Book clubs are the social hubs these days for women who enjoy a good read followed by an intelligent discourse. Add wine with the words and the club can continue for years. Take for example the group of African American women in St. Louis whose book club started in 1907, long before Oprah’s Book Club ignited the nation’s interest in the magic of a well-written story.
“The ladies who started the club were pretty much educators. Over the years, we got away from largely teachers. We saw other professions represented,” Theresa Stuart said.
Marguerite Grandelious and the members of The Booklovers Club in St. Louis are the graciously steadfast keepers of a literary tradition started by Carrie Bowles and Josephine Stevens who enjoyed reading and started inviting friends to meet and discuss the books they read. The group grew from seven to 17 and since the early 1930’s membership has held at 25.
“They met in their homes because there was no alternative at that time,” explained Grandelious, who serves on the club’s history committee. “It was very genteel with tea and cookies served. Their focus included cultural and social events, and the books they read covered a wide range of subjects and interests. They were representatives and spokespeople in the community.”
During those years, St. Louis was home to an elegant African American enclave known as The Ville. It was within the boundaries of that racial respite that The Booklovers gathered to do what laws once prevented Black Americans from experiencing: the joy of reading.
Nina Smiley Wilkins joined The Booklovers in 1975. “My mother was a member, and she was an educator,” Wilkins said. “I was an English major. To this day, the women are bright and interesting as they have been all along. That was the prerequisite…that you just love to read.”
This is not a television sitcom book club where the conversation is more about the latest fashions than the winners of the National Book Review. “We discovered notes from a meeting in 1935 and the ladies were reading a book about democracy and its failures,” Grandelious shared. “The book explored the idea that our schools, churches, government have failed. As I was reading that, I thought about what has been happening today in our society.”
Members dare not wait until the day of the meeting to start the book and hope for a “slap-dash” discussion. The meeting includes a host and a presenter who essentially “teaches” the book. The robust conversation is inspiring and can be a bit challenging admits Wanda Ware. “After one of my first meetings I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to stay in this group, I’m going to have to step up,’” she says.
The Club is adapting to the technology of the 21st century with plans to collect the programs and records from 1907 to 1957 and digitize them. The Missouri History Museum also holds some of the Club’s historical documents. “The ladies then had enough foresight to record their history,” Elizabeth Hines notes.
From one century to the next, the members are credited with meeting continuously and including the community in its history. Every five years The Booklovers hold a public book club meeting in collaboration with Washington University, the prestigious liberal arts university in St. Louis. They invite a famous author to present. Jabari Asim is the guest presenter for the 110th anniversary celebration slated for April 1, 2017. Asim wrote “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, And Why”, and he is the author of several children’s books.
The story of The Booklovers Club is worthy of its own tome. Stuart remembers leafing through some of the club’s impressive records with another member. “We sat on her third floor because it was fascinating reviewing what these women were doing. And, we thought, ‘we have to continue our legacy.’”