It was 1997 when I became a debutante. That memorable experience helped me grow as a young lady and many of the life lessons I learned remain with me today.
While I appreciate my experience, I later realized I participated in an event whose history is interesting and significant to a portion of Black history.
The upper crust of
Historians at the Indiana State Museum and the Indiana Historical Society say not much has been documented about the history of debutante cotillions, though many collegiate students have explored the topic.
Miya Carey is one such individual
Carey initially heard about debutante cotillions while a student at Drew University in New Jersey. The conversation she had with an adviser of hers, ignited an interest that resulted in Carey writing a thesis on the history of Black cotillions.
“The events are well documented on the social pages of publications such as Ebony and Jet, but as far as (professors) not (researching cotillions), it may just be that (cotillions) weren’t seen as important,” Carey said.
Historians say debutante cotillions were important to a small segment of the Black population - Blacks who were considered “elite and connected” to exclusive social clubs such as the Links, The Girlfriends or the Bachelor Benedict Club. Girls who made their “debut” to society were generally the daughters of affluent doctors, lawyers and teachers.
Martha Mitchell, a retired educator says during the early 1900s, the only way to become a debutante was through invitation only.
“Whoever had charge of the cotillion asked certain young ladies who they thought could afford to participate,” she said. “They came to your house and interviewed the girl and even interviewed her parents.”
Back in the day, carefully selected debutantes had to not only be of a certain pedigree, but she also had to have strong academics, tremendous social and volunteer skills, as well as have ambitious goals for her future.
Debs were further distinguished in the upper realms of the Black community; however her family, particularly her father, received a social boost as well. The unspoken implication was that the poise, beauty, popularity and academic agility was a direct result of good parents who are also special because they achieved a certain status in order to bring forth such a daughter.
Through her studies Carey learned that being an attractive debutante wasn’t a requirement, though many of the participants were coincidentally beautiful. Carey also realized that in the earlier years debutantes generally had fairer skin and conservative hairstyles.
Mitchell confirms Carey’s research, but says the individual’s skin color became less important in the 40s.
“In the south that was quite the thing – lighter skinned girls were invited and accepted over darker skinned girls,” Mitchell said.
“It also mattered where you were,” added Carey. “I studied debutantes in Washington, D. C. My advisor told me to keep in mind that the elite in D.C. at that time were descendants of mixed race heritage. That kind of explains why you’d see a lot of light-skinned debutantes.”
During cotillions, debutantes donned flowing white gowns and long white gloves; a symbol of innocence and purity. They were also accompanied by young Black males who escorted them. As with the debutantes, the escorts were also from a higher social and economic class. He had to be approved by cotillion organizers and was judged upon the same standards as debutantes.
All of these factors mattered including which exclusive group the debutante debuted with, which had a hierarchy as well.
Cotillions remained among a certain segment of the Black population largely due to the fact that upper crust Blacks invited other wealthy and “important” Blacks.
Carey noticed as time went on, the grand white gowns and format remained the same, but the social status of girls who participated became more relaxed and included participants from typical or working-class families.
“I had an interview with the Essex County (N.J.) Links. From my conversation with a member, she said there’s an effort to reach out to girls who may not have traditionally participated in the cotillion. No matter what, academics remained important over the years,” said Carey.
The Black press also played a major role in showcasing cotillions and other “high society” events on their pages.
One of the premier objectives of cotillions was to expose the world to sophisticated, well-educated young women who had high morals and ethics. This portrayal provided a welcome alternative to the “Jezebel” and “mammy” characters traditional media of the time often depicted Blacks to be.
“We (were) wearing these white gowns which symbolized that we’re just as moral as white women,” said Carey.
Blacks never debuted to society in white cotillions nor did white teens debut to society in Black cotillions.
A new day
Over the decades, Black debutante cotillions have continued to go on through various organizations. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Alpha Mu Omega Chapter and the Ivy Endowment Inc. keep the tradition going in Indianapolis.
“Years ago when people came up with cotillions and mentoring programs for young girls, they were going through some of the same things girls experience today. They recognized that need back in the day so for us to carry that torch and pass it along means so much,” said Nichole Wilson, sorority member and co-chair of the 2012 Debutante Cotillion and Scholarship Program, which will take place Nov. 11 at the Indiana Roof Ballroom.
This year’s program consists of 38 girls who attend public, private and charter high schools throughout Central Indiana. Each participant – all representing various socioeconomic statuses - went through an application process, which included an essay, letters of recommendation and their high school transcript.
Current debutantes attended a series of meaningful workshops such as the importance of political action; the true meaning of love; the truth about college life; and how to become a philanthropist.
“This is not a pageant – it’s not a talent show. It’s a process by which we come alongside these young women in their transition from girls to young women as well as provide them with an opportunity to earn scholarships,” said Wilson.
Kimberly Jones is happy the debutante cotillion continues its legacy. She remembers when she was a deb in Alpha Mu Omega’s cotillion during the late ‘90s.
“I was a shy person and initially I dreaded it. But once we got into it I was OK with it,” said Jones who still keeps in touch with a few ladies from her debutante cotillion. “I got to wear makeup and I felt like I was truly being presented to society.”
Because of becoming a debutante, Jones said her self-esteem increased and prepared her for leadership roles she has had in her life.
“It jump-started my interest in pursuing other things and it opened up a whole other world for me,” said Jones. “I don’t think I would have accomplished things like (being a) McDonald’s History Makers of Tomorrow (recipient), or becoming a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, had it not been for being a debutante.”