Just a few weekends ago, one of the oldest African-American women’s book clubs in the country celebrated its 110th anniversary.
Started in 1908 by Mrs. Mary Simpson, the wife of a Virginia Union University Latin professor, the Treble Clef and Book Lovers’ Club has a rich history: it has hosted readings by the likes of author James Baldwin, raised money for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts during the Civil Rights Movements, and established the first kindergarten for black residents in Richmond Public Schools during the days of segregation. It’s also the oldest cultural organization for African American women in Virginia.
Initially, the members were married ladies whose husbands were the faculty of VUU. Today, the Treble Clef and Book Lovers’ Club is composed of single and married women who hold prominent positions in education, business, and health. Many are professional musicians and published authors. The club presently supports a new generation of readers and music lovers on Virginia Union’s campus by awarding endowed scholarships to VUU’s Fine Arts Department.
The weekend’s celebration featured speeches by current president Mrs. Thelma Y. Pettis, a figure as kind and wisened as the late Maya Angelou. Author and spoken word poet Dr. Peyton McCoy was the Master of Ceremonies and rapped with the precision of Nikki Giovanni and the jazz of Gwendolyn Brooks. Music was presented by local artists Mr. J. D. Young, Dr. W. Weldon Hill of Virginia State University’s Department of Music, and Mrs. Joye B. Moore, who will perform at the Richmond Jazz Festival this August. There was also a dance routine to Mary J. Blige’s cover of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by WWBT/NBC12 Vice President and General Manager Kym Grinnage and his wife, Kyle, with moves reminiscent of 70s partner dancing in Brooklyn. “John Travolta didn’t invent ‘The Hustle’, you know,” Kym Grinnage said with a smile.
The Treble Clef and Book Lovers’ Club is a group of 20 to 25 women who can join by invitation only and boasts members with a wide range of backgrounds and occupations, including former Richmond Public Schools superintendent Lucille M. Brown and Adrienne Whitaker, director of business development at Greater Richmond ARC.
Wialillian Howard, a Professional Development Executive for the City of Richmond, was invited to a dinner meeting a few months ago and was amazed by what this group of women was doing in the community. “I admire the backgrounds, achievements and dedication of the women who have refused to let such an achievement die. An unmatched commitment has centered the members, it seems, and I am simply honored to meet and know them,” she said.
A transplant from Charlotte, North Carolina, Howard is constantly amazed by Richmond’s rich African-American history. “Richmond has its own ‘hidden figures.’ Hidden to me because I’ve been here nearly seven years and did not know these women existed until I was invited to their meeting. All of Richmond should know about the women of the Treble Clef,” she said.
If Howard accepts membership into the club, she and other members will discuss one book over the full calendar year, taking each monthly meeting to discuss a different aspect of the book. Past books have included Little Rock Girl 1957 by Shelley Tougas; The Help by Kathryn Stockett; Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg; and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Gov. Ralph Northam, and Mayor Levar Stoney were among the high-profile Virginia politicians to reach out and wish these women a heartfelt congratulations.
“From writers to musicians to the theatre, Treble Clef has made a mark on cultural understanding in Richmond by embracing others who share a love for literature and the arts while expanding its reach into religion, medicine and other areas of interest,” wrote Sen. Kaine in a letter to club president Pettis.
As Richmond continues to grapple with its divided past, it’s important that we take the time to celebrate a groundbreaking intellectual and cultural group that continues making history.