toledo, however, they have become a right of passage over the past six decades or so for hundreds of African-American teens.
In the 1950s, the late Frances Belcher, a local radio host known as “Lady B” and editor of an African-American newspaper called the Bronze Raven, began sponsoring a yearly cotillion. Young ladies chosen to participate would sell subscriptions, with the title of Miss Debutante going to the one who sold the most subscriptions, said Wilma Brown, a longtime chairman of the cotillion who recently retired as president of Toledo City Council.
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In 1964, after Mrs. Belcher’s death, the Toledo Club of the Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club Inc., took over the event. Ms. Brown, an active member of the organization since 1966, has served as cotillion chairman for more than 20 years.
“When we started this, we never thought we’d be going 48 years,” she said. “It has become part of black culture here in this city.”
The club transformed the event into an educational experience intended to not only present young women to the world but to prepare them for it.
“It’s completely different than a social event,” Ms. Brown said. “We look at it as an educational cotillion.”
Toledo’s rich history of cotillions was celebrated at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library on Saturday as part of its Black History Month programming. Dresses, photographs, and other memorabilia were on display.
Library spokesman Rhonda Sewell, herself a debutante at an Ann Arbor cotillion in 1984, now serves as master of ceremonies at debutante balls in both cities.
“Everyone goes to these affairs, including the community sponsors of the girls,” she said. “It’s a rite of passage that is deeply moving and a strong part of certain black society traditions.”
Every year, some 20 or 30 debutantes attend the Debutante Cotillion at the end of May. The event is preceded by months of preparation that include an introductory tea, etiquette lessons, a mother-daughter luncheon, and 11 weeks of dance rehearsals.
Toledo’s cotillion debutantes are all high school seniors, nominated based on their academic performance. They must maintain grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher, may not be pregnant or have children, must be of good moral character, and should be active in their community, Ms. Brown said.
About 150 girls typically attend the introductory tea in January, but only 20 to 30 will stick with the program through the cotillion.
The girls wear white gowns and long gloves to the ball, where they are presented by their tuxedo-clad fathers and dance the waltz with escorts in white tails. It’s also a learning opportunity for the boys, who must commit to learning the waltz.
“There’s no hoodies, no pants below the you-know-what,” Ms. Brown said.
High school juniors in red dresses serve as debs-in-waiting, presenting traditional pearl necklaces to their older counterparts and holding their flower bouquets.
During the event, various awards are handed out — Miss Debutante, Miss Outstanding Talent, Miss Congeniality — and with them, college scholarships. An award for Mr. Escort is also handed out to one of the boys.
“We give over $6,000 for scholarships,” Ms. Brown said. “We also have five to 10 scholarships from the University of Toledo.”
That’s quite an increase over the $500 that the cotillion provided its participants 49 years ago, Ms. Brown said.
The cotillion has become a generational tradition for some Toledo families.
Karen Jarrett, a retired Toledo Public Schools elementary teacher, was a debutante at the 1970 cotillion. It was a big deal, she said: At that time, there were only five African-Americans in her class at Notre Dame Academy, and all five participated. “That was thrilling,” she said.
Today, she is married to her escort, Dennis Jarrett, a Scott High School graduate and retired project engineer for Ford.
“The black community was very small then,” Mr. Jarrett said. “My idea of the world centered around the inner city. Getting into the cotillion got me outside of that.”
Nearly 30 years later, their daughter participated as a debutante in the 1998 cotillion. “It was overwhelming,” Mrs. Jarrett said of watching her daughter go through the experience.
Doing so stirred the Jarretts to get more involved. They now volunteer as assistants to choreographer Bill Miller. They are, in turn, having an impact on a still younger generation.
Semone Wilbert, who graduated from Notre Dame Academy in 2011 and attended the cotillion last year, said the Jarretts and other organizers of the cotillion had “a big influence” on her.
“It was eye opening,” said Miss Wilbert, now a freshman at Capital University in Columbus. “I gained a whole lot of confidence in myself. I’m more comfortable in professional settings now.”
She learned how to carry herself with a mixture of pride and grace, she said, skills that have been an asset in interviews and during her successful attempt to start an exercise program at the university.
The event costs about $27,000 to put on, Ms. Brown said. Sponsors help cover the costs and have included Fifth Third Bank, Key Bank, UT, Columbia Gas, ProMedica, Mercy Health Partners, Toledo Edison, R. Gant LLC, and others.
“It’s important that they see our business community supports them,” said Roosevelt Gant, president of R. Gant LLC. “I think African-American businesses have to have the same commitment that our companies in the broader community have. We’ve got an obligation to do our part.”
Contact Tony Cook at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.
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