October is American Archives Month: Celebrating the Book Lover’s Club by Mateo Mérida
When thinking of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the mass quarantine that it created, a distinctive memory for hundreds of millions of people around the world is the development of new hobbies, and wider connections made with other online communities. Interestingly, about 100 years ago, the alternative to making connections surrounding interests and hobbies was in the formation of clubs unique to the regions and localities of respective communities. One such community, unique to mid-20th century Charleston, may be found in the “Book Lover’s Club,” founded by African American women in 1927.
Ultimately, the core interest of the Book Lover’s Club (BLC) was in “improving the literary ability of its members” and to “obtain a high standard of literary culture.” To accomplish this, the BLC met once a month, rotating hosting duties among the members. There could only be sixteen total members at any given time. Meetings were generally consistent in their structure. They started off collectively reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the song of the BLC (to the melody of ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ or ‘Oh Christmas Tree’), collected membership dues, and discussed upcoming events. With the formalities out of the way, the Club would then share their book reviews, discuss certain readings for the month, recite poetry, and watch film reels together. Oftentimes, the hostess would provide dinner or hors d’oeuvres.
The group itself was very structured. The 1927 constitution outlines the group’s leadership, which included a president, vice-president, treasurer, and secretary, as well as the election process, which relied on a closed ballot vote to select club members to fill those positions. Similarly, a maximum number of 16 club members in the group at any given time was set.
While the club’s focus was in refining the intellectual and cultural proficiency of its members, it was well known for its community involvement. In the 1960’s, members held a contest with a local high school to select the best essay, as well as made annual donations to the Boy and Girl Scouts in their communities.
Club members were well respected as intellectual representatives of African American women in Charleston and were approached by people in Pennsylvania to participate in a project celebrating African American Womanhood. They also were approached to help jump start a now defunct newspaper known as the Charleston Inquirer.
The Book Lover’s Club ultimately came to an end in 1979. As early as January 1964, the Club was marred with attendance issues, in the midst of the general social upheaval and turmoil of the 1960’s. Still, the friendships that were established by the Book Lover’s were what made the group so important and so personal to its members. They prepared gifts for each other for Christmas, sent letters when the loved ones of their members were sick, and even put it in their constitution that if a member passed away, then the treasurer was implored to use group funds to buy flowers.
In a poem written by one of the members for the 21st anniversary celebration of the Club, Naomi B. Aden wrote to memorialize the importance of the BLC to herself. “I, with others did timely invent / Sacred meetings of culture and good cheer / For our lives while traveling here.” Given the resurgence of hobbying across the world today, and the return to a new normal to rebuild or create new social connections, the efforts of clubs like the BLC are especially relatable to many.