Photos of the Phyllis Wheatley Club show women dressed to the hilt, in some cases polishing off their outfits with hats and gloves.
But the group of black Billings women was more than a social club.
Club members lobbied to improve life for black residents and promoted education for their children.
Well into the 1940s, black residents weren’t allowed to try on clothing in downtown stores, sit anywhere in movie theaters or swim in city pools unless the water would be cleaned the next day.
The Phyllis Wheatley Club was founded to change the way blacks and other minorities were treated, said Michele Terry, the daughter of a longtime club member.
The club began in 1918, with Mattie Hambright as its first president.
The organization grew out of a group of black Billings women who met as a Red Cross organization to roll bandages during World War I.
One of its earliest members was Edna Watts Brown, who appears in a 1922 photo of the club. Brown would remain a member until her death in 1955, having served as treasurer during that time.
Brown’s daughter, Edna Best, who still lives in Billings, grew up in the club and later became a member. Even when Best was an infant, Brown took her to meetings to be doted on by club members.
Brown also was a mainstay of the Wayman Chapel and cooked chicken dinners to raise money to make improvements to the South Side church.
For decades, the Phyllis Wheatley Club was a force in Billings through its “social up-lift” work.
Club members lobbied local and state government to open up swimming pools for their children and have better access to theaters and stores.
Black and other minority women were allowed to buy clothing in downtown stores, but were not permitted to try on anything before purchasing it, particularly hats and shoes.
“And that’s what black women loved — hats and shoes,” Terry said.
Club members went to the stores’ management, pointed out that club members spent money at local stores and didn’t like how blacks were treated. After that things, began to change for the better.
The club also worked to loosen up the practice of discouraging minorities from buying property beyond certain areas of town, Best said.
The Phyllis Wheatley Club came to the rescue of Dorothy Maynard, a visiting opera singer in the 1940s. When she was not allowed to stay in the Northern Hotel, the club found her accommodations in a private home.
Club members then went to the Northern to protest Maynard’s treatment, and the singer was given a free night’s stay.
Terry and her cousin, Nellie Foster, recently talked about how much the Phyllis Wheatley Club meant to their mothers.
Foster also was a member of the club and became treasurer of the Montana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Terry and Foster’s grandparents, William and Nellie Best, came to Billings in 1903 after his cavalry unit was disbanded at Sheridan, Wyo.
The couple settled at First Avenue South at 22nd Street, where William raised horses.
A Seminole Indian, Nellie spoke that language as well as Crow and Sioux that she learned from Americans Indians with whom she traded.
Nellie was a member of Phyllis Wheatley Club as were several of her daughters, including Terry’s mother Evelyn Lucero and Foster’s mother Bertha Arias.
When Terry graduated from Billings Senior in 1972, she received a Phyllis Wheatley scholarship that she used at the University of Montana and then at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she earned a degree in English. She would go on to teach eight years on the Modoc Indian Reservation in California.
In the early 1950s, the Phyllis Wheatley Club started the Teen Disc Club because there was little for teens to do on the South Side.
To buy records, the teens had bake sales, garage sales and raffles.
Terry’s siblings, Sandra and Rick Lucero, won a city-wide dance contest and contributed their prize money to the record fund.
The teen group frequently gathered at the South 22nd Street home of James Dahlberg, a black refinery employee. Dahlberg and his wife, who had no children, invited the teens to swim in their backyard swimming pool and have dances in their large recreation room.
Sometimes the group danced to live music, including that of club member Chan Romero. Romero would go on to international fame as the musician who wrote and recorded “Hippy Hippy Shake.”
Foster, who graduated from Senior in 1955, went to the disc club. Members wore black corduroy jackets with white trim and white circle embroideries with “Disc Club” on the back.
Foster worked at the Midland Bank for 13 years and then for the Montana State University Billings campus police for 22 years before retiring in 2000.
The Disc Club was open to teens of all races and welcomed diversity, she said.
So was the Phyllis Wheatley Club.
Over the years, the club had white, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian members.
The members came from all backgrounds.
Emma Prince’s family owned a commercial carpet-cleaning business.
Bernice Carroll, whose husband worked at the U.S. Post Office, was the first black certified teacher in Billings, Best said.
The Phyllis Wheatley Club, whose membership fluctuated from between 15 and 25 women, usually met in members’ homes once a month.
Afterward, coffee and cake or a full meal was served.
Foster remembers peeling shrimp when her mother served breaded shrimp.
Meetings were run by Roberts Rules of Order. Some members were sticklers for following the rules exactly, Foster said.
The women always dressed up for the meetings, often with jewelry, hats, white gloves, suits or dresses, and carried purses that matched their shoes.
The Phyllis Wheatley Club made history in the late 1949s when it became the first black women’s club to join the National Federation of Women’s Clubs and its local affiliate, Best said.
In the 1950s, Terry’s mother, Evelyn Lucero, was named the Billings Federation of Women’s Clubs Woman of the Year.
Phyllis Wheatley Club disbanded in 1972, because younger women now had jobs and were raising families.
The club also had made progress in changing some of the more overt manifestations of racism. Racism still existed, but more and more it appeared as individual incidences rather than systemically, Terry said.
Contact Mary Pickett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1262.