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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016 12:09 am

Studying for 77 years

Upcoming event celebrates the oldest black book club

Theresa Faith Cummings, a 40-year member, is being honored along with four other longtime members.
PHOTO BY DIANNE CROWN
Seventy-seven years ago on a cold winter night in February, seven African-American women met in a home on Williams Street to form a study group that would continue to this day. Known as the oldest black book club in Springfield, the James Weldon Johnson Study Guild meets bimonthly for programs of “discussions, Negro accomplishments, book reviews, dramatics, music, Negro history research, and fun,” as the group’s historical notes say.

On Nov. 12 the JWJ Study Guild will host a semiformal dinner co-hosted by the Ebony Royale Red Hatters at the Panther Creek Country Club. The evening will include dancing, a wide range of music and spoken word performances, a silent auction and program to honor five members for their longevity and service in the group. Current JWJ President Theresa Cummings, a 40-year member, is one of the honorees.

“Proceeds from the evening will be used to award scholarships to young authors and artists, and to put local authors’ books in area libraries and other public meeting areas. We want to give authors exposure,” said Cummings last month in the dining room of her Springfield home.

Since its first meeting just six months before the start of World War II in 1939, the group has met in homes, emphasizing arts, literature and the contributions of African-Americans through member book reviews and such notable speakers as Marian Anderson. The group strives to raise awareness of African-American contributions and leadership in the community. Again from the group’s notes: “We realize that it is from our own people and those vitally interested in our history and our present welfare that we learn the true facts of our existence.”

In that spirit of perseverance and truth, one of the most beautiful items in the silent auction is a handmade quilt depicting the Underground Railroad and showing the secret symbols used to communicate safe haven, directions and warnings.

Although ticket sales have closed for this first celebratory dinner, the next public event is the group’s annual African-American Read-in at Zion Baptist Church in February. There, hundreds of arts, literature and history enthusiasts will gather to celebrate African-American history and the many, varied contributions of local and visiting guest authors and artists. And if you see a few dozen women of a certain age wearing red hats, you may be getting a glimpse of the Ebony Royale Red Hatters.

“It’s a fun group,” says spokesperson Mary Jane Forney, who is co-chairing the James Weldon Johnson Study Guild dinner at Panther Creek. “We meet monthly for lunches, musical theater, plays, concerts and some spicy things such as going to the casino, even the churchgoing women and two ministers’ wives,” says Forney with a smile. “We have a delightful time with each other. We started three years ago to celebrate women turning 50. We wear purple attire and red hats. But on your birthday, you reverse it and wear red, with a purple hat.”

So it’s no wonder the two groups, led by two women who have been friends, volunteers and co-workers for years, are teaming up to host the dinner party to raise money for projects and honor Cummings and  Clemmie Webster, a 55-year member, Willo Wilson, 54 years, and Juanita Barton and Barbara Gleghorn, 45 years each. They have a lot to celebrate.

Membership is open to both groups. Bids are still being accepted for silent auction items, and contributions in support of the group’s projects are welcome. For more information about the groups, November program or African-American Read-In, contact Mary Jane Forney at 217-698-5388 after 6:30 p.m.

DiAnne Crown is a local feature writer and longtime friend of Illinois Times.

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