—By Dino Robinson
For eleven years, in a setting of grace, charm, and beauty, the Norshore Twelve, Inc. played host to its annual cotillion to formally present the Debutante’s of the year. This event attracted hundreds, within the African American community in Evanston and on the north shore, to the downtown Chicago Sherman House throughout the 1960s. The yearly anticipated gala would not have taken place if it were not for the tireless efforts of Eleanor J. Frazier.
Not more than a month would pass after the yearly event that Eleanor Frazier would start the frantic process over again. Activities included scheduling, selecting costuming, distributing press releases, determining themes and music, rehearsals and mailing invitations to invite a new set of young women. By that time there was less than nine months left for preparation for the gala evening.
Eleanor, better known to most as “Brownie”, was barely out of college when she first approached the men of the Norshore Twelve during the summer of 1959 and said, “We need to do something for our young ladies like the Deltas and Snakes in Chicago.”
Brownie reflected on her debut through Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at the Emerson Street YMCA. “I did not know what a cotillion was then”. Brownie said, “But I remember Boots Avery, Billie Childs, Camilla Parham Harris, Julia Turner, Beverly Wilson and others and what they taught me in being a lady.” The Deltas then had a program that introduced young ladies into adulthood in a formal process that cumulated with an evening event.
Brownie also referred to the Snakes Cotillion in Chicago. “I remember Rita Robinson and Sissy Butler from Evanston” Brownie said, “They made their debut in the Snakes Cotillion.” The Snakes was, and still is an active African American social organization in Chicago. Brownie, seeing that there was a lack of cultural enrichment programs for African American girls in Evanston, thought that an event similar to the Deltas and the Snakes was something that the men of the Norshore Twelve could undertake. These men felt the same.
Within that same year, Brownie had recruited, organized, trained and counseled a group of young ladies to experience an evening of class, grace, charm and culture, one which at that time was what many parents wanted for their daughters. The culminating event became known as the Norshore Twelve Cotillion. The Cotillion at its height was the most highly anticipated summer event.
Brownie, during the inception of the cotillion, was employed at the Evanston YWCA as the youth program director. A life-long Evanston resident, she attended the local schools and went on to college at Dillard University in Louisiana where she pledged Delta Sigma Theta. Brownie later finished her education at Northeastern Illinois University. “At that time in the 1970s, it was expected that you went to college.” Brownie said.
Brownie married William L. Moore, Ph.D. and moved to Houston, Texas in 1977. There she taught Science and Biology for 26 years. Before her move to Texas, her avocation involved developing and organizing the Norshore cotillion in Evanston. This commitment turned into a yearlong project.
During the 1960s in Chicago, as well as the rest of the United States, was a hostile environment for African American’s, then referred to as “Negro” or “Colored”. Racial segregation, housing restrictions, lynchings, race riots, voting privileges and job restrictions were all elements that, for many in the nation, risked their lives to fight for.
So for an organization of “Negro” men to organize and hold an event in downtown Chicago hotels was nothing short of “impossible” in most African American minds. However, the Norshore Twelve seemed not to be intimidated by these taboos.
Each July during the years 1960 to 1971, North Shore African American residents looked forward to the organization’s annual event. At its peak, more than 1,400 people packed the grand ballroom. At first, they held the cotillion at the Parkway Ballroom located at 4455 S. King Dr. in Chicago. When they outgrew that venue, they moved the cotillion to the former Sherman House at Clark and Randolph in downtown Chicago.
“I don’t know how we got into the Sherman House.” Byron said, “I guess through our various inquires, the Sherman House was the only one that responded.” Various people were instrumental in preparing the cotillion including Mr. Rickman who headed marketing; Mr. Holland was the Maitré d and Mr. Benny Price at the Foster Center (Fleetwood-Jourdain Center). “Without him there wouldn’t be a cotillion.” Brownie said, “He was the head custodian there. That is where we had our rehearsals. We would start around seven in the evening and not leave until past midnight.”
… She instilled in us to always strive toward perfection
“The idea behind the cotillion was to bring cultural enrichment to the young ladies.” Brownie said, “I felt as though the young ladies were being short-changed in not having such an program and event.” Participation in the cotillion was an experience that lasted nine months.
“The cycle began in July. Letters were sent to African American high school senior parents, inviting their daughter to participate in the cotillion.” Brownie describes, “Invitations an afternoon soireé were sent in October. November was the formal tea for prospective debutants. Once accepted, the young ladies were required to attend weekly meetings.” During the meetings, the ladies were instructed in posture, dance, dress fittings, make-up techniques, rehearsals, and culture etiquette.” Additional preparation included monitoring their school GPA, applications to college and their eventual acceptance letters to college. “The major expectation for participating in the cotillion was matriculation into college,” Brownie said.
Brownie utilized her time and Norshore Twelve’s money in preparation. She hired choreographers such as Michael Frederics from Gus Giordano dance studio; photographers from Zeloof-Stuart Photography Studios and caterers. For musical entertainment, the Willie Randall band was frequently used. “Brownie ran it all.” Byron Wilson said, a Norshore Twelve charter member. “Whatever she needed, she got it, no matter the cost. The men played a low-key role. Aside from finances, it was Brownie who ran the program.”
“Brownie was a very exceptional person,” Gwen Burton Poole said, a 1961 debutant, “She has this gift, a talent in organizing the girls and the event… and the patience she had during that time… She instilled in us to always strive toward perfection.”
In addition to the meetings, the participants had to solicit ads, hold fundraisers and seek sponsorships to defray the cost of the souvenir book. Parents were involved as sponsors and were required to host at least one social event at their home. Occasionally, a member of the Norshore Twelve would step in to serve as an escort or as a surrogate father.
All participants wore white ball gowns; a simple string of pearls with matching single-pearl earrings and 16 button kid or cloth gloves. Debutants selected their escorts for the evening gala. The escorts wore identical summer wear including top hats and sometimes canes for the debs and escorts dance. All of their efforts and a years worth of meetings were in preparation for the cotillion. Debutants, their parents and a showing from the Evanston community stepped out in high fashion for the evening.
“This was an opportunity to be with girls that we grew up with. This was the late time we may be together for a while, to do something meaningful.” Colette Hill-Duncan said, a 1967 Debutant. “I grew up a Norshore Twelve kid. This was something to look forward to.”
The Cotillion evening was a gala that involved a grand entrance of all the attendees. Following were the announced entrance of each debutant escorted by their father or a Norshore Twelve member. Following dinner and live music came the well-rehearsed and choreographed performances by the debutants and their young escorts as individual groups of ladies and gentlemen, then as couples.
“This was the social event of Evanston,” said Brownie, “School superintendents, government officials, the crème of the crop, all came out.” “And a lot of Whites would attend as well,” Byron said. “Write-ups would appear in the Evanston Review, The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Defender.”
The Norshore Twelve Cotillion began July 1960 and through July 1971
Each year, the cotillion was identified by a theme. The earlier ones took on names off of classical music scores or stage plays. Later they were more thematic with choreographed performances that related to them. Some theme names included “Jour de Romain”, “The King and I”, “Black and Beautiful – Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Mod-Mad-Mardi Gras”. “The best year was the Black and Tan Fantasy in 1969.” Brownie said, “We utilized the music of Duke Ellington.” Byron agreed.
As the popularity of the Cotillion grew, they outgrew the space provided at the Parkway Ballroom. “One night, there were so many people dancing and enjoying themselves, the floors bounced.” Byron said. After the cotillion event, after parties took place in the penthouses. The penthouse rooms at the Sherman House were rented out by members of the Norshore Twelve or by parents of the debutants.
“After the cotillion, my father rented a suite after the cotillion.” Sarah Ashmore Diggs recalls, a 1969 debutant “After an amazing day and evening of being treated like a princess at the Sherman House, my friend and I wanted to sneak off to one of the penthouse parties. To my surprise, it was my father who was throwing that party!”
As the 1970s rolled around, times were changing. The rising movement of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” cued a new generation of African Americans to take a new look at its culture and social standing. It was becoming more and more difficult to find young ladies wanting to participate in the cotillion. “The younger generation was loosing interest in it. The parents liked it. But this trend was happening with our other organizations as well.” Byron said. During this time, the cotillion may have been perceived as assimilation by the younger generation. Between 1960 and 1969, the number of participants averaged 15 in the cotillion. In 1970, ten participated and the last cotillion in 1971, only eight took their bows.
The last cotillion spelled the end of the annual gala. Participation was met with animosity. “Things were just getting bad.” Byron said.
“The girls stopped cooperating.” Brownie said, “So I finally had to say, “I’m through!”
“And when Brownie said that, that was the end of the cotillion.” Byron finished. Most participants had no understanding of the time, planning, energy, arrangement or the money that was involved in preparing the evening’s gala event.
The cotillion may have lived out its cycle with the new generation new sense of cultural pride, ideas and direction, at least in the north. “The Links, for example, still have cotillions in the south today.” Brownie said, “I would like to see something like the cotillion come back… not seen as an assimilation, but to enforce that we [too] have a culture.”
The Norshore Twelve Cotillion began July 1960 and through July 1971. The preparation involved many dedicated businesses, parents, volunteers and the community. However, the event was pulled together by the tireless efforts of Brownie Frazier. During its existence, more than 150 young women had experienced the training process that cumulated in an evening of grace, charm and beauty that became known as “The Cotillion”. Many of these participants still have fond memories of the Norshore Twelve annual cotillion.
“The warmest feeling was that my family participated in the entire process.” Sarah reflected, “The whole community supported us.”
Note: This article first appeared in the original quarterly Shorefront Journal, Volume 8, Number 1, winter 2006 issue. All images courtesy Eleanor Frazier and located in the Shorefront archives.