Sunday, 14 February 2016

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN? A Black History View of The Junior League

In 2003, when my sister-in-law told me that she had become a member of the Junior League of Atlanta, my first reaction was (in all seriousness), “They accept black members, now?” By ‘they,’ I meant all Junior Leagues.  Surprisingly, I also became a member soon thereafter; but more on that later.


Having been founded by New York debutantes, The Junior League had long cultivated an image of being full of WASP-y, soon-to-be or already married 'ladies who lunch'; and having a prevalent presence of pearls & pumps, and tea & twinsets. Films such as The Long Walk Home and The Help, have helped to strengthen that image. Yet, in my research, I have found that any exclusions were unwritten and quietly ‘understood.’

The reality is that, while the membership may have begun and remained being homogenous for its first, several decades, it is currently much more diverse. Today, more than 70% of the international membership works full time outside the home; and all ethnicities, faiths and sexual orientations are welcomed. The other reality is that from its inauguration, Junior League’s overall mission has been: to promote voluntarism, develop the potential of women, and improve communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.

In 1901, The Junior League was founded by Mary Harriman, the daughter of railroad industrialist, E.H. Harriman, who was still in her teens, and a student at Barnard College.

Mary Harriman, Junior League Founder

Mary, and three of her friends, were concerned about the plight of the migrant communities, who were living in squalid tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and they wanted to roll up their sleeves and truly help these people. 

Here is a 9-minute video that accurately depicts the conditions at that time:

Within two years, additional Leagues had been founded around the country, and members included more of Mary’s good friends, including a very young, Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a member in 1903.

By 1921, thirty Leagues had been formed, and The Association of Junior Leagues of America was established. Its first President was Dorothy Whitney Straight.

Dorothy Whitney Straight, First AJLA President

The Junior League has evolved into being one of the oldest, largest, and most effective women’s volunteer organizations in the world, encompassing more than 150,000 women, in 291 Leagues, in the US, Canada, Mexico and the UK. Together, they form The Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI), which officially acquired that name in 1985, when The Junior League of London was formed.  AJLI members range from being CEOs at home to CEOs of multinationals – and everything in between.

Some famous, Junior League members have been: Sandra Day O’Connor (first female Supreme Court Justice), Katharine Hepburn (Actress and Activist), Julia Child (Celebrity Chef), Eleanor Roosevelt (Activist and FLOTUS), Shirley Temple (Actress, UN Delegate, US Ambassador) , Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, Children’s and Animal Welfare Advocate), Jackie Kennedy (FLOTUS).

Some Famous, Junior League Members

“True to their mission, today’s Junior League members work at the forefront of social reform, tackling the toughest and most critical issues of the day—including childhood nutrition and obesity, human trafficking, foster care, juvenile justice, teen self-esteem, cybercrimes, literacy and the environment, among others—for the purpose of enhancing the social, cultural and political fabric of civil society.”

A Very Small Sample of Junior Community Programs & Fundraisers

Other reforms in which The Junior League has played a role, either in name or behind the scenes, are:
  • Access to vaccinations for children
  • Education and provision of healthy food and nutrition for children
  • Securing the right to vote for women
  • Providing access to the arts
  • Advancing literacy for children and adults
  • Building awareness for the inadequacies of the justice system for adults and juveniles
  • Establishing museums for children
  • Legislation to secure safe drinking water
  • Awareness for the problem of alcohol abuse


While there is no confirmation that any League’s By-laws banned certain ethnic and religious groups, AJLI remained fairly homogenous for almost 80 years. In 1978, diversifying the membership became a priority for The Junior League, with the adoption – despite some attempted dissent from a few groups in Southern states – of a statement by AJLA that they "reach out to women of all races, religions and national origins."  As a former, African-American President of The Junior League of San Francisco, Annette Harris, said: "The Junior League is not the all-American, upper-middle-class organization it was, even 30 years ago.  The idea of giving back to the community is not just for a particular class."

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a record of who the first, black Junior League member was, and where she was a member; nor who was the first, black League President, or were AJLI Board members.

Thankfully, the two, black AJLI Presidents have been well-documented.

The first one was Deborah Brittain, who served as AJLI President from 2000-02, and who has a most impressive resume.


Deborah Brittain, First, Black AJLI President

Reflecting upon her presidency, Deborah said that she “saw herself as the face of change [within Junior League].”
Deborah Brittain is currently a sustaining member of The Junior League of Greater Princeton. She joined The Junior League in 1986 and served two terms as President of The Junior League of Northern Virginia. She was elected to three terms on the AJLI Board—first as Area Director and representative for the board on the Nominating Committee, then as Vice-President and finally as the 2000-02 Association President during the Centennial year of the Association.
In 2012, Deborah retired as the Executive Vice President of Preod Corporation, a search firm that places seasoned business executives. She is a former advisory board member to The Dean of The Harvard Business School, a former board member of the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation and The Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. She is a life member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, The National Council of Negro Women and The Northern Virginia Urban League.
Currently, Deborah serves on the National Advisory Board of The Salvation Army, The New Jersey State Advisory Board of the Salvation Army and the Board of Trustees of Simmons College. She is the Associate Dean of the Scott-Hawkins Leadership Institute sponsored by The Links, Incorporated; and she serves on the AJLI Past Governance Advisory Committee.
Deborah holds a Master's Degree from the Simmons School of Social Work and a Bachelor's degree from Howard University.


Toni Freeman, Second Black AJLI President
Toni L. Freeman served as the second, African-American AJLI President from 2012-14, and is also a hot shot. As one Junior League President said about her, "When Toni is in the room, the room instantly gets cooler!" 

Toni has been a member of The Junior League of Charlotte, North Carolina since 1993, where her leadership roles included President and Vice President of Finance. Toni is also a past Treasurer of AJLI, and has served on numerous non-profit boards, such as Charlotte Women's Impact Fund, Habitat for Humanity, Women Executives for Community Services, and the YWCA of the Central Carolinas.

Professionally, Toni has held several, leadership positions, including Senior VP of Finance and Membership at the Charlotte Convention & Visitors Bureau, Corporate Associate VP at SunHealth (Premier), and her current role as Chief Operating Officer of The Mint Museum, which was North Carolina's first art museum and currently possesses one of the largest art collections in the Southeast. Previously, she served as the Director of Research and Evaluation at The Duke Endowment.


Gena Lovett, NYJL's First Black President

In between Deborah’s and Toni’s tenures, Mary Harriman’s founding New York Junior League (NYJL), elected its first, African-American President, Gena Lovett, in 2008. In addition to being NYJL’s President, Gena, is also a partner and COO of Alexandra Investment Management, a small hedge fund firm in New York. Additionally, since her presidency, she has launched her own fund of hedge funds shop, called Little Wolf Capital, that targets major, institutional investors.

According to the New York Times, Gena’s appointment was hailed by Junior League members as: "an historic choice for an organization still trying to shed its image as an exclusive haven for Upper East Side debutantes."


When my sister-in-law joined Junior League of Atlanta, she told me that there was a Junior League of London. Seeking to volunteer and to make more friends, I became an Active member in 2004.  Since then, I have made lifelong friends, served on many committees, held several co-chair positions, sat on the Board as Community VP, and now, am extremely honored to have become President-Elect (aka COO). 

This means that, in June of this year, I will become the President of the Junior League of London (JLL). In all honesty, this is a role I never expected to assume, for so many reasons. 

My friends, who still only know about the 'Junior League of old' are even more shocked, and often question why I am involved. Fair enough, but I am determined to dispel the myths; and, with the rest of the Board, be the embodiment of 'today's Junior League.'

2015-16 Junior League of London Board

Meanwhile, I am thrilled that I will not be the first, black President of JLL! That accolade goes to my fabulous friend, Monique Bahadur, who held the position during the 1998-99 League Year.

Zena with Monique Bahadur, JLL's First Black President

I have a very diverse group of JLL friends, and all of the black ones have been Committee Chairs or Board members, over the years, which is as it should be. Are we diverse enough? Probably not; but we’re definitely working on it.

with lovely JLL friends, Monique, Natasha, Sheree & Mickela

Last month, I attended the AJLI Winter Leadership Conference, where hundreds of Junior League Presidents-Elect attended, and I was very comforted to see that I was definitely not the “only woman of color” in the village.

with Myesha Waring Good, President-Elect of Douglas County, Georgia

In researching the content for this blog post, in addition to learning that there have been several, black Junior League Presidents and Board members, I also discovered a fact that makes me quite relieved and happy: No black woman had to protest or petition to become a member of The Junior League. Moving forward, the Junior League’s goal continues to be to build a membership that better reflects the communities in which it lives and serves, and to help make the world a better place.

Please take 2 minutes to watch this great video, which summarizes the Junior League quite well:

Sources: FORBES, AJLI, New York Times, Women’s E-news, Google