The Lost History of Black Cotillions
Last summer Miya Carey slid into the satin-and-lace history of African-American cotillions
When her academic advisor told Miya Carey C’11 that her daughter was taking part in a debutante program in Essex County, the 21-year-old history major from East Windsor, N.J., wanted to know more. Carey’s curiosity led to a $3,000 fellowship that enabled her to conduct research last summer on the cultural significance of African-American cotillions, or debutante balls, in the first half of the 20th century.
The practice of formally presenting young women to polite society with an ornate ball is well documented among privileged white Americans, but Carey says historians have largely overlooked black cotillions. “There’s nothing specifically written about them,” she says. “This is something that’s not really talked about that much. It makes it even better to research.”
Carey says she was surprised to learn that young African-American women were less interested in using cotillions as a platform from which to search for potential husbands. “It was not as major a focus as I thought it was going to be,” says Carey, who did her research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the National Archives and Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center in Washington, D.C.
Carey intends to use her work, underwritten by the inaugural Leavell-Oberg Summer Fellowship to inform her senior thesis (she plans to graduate in May with specialized honors in history). The title: “Introduction to Polite Society: African-American Cotillions as a Model of Racial Uplift in Mid-20th Century New York City and Washington, D.C.”
“The basic argument is that cotillions were a way for wealthy and middle-class blacks to demonstrate their achievements, and they did it in many different ways,” she says. “If you look at cotillion programs and look at what the girls said they wanted to do, a lot of them said they wanted to go into professional fields like medicine or teaching or law.”
The fellowship honors history professor Perry Leavell, who retired in 2008 after 41 years at Drew, and his wife, Barbara Oberg, the general editor of the Thomas Jefferson Papers at Princeton University. Leavell acolyte and Morgan Stanley executive director Gerry Lian C’77 launched the fellowship as a way to honor his former professor, and to date, his appeals to alumni have raised more than $118,000. – Christopher Hann