Another variety of high society

Baltimore Glimpses

December 11, 1990|By GILBERT SANDLER

IT IS A NIGHT of taffeta and tuxedos, soft music, champagne, corsages, polite introductions and warm embraces. Everywhere, young women and young men of college age, accompanied by their parents, are seated at tables and talking; others are dancing.

This a "coming out" party in Baltimore during the Christmas season in the 1920s. The children of wealthier families are being introduced to one another. This elegant exercise in high society has the mood and ambience of the cotillions white Baltimoreans can read about in The Sunday Sun. The difference here is that this one is black.

"It was called the Half Century Ball," according to Elizabeth McCard Shipley, a 1928 graduate of Smith College. "It took that name because the families invited into membership were members of the Half Century Club." Shipley recalls that many of the young men and women at the ball were students of Harvard, Radcliffe, Oberlin, Wellesley and Smith. The ball had the appearance of white Baltimore society's Bachelor's Cotillion.

Because none of the downtown hotels -- the Emerson, the Southern, the Lord Baltimore -- were open to blacks, the Half Century balls were held at either the Odd Fellows Hall (McCulloh and Lanvale) or the Elks Club (McMechen and Madison).

The families in the membership of the now-defunct Half Century Club included the Hawkins, Wrights, Youngs, Masons, McCards, Fitzgeralds. They were professionals for the most part -- doctors, lawyers, educators. Many were graduates of Howard and Lincoln universities in addition to colleges in the Ivy League and "Seven Sisters." Many of the families in the club lived in the area of Druid Hill Avenue near North Avenue.

Jessie Fitzgerald Lemon, a 1938 Wellesley graduate, recalls hearing about the traditional ceremony at the Half Century Ball. "First, the father would dance with his daughter, in an exclusively father-daughter dance. Then, the young men would be invited to cut in, and there would be a young people's dance. Then, the fathers and mothers would join as couples, and all -- daughters and partners and parents -- would dance together. It was the VTC loveliest of occasions and in the best of taste."

The grand days of the Half Century Ball are gone; the last ball was held in the early 1930s. "The Depression was partly responsible," Shipley says.

"But black society, like white, was in turmoil, and the young people were in . . . rebellion against the idea of class. They have long rejected the idea as elitist."

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