The Roses of the Cotillion

“They were cultivating us to be the kind of women that they wanted us to be, not just as women but as community leaders, community organizers, as people who would carry on the torch.”

– Crystal Wright, Red Rose Cotillion debutante of 1975

Red Rose Cotillion of 1975

The Unique Social and Community Club was founded in 1963 by a close-knit organization of women who were leaders in the Black community in Tacoma, Washington. The club sponsored a variety of causes and organizations, including the NAACP, local churches, and youth programs. They also launched the Red Rose Cotillion in 1966, a formal debutante ball held annually for Black high school seniors of Tacoma.

The first five annual Red Rose Cotillions were held at the Winthrop Hotel from 1966 to 1970. Then in 1971, the venue changed to the old Tacoma Elks Lodge, which had since become an event space called the 565 Broadway Club (and now is McMenamins Elks Temple). It was poetic justice that the most respected and esteemed members of Tacoma’s African-American community would now host their elegant events in the same grand building that, when operated by the Elks, had excluded them in years prior, solely based on racist policies. The National Elks organization did change their bylaws in 1972 to allow non-white members, following a federal court ruling that fraternal organizations would lose tax-exempt status if they excluded people of color. However, the influential Black community in Tacoma created their own opportunities where others did not exist.

Crystal Wright, Arvella Roberts, and Janice Smith were Red Rose Cotillion debutantes in 1975 and remember that event as a great honor. Participation was by personal invitation only, and Crystal invited her friend, Arvella, who was her classmate at Wilson High School. “When Crystal and her grandmother asked me to be a part of it, it truly was like a lifeline for me,” Arvella explained. It was an uplifting experience, she says, away from a troubling home life. “All the rehearsals that we did leading up to the cotillion were like my escape from home. It was an outlet for me and such a blessing.”

Janice was Crystal’s friend from church and a student at Henry Foss High School. She remembers the precision required at regular cotillion rehearsals. “We practiced how to stop, pose, wait. Everything was timed for us,” recalled Janice. “And don’t forget, we had to curtsy!” added Arvella.

Careful and refined movements were not just reserved for the cotillion. These young ladies could always expect a tap on the shoulder–wherever they were–from family members, as a reminder to stand up straight and keep good posture. Crystal remembers her grandmother making her put a book on her head to walk around the living room. “It was so important to them that we carried ourselves in a certain way,” Arvella explained. Such grace and confidence were a reflection of the high aspirations that these women carried from a young age.

Crystal’s grandmother, Frances J. Wilkenson, was a member of the Unique Social and Community Club and a professional seamstress. She designed and sewed not only Crystal’s cotillion gown, but the gowns for her friends as well. “She gave us bridal magazines and told us to find the dress that we liked,” Crystal remembered. “We just tore it out of the magazine and she made it.” Her grandmother gave sewing lessons to Crystal and her friends and taught them how to make their own stylish clothes.

Preparations for the cotillion began at least six months in advance. Ms. Wilkenson found a choreographer, who would lead rehearsals for the cotillion every year. Crystal attended every single one, from the time she was ten years old—as the coat check girl, making sashes, always behind the scenes. She followed along and learned all the dances. “I couldn’t wait to not be ten,” Crystal mused. “There was an expectation from the time we were little kids that we were going to grow up and make something of ourselves,” she explained. “Those women in the ‘Uniques Club’ were also the leaders in the church. They were everywhere we went. And that was a time when, if you did something wrong, somebody called your mother.”

Growing up in this close-knit circle was like having a bevy of mothers, all keeping an eye on you, with strict rules and firm guidance. Averting the temptations of the 1970s youth culture, these young women were on the straight and narrow path. Crystal affirmed, “We were not sneaking out our bellbottoms to go anywhere or do anything we weren’t supposed to do.” Crystal, Janice, and Arvella were ambitious and college bound. They went to church and joined school choir and band, and were athletic leaders in volleyball, basketball, track, and cheerleading.

“There was a constant expectation of excellence,” Crystal emphasized. “There was always this [question]: ‘Is that the best you can do? Have you really done your best, given your best? You were always living up to their expectations. I can’t imagine anything more fabulous than that.” The women in their lives were role models who shaped the direction of their future. “They were so proud of this presentation that they were making to society,” said Janice.

Dorothy Mason Brown, the chair of the Red Rose Cotillion and a community organizer in Tacoma, explained the significance of the event in a Tacoma News Tribune article from 1975: “Our goal is to introduce a charming and graceful young woman who has worked hard toward goals of cultural development, refinement, responsibility and a more productive way of life.” (The painting of Dorothy Mason Brown by artist Jonathan Case is displayed at McMenamins Elks Temple.)

 

When it was time to decide what university to attend, Crystal, Arvella, and Janice had many options open to them. After considering numerous schools, including Spelman, the Historically Black College for women in Atlanta, Georgia, they decided they wanted to stay closer to home, at least to begin with. Crystal and Janice went to Seattle University and Arvella went to the University of Washington.

Through the strong support and preparation provided by their families and community members, these accomplished young women had many prospects open to them. The example of motivation and innovation came from the enterprising men in the Black community, as well. While women founded the Unique and Social Club, among other community organizations, Black men in Tacoma established the Caballeros Club in 1957. The founding members mortgaged their homes to purchase the building for the club, Crystal explained, “because there was nowhere for Black men to go.” Crystal remembers being at many social events at that club as a child, including Christmas parties and fashion shows. Today, it is called the Jay Gibson’s Caballeros Club, named for Crystal’s uncle, who was one of its original founders.

Growing up with such a resilient sense of self-esteem and fulfillment, Crystal was protected from the reality of not having much money. Regarding all the activities she took part in, Crystal said, “You would have thought we were rich…I did not know we did not have money until I got ready to go to college.”

At the Red Rose Cotillion, social graces, character, and achievement were celebrated. Families proudly introduced their girls in a grand procession as they curtsied and made their debut. Dinner, champagne toasts by parents, and a father and daughter waltz rounded out the elaborate evening.

A description from the Tacoma News Tribune in 1975 read, “The young ladies were dressed in white gowns and carried snowballs of white chrysanthemums and red roses. After the formal promenade, the girls performed an old-fashioned dance while carrying parasols.”

Crystal’s date for the cotillion was Justin Price, she recalled. She had met him at a church conference and invited him to be her escort for this special event. “I wanted to take him because he had the biggest, coolest Afro.” Arvella remembered her high school boyfriend’s reaction when he saw her all dressed up. “He said, ‘I didn’t know you could look this good.’ I was so mad!” she recalled with a laugh.

After 1975, the women of the Unique and Social Club eventually retired the Red Rose Cotillion. Crystal’s generation was ready to venture beyond Tacoma to pursue education and careers. As Crystal, Janice, and Arvella returned to their communities later on, each still cherishes their connections with the women who created the cotillion. “I was just so proud to be part of the Black community and to be associated with these women,” said Crystal.  “I really felt like someone had just given us the secret to fabulousness.” It is clear that Crystal, Arvella, and Janice definitely found it.

Special thanks to Crystal Wright, Janice Smith, and Arvella Roberts for their gracious interview.

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