B. T. Washington High School Co-ettes Club

Every once in a while, I stumble into a story that has all kinds of good written all over it, but that no one has ever heard of, until now.

Have any of you ever heard of the B. T. Washington High School Co-ettes Club?

This local group of African American girl’s chief aim and desire was scholastic achievement. One of the groups they supported, funded, and followed, was the United Negro College Fund. LeMoyne Owen College acted as their sponsor.

The very first group was started in Detroit, Michigan in 1941 by young African American girls in high school. These girls who had high scholastic marks were taught about community service, leadership and philanthropy. The club’s goals were to instill responsibility, old fashioned values, and the ‘social graces’. The program trained generations of young black women to be successful adults according to an April 8, 2001 article in the Detroit Free Press.

The Memphis Tennessee chapter was started in 1958. At the time there were chapters in Houston, Chicago and Nashville as well.

Our story takes place in Memphis on January 14, 1961, at LeMoyne Owen College.

During this highly anticipated event Elenor Fargo William was crowned Miss Co-ette of 1961. Along with other attributes she had also raised the most money for the chapter. The following young ladies participated. Caroline Brandon, Elenor Fay Williams, Joan Hargraves Joplin, Ricki McGraw, Geraldine Gray, Sally June Bowman, Gloria Lewers, Betty Phillips, Paulett Brinkey, Jacquelyn Broadnax, Regina Thigpen, Yvonne Owens, Ann Burford, Beverly Hooks, Jana Davis, and Sylvia Williams.

Gene “Bowlegs“ Miller and his orchestra provided the music in what was a celebratory evening.

Some of the most eligible young men in Memphis were their escorts. Men of equal standing, just a little older but with the same goals and ambitions. Men like Antonio Maceo Walker Jr. of Oakwood Prep NY, William O. Speight II of Worcester Prep School, James Spenser Byas Jr. from Milford Prep, Wilda Lee, Palmer Memorial Institute NC, Dan Herman Honcock of St Francis and Art Gilliam of Yale.

The adult chaperones present were Jewel Gentry, Dr, and Mrs. Hollis F. Price, Blair T. Hunt, Mrs. P. L. Burford, Mrs. J. L. Brinkley, Mrs. Alan Hargraves, Mrs. Louise Davis, Mr. and Mrs. William T. Broadnax, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Jordan and Mrs. Ernestine Gray. 

Other local schools had co-ette groups as well and enjoyed great success. 

In July of 2020 I had a great chat with Art Gilliam and Joan Hargraves Joplin, who both participated in the event and who both helped me put this article together.

This information along with pictures was researched using the following:

The Pittsburgh Courier June 23, 1962 page 10

Detroit Free Press June 17, 1958 page 3.

Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.

Leave a Reply