More than a half-century ago, before “black” and “African-American” became rooted in our lexicon, more than a thousand ladies of the Cincinnati Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs regularly filed into 1010 Chapel St. in Walnut Hills to work for racial progress. They poured into its 17 rooms to discuss clothing drives, scholarships and donations to institutions like the Negro Sightless Society. The members of the federation, established in 1904, looked after their own from a place they proudly called their own — a stately clubhouse that their visionary founders had purchased in 1925 through $15 shares.
Today just 54 members, ranging in age from their 50s to more than 100 years old, are continuing the federation’s mission of “lifting others as we climb.” But the efforts of those few good women now have a boost from A Few Good Men.
Since fall 2016, about two dozen black male friends have pitched in to handle repairs and raise money to restore the luster of the women’s historic brick home, which was designed by famed Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford (Music Hall, City Hall) in 1888. Last June, the men’s group moved their Tuesday breakfast from the Queensgate Frisch’s to the clubhouse, with each diner donating at least $10 a week.
“This organization and this building kind of sat dormant for quite a while,” John Harshaw, a member of A Few Good Men, says. “Most young black women, black men, even people in the (Walnut Hills) community, didn’t know what it was.”
On Feb. 3, he and the women will share the federation’s story during a Black History Month presentation at the Main Library.
President JoAnn Orr has belonged to the city federation for more than 50 years, following in her mother’s footsteps. When Orr joined, there were about 40 clubs representing several hundred members. Today there are only five.
But “these ladies have come awake again,” Harshaw says. A Few Good Men are improving not just the women’s surroundings but also their spirits as they try to recruit a new generation that will continue to provide snacks at Douglass Elementary, visit nursing homes and volunteer at health fairs.
“You know they say there’s nothing like having a man around the house? There’s nothing like having a group of men around the house,” Orr says.
And what a house it is. This is the only city federation clubhouse remaining in Ohio, Orr says. The onetime residence of late-19th century Mayor John Mosby features Rookwood fireplaces in each room, brass chandeliers, bay windows, white-enameled spindles on the staircase and a bas-relief sculpture in the foyer of a woman accepting a sister’s helping hand. Inspired by the resourceful women of the 1920s who pooled their dollars to buy the home for $18,000 (about $250,000 today), the men are now selling inscribed bricks for $15 apiece to return the mansion’s vinyl floors to hardwood.
The house is on the National Register of Historic Places, but Harshaw says the federation itself is an American treasure. He notes that it was formed several years before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) or the Urban League (1910).
Harshaw, a retired banking executive turned author and historian, received monthly $25 scholarships from one of the federation’s clubs during his junior and senior years at Taft High School. That amount was enough for him to pay his family’s $15 rent and still have money for clothes, his 1959 graduation cap and gown, and a class ring. He later wrote a book about growing up in the segregated West End from the 1940s to 1970s and refers to that period as “when we were colored.”
It’s an era that Samuel AbuBakr experienced as well, and he was reminded of it after doing landscaping at the clubhouse in 2015. Short on money to pay him, the women instead offered him tickets to hear author Wil Haygood speak. Now AbuBakr feels the need to repay the women.
“I know some of us don’t like that word (colored),” AbuBakr tells a recent breakfast gathering. “We’re not talking about colored people. We are talking about a time in our history when we were so connected and involved in everything that we did.” It was a period before government grants, when neighbors and even strangers reached into their pockets to help someone in need.
AbuBakr’s breakfast buddies include a who’s who of black Cincinnati: broadcaster Courtis Fuller, photographers C. Smith and Melvin Grier, retired physician Charles Dillard, beauty pageant founder Robert Humphries and 93-year-old Leslie Edwards, a mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen. But AbuBakr is quick to hold up the everyday accomplishments of a group of women whose motto is “Deeds Not Words.”
One of the federation’s first acts was establishing a kindergarten at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Walnut Hills. During the migration of blacks from the South in the mid-20th century, the clubhouse offered women and children a place to stay.
“If these women’s deeds were put in a cup, our cup would runneth over,” AbuBakr says. “There’s no measuring what they’ve done. You’re supporting the independence of the people.”
AbuBakr says complete renovation of the house, including a slate roof, will cost about $238,000. But he believes that as word gets out, money will come in. The men and women have music, veterans and health events planned into the summer.
“We’re going to figure it out,” AbuBakr says. “I am so blessed to be a part of this history, to be a part of this turnaround, to see this house coming back, to see these women smile again. To see them upstairs (gathering historical photos) and hear that chatter — that wasn’t here a year ago.”
John Harshaw and federation members will speak Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Main Library, 800 Vine St., Downtown. Free. A related exhibit is on display through Feb. 14. More info: cincinnatilibrary.org.