Ongoing Exhibit: The Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club: Fostering Civic Engagement, Intellectual Exchange and Female Solidarity

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Members of the Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club (circa 1949)

In celebration of Women’s History Month, members of the Avery Research Center staff have organized an exhibit titled, The Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club: Fostering Civic Engagement, Intellectual Exchange and Female Solidarity. Located on the first floor, adjacent to the SMART classroom, the exhibit highlights the Phillis Wheatley Club’s commitment to female empowerment and social activism in the Charleston community by drawing its content from Avery’s archival holdings on the club, which includes: manuscripts, correspondence, printed material and ephemera.

The Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club was one of the earliest black women’s clubs in Charleston and was founded on December 5th, 1916 by Jeanette Keeble Cox. Mrs. Cox was the wife of Benjamin F. Cox, the first African American principal of the Avery Normal Institute. The mission of the club was “to promote interest in literary and community work and to lift others as they climb to higher heights.”The club’s meetings were held bi-monthly at the members’ homes and monthly dues were ten cents. Members of the club were lovers of literature and stated among their goals the promotion of self-expansion by establishing a forum for discussion of literary works, and contributing to the welfare of the Charleston community. At the time the club was founded, it was natural for it to be named after Phillis Wheatley—a former slave woman who, in the 18th century, became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poetry in English.

The Phillis Wheatley clubwomen sponsored events that brought international and nationally known blacks to the local Charleston community. Some of the club’s most famous guests were W.E.B. DuBois, Marian Anderson, Mary McCleod Bethune, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Charleston natives, Edwin Harleston and Edmund Jenkins. Additionally, throughout its nearly one hundred year history, the club has raised funds and donated its services to support organizations such as Jenkins Institute for Children, the NAACP, the YMCA, the YWCA– as well as local Charleston schools, writers and artists. Thus “while quietly expanding their opportunities in the public sphere and promoting higher education for women, ”the club performed numerous social services for Charleston’s black community— in addition to “providing social contact for individual black women in the city.”3

This exhibit is free and open to the public.

Footnotes

1. Wall text, The Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club, Avery Research Center, Charleston, S.C.

2. Johnson, Joan Marie. 2004. Southern ladies, new women: Race, region, and clubwomen in South Carolina, 1890-1930. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

3. Jones, Cherisse Renee. 1997. “Loyal women of Palmetto”: Black women’s clubs in Charleston, South Carolina: 1916-1965. Thesis (M.S.)–University of Charleston (South Carolina) and The Citadel, 1997.

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