Exactly 81 years ago on January 24, 1938, the idea of Jack and Jill of America was birthed in Philadelphia (before the group was incorporated as a national organization in 1946) when twenty-one Black mothers who had grown up in South Philly established an association “to provide social, cultural, and educational opportunities for [Black] youth between the ages of two and 19.”
It currently consists of over 10,000 mother members representing more than 40,000 parents and children in 230 chapters throughout the country. And its mission consists of “nurturing future African American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving, and civic duty.”
If that’s what Jack and Jill is and if that’s what Jack and Jill does, why do so many Black folks state that it’s nothing more than a bunch of elitist, bourgeois, light-skinned Blacks who want to be white? Why do many Black folks state that Lawrence Otis Graham was condemning groups like Jack and Jill when he wrote his seminal book entitled Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class? The answer to both questions is quite simple. The Black folks who make those statements, as we say in the hood, “don’t know what they talkin’ bout.” Here’s the real story.
At the outset, I must admit that, in its early years, this “by invitation only” organization appeared rather snobbish by being preoccupied with proper etiquette, debutante cotillions, ballets, symphonies, horseback-riding, skiing, and the like. Also, members were almost exclusively well educated professional women such as lawyers, physicians, professors, CEOs, ministers, etc. or wives of lawyers, physicians, professors, CEOs, ministers, etc.
And don’t forget that color-conscious thing. Jack and Jill has always had that image, whether founded or unfounded. As Marianne Rohrlich wrote in a 1998 New York Times article, that image “can be traced to the group’s early decades when some Blacks saw it as open only to those who had ‘good hair’ and were able to pass ‘the paper-bag test….’”
In fact, when one of Jack and Jill’s founding members, namely Louise Truitt Dench, was interviewed for that column and was asked about dark-skinned members during her time, she replied, “I didn’t know a lot of dark-skinned people. I just didn’t know them.”
Moreover, in 1993, the Chicago Tribune reported, “In its heyday, Jack and Jill was a prestigious club for those then considered, almost literally, the cream of Black society…. [It]… helped Black children, many from lighter-skinned families, to fit into white America.”
As a result of such misguidance, miscommunication, or misunderstanding, membership declined.
However, in the mid-1970s/late-1980s, added the Chicago Tribune, there was a resurgence in membership due to more Blacks being able to afford to move into the suburbs, which led to the organization’s “new mission that reflects the isolation felt by many Blacks living in predominantly white suburbs. Instead of helping Blacks assimilate into white culture, the organization is seeking to instill a sense of ethnic pride in suburban Black children.”
In the aforementioned New York Times article, Yale-educated commercial real estate broker Elizabeth Martin, a Jack and Jill member raising a child in upper-middle class nearly all-white Summit, NJ, was asked in connection with the organization’s 60th anniversary why she had joined. She replied, “When my [five-year-old] son came home from kindergarten and asked why his hair was different from the other boys’ in his class, I knew we needed Jack and Jill.” She went on to say, “Parents don’t want their kids to lose a sense of themselves, and culturally, it’s very important to be with people like yourself….”
That same year, her North Jersey Chapter held “Afrocentric events like Kwanzaa… and [a] ceremony for nine college-bound teenagers, modeled on an African rite of passage.” That rite of passage was led by a history professor from Sierra Leone who gave each boy a carved wooden spear to acknowledge his “fathers from Africa” while telling them “You are now warriors from a great tradition of warriors” and gave each girl a palm plant exemplifying “[powerful African] fertility.”
Despite appearances (and a few missteps) throughout its existence since 1938, Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated- especially during the past four decades or so- has been about promoting the cause of Black people and their history, which explains why its official 2018-2020 Chapters’ Programmatic Thrust is centered first on “culture” followed by “education, health, civic” issues, and “social/recreational” activities.
Additionally, among many other annual events, it sponsors “National Black Family Day,” which began in May 1987 to “focus on… the cultural heritage of African American families…. (and hold) workshops on the need for Black adoptions….” Along with that is a “focus on the needs… of children in Africa….”
And since 1968, Jack and Jill’s foundation has continued to provide millions of dollars in funding to pro-Black groups including, but not limited to, Africare (the largest and oldest African-American founded entity providing development aid to African countries), the United Negro College Fund, King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Also, it sponsors “Carole Robertson Day” to acknowledge her (who was the daughter of the organization’s Southeastern Regional Director) along with the three other little girls brutally murdered in the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. The purpose of the event is to “highlight the goals of human rights and civil rights.”
We all can’t and shouldn’t be members of woke groups like the Black Panther Party. We all can’t and shouldn’t be like yours truly, the “Angriest Black Man in America” who’s also a loudmouthed revolutionary activist. When it comes to the struggle for racial justice, we Black folks gotta “get in where we fit in” and stay in our lane. We gotta fight for our people whichever way and wherever we feel most effective. Jack and Jill is quite effective in pursuing racial justice in the way it chooses to do so.
As a Black woman, man, girl, or boy, it’s not about your color complexion. It’s about your cultural commitment. Jack and Jill has been and still is committed.
By the way, Jack and Jill members come in all shades of Blackness. They include deep brown chocolate members. They also include sweet butter almond ice cream members- but don’t hate on those light-skinned ones by hating on the organization’s early history. After all, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, and Louis Farrakhan were/are “light, bright, and damn near white.” But nobody’s “Blacker” than them.
Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1-FM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.