The history of the Original Illinois Club is making its debut at Amistad Research Center.
A ledger book dating from 1930 to 1949 is the oldest account of the social and pleasure club in the new collection, which was coordinated by President Tracey L. Thibodaux. The ledger contains detailed lists of officers, committees, members, and debutantes. Membership dues, a hand-script copy of the club’s charter and articles of incorporation are also included.
Most of the records date from the 1970s and later. They document much of the club’s annual planning and execution for its cotillion and ball. However, the bulk of the collection documents the club’s Executive Committee, Debutante Committee and the Original Illinois Club’s monthly meetings. Included in the files are agendas and minutes; correspondence detailing yearly planning for the balls and debutantes; and annual selections of kings and queens.
“Next year the Original Illinois Club will celebrate its 125th anniversary. In recognition of this, Amistad is honored to begin preserving the club's organizational records. They provide not only a rich view into Mardi Gras history in general, but into the often-overlooked aspect of African American participation in the annual Carnival and debutante balls,” Christopher Harter, Deputy Director of Amistad Research Center, said.
“President Tracey L. Thibodaux, Andrew Harris and Chris Hammond were extremely helpful in assisting the Center in evaluating and selecting records to preserve.”
The club has alternately been known as the Illinois Social and Pleasure Club Inc. and Illinois Club. Its first meeting was called sometime after March 21, 1895 – Mardi Gras - by Wiley Knight, a Tennessee transplant. Knight had briefly worked in Chicago. He founded Knight’s School of Dancing for men and women of color in Uptown New Orleans on Cadiz Street near Camp Street. According to CreoleGen, the genealogy website, Knight wanted to teach dance and pass on traditional social customs. He would eventually be known as the “Father of Negro Society in New Orleans.”
During the early years of the Illinois Club, its balls started at 10 p.m., according to CreoleGen. This late start allowed its membership of butlers and maids time to complete their jobs. It was in the 1920s that Illinois Club became more exclusive, as African-Americans entered the business class and joined the swelling professional ranks. Soon, a splinter emerged. A group of former members organized themselves as Young Men Illinois Club Inc. To distinguish itself, members of the founding group began referring to themselves and their group as the Original Illinois Club.
In this new collection, Ball Committee correspondence and reports detail planning from 1984 to 2005. Records regarding debutantes are extensive in the 1980s and later. Included are applications, biographical sketches, yearly lists, debutante reception programs and invitations, orientation schedules and handbooks.
Photographs primarily depict the myriad balls and royal courts from the 1970s to the 1990s. There are occasional reproductions of early photographs from the 1920s in this collection, including one of Knight. Additionally, there are DVD films, digital photos and scripts for balls dating from 1987 to 2013. Of note are ball souvenir programs from 1967 to 2019 and various news clippings and articles detailing the history of the club.
The collection is currently open for research as the Amistad staff work to further organize the materials.