Three friends sit side by side on the plush stools in front of a brightly lit vanity mirror. One fussing with her hair, making sure that her freshly curled ringlets are pinned perfectly in place; another freshening up her blush, careful not to spill any of the powder on the sky blue dress her mother bought for her; the third reciting the lines of her speech over and over again, squeezing her eyes closed tightly on the sections she hadn’t quite memorized yet. These girls are getting ready for the debutante ball; hosted by Les Meres et Debutantes Club of greater Lansing.
Les Meres et Debutantes Club (French for The Mothers and Daughters Debutant Club) has been around for 52 years. In 1962, nine African-American women banded together to establish this club. Esther Abrams, Hortense Canady, Lela Eaton, Mattie Foxhall, Robbie Harris, Cathrine Harrison, Estella Saunders, Shirley Willsy and Dorothy Wilson all sought to fight against the times and make their vision a reality. “The club was organized at a time when white social clubs refused memberships to African-Americans,” says Annie Smith, a member of the organization. “These nine mothers (wanted) to present their daughters to society by preparing them to fulfill roles as productive young women.”
The Debutante Club has continued to uphold that mission. It is still to this day organized, operated and financed by mothers in the club. These women strive to help their daughters develop in all facets of life, including scholarship, service, social etiquette and establishing good morals. Different programs are held to make sure that each girl is developing in these areas. This club is the only one of its kind – the girls participate in a six year program, as opposed to the average one or two year programs that other clubs provide. They begin working with the girls in the 7th grade with mothers providing wisdom, guidance and expertise. The girls are mentored based on their professions, talents and skills. The lessons they learn from these women will stay with them throughout their entire lives.
When the program is completed and the girls reach the 12th grade, the mothers put together a showcase to display all of the girls’ hard work. Since its founding, the Debutante Club has hosted more than 500 debutantes in the greater Lansing area — that’s a lot of little ladies! Every year, the club aims to bring in girls to teach them not only about the ways of life, but also how to continue to grow into respectable women.
This club is about so much more than being able to wear a fancy Cotillion dress; the young women that complete this program are given tools for long-term success. In addition to what they learn in school, they are taught proper manners and how to conduct themselves in different social settings. They are also taught to serve their community with kindness and humility. Girls who participate in this club are given access to information on how to succeed in their chosen careers, and a key to life that will unlock so many doors for them. Les Meres et Debutantes Club has lasted for more than half of a century, and they have no plans of stopping their work any time soon.