(Featured photo is of the 2022 Cotillion. Photo courtesy Bianca Jones)
What started with a group of teenage girls seeking mentorship from a beloved teacher has become a rite of passage for many young women in Augusta and has impacted multiple generations.
The Rosa T. Beard Debutante Club marks its 60th anniversary in 2023.
One of its founding members can vividly recall its formation.
“We noticed that Mrs. Beard had been working with and planning and constructing different activities and ideas with the young men in our class. They formed the Rocket Club. We noticed they were doing so many things and we thought ‘we don’t have anything like that,’” said Valorie Tillman Davis, who was in ninth grade at what was then A.R. Johnson Junior High School where Rosa Beard was her teacher.
That led Davis and several of her friends to approach Beard and ask her to form a group for them — to mentor and lead them. They covered a variety of topics in their after-school meetings such as etiquette and social graces, how to conduct themselves in public, how to dress and how not to dress.
The teens’ request came in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. According to Beard’s daughter, the Rev. Cheryl Beard, who serves as the organization’s CEO, the young women wanted help in navigating life in a changing world.
“They specifically chose her to ask for her coaching with them to groom them for the society to come,” she said.
Davis said Rosa T. Beard was more than just a teacher to them, she became a trusted role model. Often the girls would have more personal questions that Beard would tell them to save for a later time when she could talk with them one-on-one. They grew to know that they could go to her and voice their problems or concerns.
In addition to their regular meetings, the members went beyond their club and outside the school, volunteering in the community such as at the orphanage that existed in Augusta at that time.
And they built the foundation of the organization that remains today.
Currently, high school juniors and seniors meet twice a month. One week is for a business meeting and workshop; the other is for community engagement, community service or a time for the teens to bond. Providing relationship building activities is especially important, Cheryl Beard said.
“This generation does not know how to react beyond their phones,” she said.
They also participate in events such as breast cancer walks and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade; they assist with the James Brown Family Foundation’s annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Christmas toy drive.
And of course, there’s the annual cotillion which began in February 1965 with an initial group of nine debutantes.
“It was wonderful,” Davis said of that first year. “We learned how to waltz and dance.”
Each of the debutantes wore a long white gown and had to ask a boy to serve as their escort for the event. Davis said she didn’t know of anyone. She didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, but her mother knew someone.
Davis said there were some in the community who didn’t want African Americans to hold a cotillion in the mid-1960s. Later in life, she learned that threats had been made to prevent it from happening, but she was oblivious to that on the big night at the National Guard Armory.
“We didn’t realize we were making history. We knew there wasn’t anyone else to do it,” she said.
Davis said she was grateful for those two years. When they ended, some of the girls went to T.W. Josey High School while others went to Laney.
“Mrs. Beard could’ve let it stop there,” Davis said, but she didn’t. She carried it on for a new group of young women.
And while the young women went to different schools, Davis said she made lifelong friends, including two who became her children’s godmothers.
In its early years, it was simply known as the Debutante Club. It was later sponsored by the Augusta Adult Society, Inc. It was renamed in Rosa Beard’s honor in 1990-1991. Mrs. Beard died in December 2010.
More than 30 years after its inception, Toni Dean entered the elite group which has seen women who would become college presidents, doctors, lawyers, educators and businesswomen.
Dean, the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History program manager, was a student at John S. Davidson Fine Art Magnet School when her invitation to join arrived one school day in 1987.
Young women were selected for membership by women in the community – educators and other who could vouch for them, Dean said.
One of four sisters, Dean had watched her older sister participate and wanted the same experience that she had.
She recalled the speakers who touched on topics ranging from health to etiquette, and she remembers the community projects of visiting nursing homes and dressing up for Halloween and visiting children in area hospitals.
The first year as a member she was a sub-deb. Those teenagers all wore the same pink gowns to the cotillion, while the debutantes wore white gowns of their choosing. While the cotillion was a highlight, there was more to the experience than the one night, Dean said.
“The focus wasn’t really the cotillion but on being a servant to the community,” said Dean.
By the time Dean was part, Beard had brought in other women to serve as advisers, and Dean said she was grateful for the role they played in her life.
“When we interacted with them, it was positive. They wanted us to have a successful life,” said Dean.
Success didn’t necessarily equate to monetary wealth, but that they had an education and a career that sustained them. Dean would go on to receive degrees at Howard University and Temple University and work in cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. before the pandemic brought her back to Augusta.
“They taught me the importance of supporting other women,” she said. “Community service is part of having success — to reach out and interact and make things better or enjoyable.”
Dr. Taylor Mitchell Jones is another woman who followed a family tradition of being part of the debutante club. Her mother, Beverly Wilson Mitchell, was in the club in 1981.
“As I got older, my friends from church and the community were also in debutantes. I always wished that I would follow in their footsteps. I was always told it was a rite of passage for young women in our community. When I joined, I gained so much more including a sisterhood, mentorship, a love and appreciation for our community, and a greater understanding of myself,” said Jones, an obstetrician/gynecologist who was Ms. Debutante in 2011 and president of the club her senior year at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School.
Jones considers it an honor to have been part of the group that impacted her so much.
The traditions of community service, scholarship and building relationships continue 60 years later after that initial group of teens went to their teacher.
“First and foremost, I gained a fabulous sisterhood from my time as a debutante,” wrote Bianca Jones, a 2022 graduate of John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School in an email. “Not only did I connect with brilliant young ladies from other schools in the area, but I also formed lifelong connections with the amazing women who served as our advisors, and especially CEO, Reverend Cheryl J. Beard. The lessons I have learned and conversations I have had with her and our other advisors will always be valuable to me.”
And while the cotillion isn’t the entire focus of the club, Jones said it was an experience she’ll never forget.
“I do not think I could talk about my involvement with the Rosa T. Beard Debutante Club without talking about the beloved cotillion. What young girl doesn’t want to dress up in a beautiful gown and dance with all of her friends? The cotillion is such a special piece of my high school time as well as the community in Augusta, and I am so grateful to have been a part,” according to Jones.
Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for the newsletter here.
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