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African American debutante cotillion: Rooted in community, meaningful to families’ histories

You may have heard about a debutante cotillion before. They started back in the 1700 as part of British nobility. Young women were paraded in front of eligible suitors for potential marriage as seen in the popular show, Bridgerton.

But a traditional African American debutante cotillion is different.

Independent curator and cotillion historian Taylor Bythwood Porter has spent hours researching the topic and her celebrated exhibit in California honors Black cotillion culture. She says the custom, which has been deemed exclusive by some, is rooted in community that reaches back to the earliest days of the African American experience.

In Chicago The Links Cotillion has been a part of the city’s Black community for more than 60 years. As it has been for the Leak family. Spencer Leak Jr is the third generation operator of Chicago area’s highly revered Leak and Sons’ funeral homes.

“I was an escort in ‘87 and I did so well I was fought over, and they wanted me back in ’88,” Spence Leak said. “I remember who I was escort for, her name is Debbie Conley. I just remember seeing her father, her father was a minister. A very tall man, vibrant man. But when Debbie came out, he just melted. And I was 16 at the time, and I said, ‘If I ever have a daughter, this is what I want for my daughter.’”

And so now 36 years later, he’s here, at ballroom dance rehearsals again, with his daughter Emma Spencer, who’s exposure to cotillions has inspired her.

“I think when I was little, I also saw some of the brilliance from these people. They’re people who are going to the top colleges in the world. There are people excelling and participating in jobs that people don’t want to see African American people in, but here we are, thriving,” she said. “And getting to see that at such a young age was so empowering for me. And I knew from that young age that I wanted to be that image for another fifth grader, for another middle schooler.”

For Felicia Perkins and her family, passing along the debutante tradition to her daughter Fallon, is as much a privilege as it is a priority.

“She’s done all this work as an exceptional student,” Felicia Perkins said. “It’s a milestone that we’ll never forget.”

“I saw a lot of my friends do cotillion and I was like, I want to do it too,” Fallon Perkins said. “I think the whole ball and being presented to society, the Black community is very monumental. And I think it’s a great way to tie up my high school years and just do something with my best friends and have a great time.”

The cotillion helps set up African American young women for more than social success.

“In 1890 only about 30 Black women had their bachelor’s degree, but by the early 1900s that number rose to over 200,” Porter said. “So again, it’s because of these organizations really encouraging women to go to school and raising money, providing scholarships for these women to go to school and in turn they’re giving back.”

This Black tradition gained national attention, when singer Nat King Cole presented his 17 year old daughter Carol at a ball in Los Angeles. It was attended by president John F Kennedy, the first sitting president to appear at a Black cotillion. Just an example of the opportunities afforded for resources and networking for their future.

And it is not just a life-changing moment for the ladies. These young men are required to attend rehearsals, valuable workshops over a span of four to five months.

With just two more months left to prepare, things are getting real for escort Aiden Hart.

“I feel like me and my partner are learning it really well, I feel like we’re one of the best,” he said. “I’m excited to do it. There’s a history to it. Everyone who’s done it before, they’re very proud. … I’m sure I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”

Risa Davis is the president the Chicago chapter of the Links Inc. an international women led service organization, aimed at uplifting people of African descent around the world.

She says sharing these stories is important for reasons far beyond the ballroom.

“it’s just a story that people need to see. Because there are so many things out that that would suggest that these children are not on the right path, not focused,” she said.

“I think it’s really interesting to look at cotillions also in a way where you’re thinking about the economics and these things like they’re utilizing Black choreographers to teach the dances, they’re utilizing Black florists, they’re connecting with news sources, you know the Black newspapers, which is really important historically and still to this day,” Porter said.

The debutante cotillion has served as life changing event for the men and women in WGN’s Micah Materre family.  Starting with her mother Jeanne, who’s now 93-years-old. Her father Louis, presented both her and her sister Gloria to society. Her son and nephew both served as escorts. As well as her nieces, cousins and even her own daughter, who missed out on her debut, because of the pandemic.

For many, the debutante tradition is in our blood, as is our commitment to service and philanthropy and it will live on through the next generations of our family.

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