One by one, the three 2015 miss debutantes twirled past the tables filled with wide-eyed junior high school girls. The debs, in their ruffled ball gowns with lace bodices and sateen-finished full skirts, full-length gloves and tiaras, imparted a regal grace to the humble Westside church banquet hall.
They took their place at the head of the room while their scholastic and civic achievements were announced. Lady Stephanie Simmons, president of Les Femmes Douze—or the Ladies Twelve, as they refer to themselves—tells the young women that this is a sisterhood that lasts a lifetime.
“The young ladies I’ve met have become my daughters,” Simmons says.
It’s the March debutante orientation social of Les Femmes Douze, a group that has helped local girls attend college while teaching them poise, grace and civic duty. It has operated for decades in a city that knows very little about them, what they do and how they have directly contributed to building the black middle class.
Introducing a debutante—a woman between the ages of 16 and 20—in front of prominent society, whether at a cotillion, gala or ball, is a tradition that goes back centuries and spans across cultures. It originally symbolized a girl reaching the age of marriageability, and her debut, or public introduction, was a way for her to find a class-appropriate husband. It’s a ritual that lives on, though the meaning has changed over time.
Still, “cotillions” and “debutantes” are not terms that come readily to the minds of people in Las Vegas, even less so African-American ones. Les Femmes Douze and similar social-civic organizations are more common in the South and the East Coast, where, in Antebellum America, African-Americans could only freely participate in the culture organizations that they made.
Les Femmes Douze has operated for decades in a city that knows very little about them, what they do and how they have directly contributed to building the black middle class.
Before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans developed their own institutions, churches and business, and cotillion balls were social affairs that gave their young women exposure to culture. It was a way for them to build community and create traditions despite the indignities they faced in everyday life.
“The Cotillion,” an 1844 poem by Angelina Morris in which she describes her own experience as a debutante, is an early documentation of the ritual in black society. Cinderellas without our brooms/ The Ballroom looked elegant, and the band played waltzes and quadrilles. Colored New York/ danced in its finery, forgetting work/ insult and slavery in our land.
Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV, believes that cotillions came about to ensure a freeman’s legacy. The law then stated that if a free black married a slave, then any children of that union would also be enslaved. Parents needed to find a way for their children to meet and marry other free African-Americans.
“It makes sense because there were free portions of many cities,” White says. “New Orleans and Selma, Alabama, had a free black section. There were several cities with a free black population well before slavery ended.”
Barbara Kirkland, a retired educator and charter member of Les Femmes Douze, believes that as Southern and East Coast blacks made money and moved into the middle class, they began to mirror the social activities in the surrounding community. “The social structure in the South … is patterned after the social structure of the majority in the community,” she says.
Kirkland herself was a debutante in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1951. “My uncle’s fraternity sponsored a debutante cotillion ball or coming-out activity. I happened to be a relative of his, and so that was the one I was presented to,” she says.
When Kirkland graduated college in 1956, she came to Las Vegas to teach. A 1954 Ebony article titled “Negroes Can’t Win in Las Vegas” documented the deep segregation that eventually led to Nevada being labeled “the Mississippi of the West.” This was especially true in Las Vegas, Reno and Hawthorne. Although Las Vegas’ brand of systemic racism was not as violent or as embedded in law as it was in Southern states, vestiges of the Jim Crow South were alive and well. Segregated communities were the norm. Black entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Pearl Bailey would perform to packed ballrooms of white-only audiences and then be ushered quickly through the kitchen to accommodations in the historic Westside.
When Governor Grant Sawyer pushed through progressive civil rights policies and legislation that integrated Las Vegas public schools in the 1960s, it brought with it an influx of educated, middle-class blacks, people much like the women—a group of 12 educators and social workers—who started Les Femmes Douze.
“The auspice behind the program was to be able to expose [young black women] to a plethora of opportunities and experiences for professional and personal growth,” Simmons says, noting that in 1964, when the group began, black women were not permitted in many places.
Gwen Bennett-Jackson, who was married to a prominent pastor at the time, was the main facilitator of the group’s formation.
“Gwen called a group of us together and explained that there was something missing,” Kirkland says. “She explained that we needed to motivate and encourage and offer exposure to young ladies. So we all signed on to it, and that was the beginning.”
Eva G. Simmons, a co-founder of Les Femmes Douze and the mother of current president Stephanie Simmons, recalls the challenges they faced just to put on the first ball. Dubbed “A Winter Wonderland,” the fête was held in the Gold Room at the newly built Las Vegas Convention Center, because Strip hotels refused to host them.
“The county fathers were so afraid of this little black organization coming that close to the Strip,” Eva says. “We were required to [hire] security guards to make certain we didn’t tear anything up, and that we didn’t act like they thought black folks would act.”
College-educated women have lower unemployment and poverty rates than their less-educated peers. They are also more likely to be married and less likely to be living in their parents’ home. These are all middle-class values that the nonprofit civic group has believed in from the start. The first nine Les Femmes Douze debutantes went to secretarial and beauty schools. But more began expressing interest in four-year colleges and becoming professional women. Today’s debutantes go on to colleges such as Fisk, Spelman, Howard and Dartmouth, but most come back to live near their families in Las Vegas.
Daphne Whitson-O’Neal, who was a deb in 1984 and whose mother, Claudette Whitson, and daughter, Taylor O’Neal, were members of the group, remembers attending scholarship workshops and going on field trips to college campuses such as Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles.
“When I was younger,” says Whitson-O’Neal, “the college tours were the best. We would all take the Ray & Ross Transport Bus to California and tour colleges, with the trip culminating in Disneyland or other theme parks. It fostered a sisterhood, and you made lifelong friends with similar goals.”
“The women of Les Femmes Douze … see education as that one equalizer,” White says. “They are not class-conscious in selecting the girls. They give scholarships to young women so that they can further their education.”
Today’s aspiring debutante is held to a high standard. To be presented, she must be in good standing with her school with recommendations from a teacher and a community leader, have a GPA above 2.5, have no children, do 50 hours of community service and commit to attend the group’s meetings. In addition, she must also raise $700 in ad buys for the cotillion ball program. Anything more than $700 goes back to her for her college fund.
“We had girls sell as much as $10,000 in ads,” Simmons says, “and 85 percent of that money went back to them in scholarship. So it’s their own hustle.”
Beyond dance and dining-etiquette classes, the girls attend workshops such as “No Means No,” which gives them tools to understand sexual harassment and assault, and “The Law and You,” which gives them a forum with a member of law enforcement or the judiciary.
“In black communities, we are looking at how we talk to the kids,” White says. “It’s one thing when a white parent has a 16-year-old son and they tell them, ‘Now I want you to drive carefully.’ Well, black parents have to say that, plus they have to tell them, ‘This is the way you have to respond when a police officer pulls you over.’”
Les Femmes Douze is giving young women necessary life tools, White says, and helping them move up the socio-economic ladder. “I think it’s contributed greatly to the black middle class,” she says.
And this little group doing big things is getting some major recognition. This year, the Nevada State Senate Minority Leader, Aaron D. Ford, will present a proclamation to the group recognizing its work in Las Vegas. “For over 50 years, Les Femmes Douze has been a driving force for good in Las Vegas, and for the women who call this area home. They have [raised more than] half a million dollars for [education] … while raising cultural awareness, stressing the importance of higher education and encouraging fellowship among members,” Ford says.
For founding member Kirkland, Les Femmes Douze’s legacy is a testament to how individuals can create lasting change. “We were just a group of local women with no national connection to any other group or anything like that. I would like to see Les Femmes Douze continue to have a positive influence and to offer young ladies the opportunity to extend themselves.”