Dressed in their evening finery, the women marched into the reception room. Near the back, a celebrity, writer Maya Angelou, was watching, and admiring.
"Look around you, how they walk, how they smile," she said as the young and rouged, lined and grand-motherly faces of the National Council of Negro Women passed by. "Black women have a fierce determination for life. We are at the bottom of the economic scale but there's such compassion, tenacity, humor and stride," said Angelou. "From them I get my inspiration."
When Angelou performed, they applauded. When the actress-author took one college student's hand, the woman burst into tears. However, during the organization's seven-day meeting at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel here this week, they also applauded James Joseph, the Undersecretary of Interior: Ersa Poston, a Civil Service Commissioner; Coretta King, a delegate to the current United Nations session; a 29-year-old manager at General Motors; a real estate sales-woman from Illinois, and the day-care center founder from Mississippi.
In each of their lives, and in their accomplishments, the women of the Council found a common ground.
"The Council is an old-girl network," says Ersa Poston, one of the three members of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, walking into a room and calling almost everybody by their first names.
"Why does it take these things to pull us together?" asked Poston, hugging a friend from Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Nearly 30 years ago Poston, trained as a social worker at Kentucky State University and the Atlanta School of Social Work got her first professional job from Dorothy Height, now the national president of the Council. "I was then close to 30 and we wanted very much to work with teen-agers. What the YWCA and, eventually the Council, did not build that image, the self-image black women needed so badly," said Poston.
"I learned never to give up, to face the struggle squarely. In my career I have been a 'first' and when you are out there you are vulnerable, you are programmed to fail. The Y and the Council gave me that self-confidence.
"That's how people are molded, step by step." said Poston. "What the Council means right now is that Pat Harris started out with us, and we have all stuck together. The old boys have been doing it all along. We've done it but we never talked about it. But this is what it is, the old lesson of perserverance."
Over the years the Council has worked on issues affecting the poor and minorities but has received some criticism for not using its collective strength - 4 million women from the 27 affiliates - to fight more vigorously. But what the council members say they have received is philosophical inspiration. And not only members but Presidents have called on Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder, and Height.
For many years the Council's fire and legacy have been its members and this week, a famous writer, a health specialist who's a political activist, a grass-roots organizer from the South, and a Council loyalist who's now a presidental appointee, represented that energy.
Maya Angelou has been many of these women - the loving daughter, mother and wife, the business woman, the civil-rights activist, and the victim of rape, racism and sexism.
"And dishwater gives back no images," said Angelou, reciting another black poet's thoughts on the facelessness most black woman have experienced. But from a rocky start in Stamps. Ark. Angelou also achieved on a different plateau - as a prize winning writer, as "woman of the year" for various organizations, as a gripping actress on "Roots," and on a recent Richard Pryor show.
"Dorothy Height is one of my sheroes." said Angelou, giving a feminine definition to heroes and bowing toward the woman considered one of the most powerful black women in America. A former social worker and protege of Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator who founded the Council, Height has traditionally been the only woman at summit conferences of civil-rights leaders.
And, like Bethune, she has carried the feelings of her constituency to the plain and the titled. Just this week during the convention, Height attended a meeting at the State Department on South Africa and one at the White House on the Panama Canal. In September she gave the keynote address to the Black Women's Federation of South Africa, a group now banned.
"In 1960 I went to New York to direct the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office," Angelou continued. "I called Miss Height, who I knew had a wonderful title and was very busy, but she gave me the time. Now I was 32, uneducated, and I couldn't prolong the intellectual discussion or mention our mutual contacts, but she took me seriously. She didn't patronize me and I hope I reflect her love and perserverance." Height, obviously moved by Angelou's tribute, bent her head.
Then Angelou, in miniconcert, imitated the wind-bent walk of a young street dude, and Height bent over in laughter. Height nodded appreciatively, as did the rows of wigs, Afros and flips behind her, as Angelou concluded, "it is fascinating to think about what makes us keep producing children like that. Wherever it comes from, it can't be stomped out."
In her speech, on volunteerism and the federal government, Ersa Poston addressed discrimination in the government and the necessity to know how to fill out the forms. "This is the nuts-and-bolts crowd. I can be more philosophical somewhere else. These ladies want some information so they can take it home. That's what's important to them," said Poston, and afterward she was asked about videotaping instructions for governement employment forms.
Such practicality has been the guide for Barbara Woodward, 37, who directs a federally funded food and nutrition program in Attala County, Miss. What she takes home from the convention might be a humorous story about some event, but more importantly, she feels a better knowledge of the bureaucracy and added incentive.
"What I find here is a zeal." said Woodward, a native of Koscuisko, Miss., James Meredith's hometown. "After the 1973 convention I was all worked up. I went home and recruited everybody and the local grew from 52 to 180 people."
Not all of her time during the convention was spent being inspired. At a briefing at the Agriculture Department, she sighed at the complications of the food stamp regulations and the dispassionate approach of the officials.
"Despite all these programs, people are still hungry," said Woodward, who helps ease the burden in her county by developing swine farms, community gardens and canneries. "I don't do anything spectacular."
About five years ago, the highlight of the Council's convention was an appearance, not a performance, by comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley. She was then about the same age as the delegates, comfortably 60.
Since then the convention has been attracting more younger women like Sheila Gardner, 29, women who believe in politics and change.
"Hi, I'm Sheila Gardner and I'm from Washington," said Gardner, holding out her hand to a passing delegate as she campaigned for the vice presidency of the NCNW.
Ten years ago, when Gardner was a student at Howard University, she didn't feel a need to join organizations. "I was primarily concerned with academics, though I joined a sorority," said Gardner, who is a public health adviser with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"I discovered, and so did several of my friends, that after five or six years in the professional field, we needed a multipurpose organization. The Council is open to everyone."
"It is," said Bunny Mitchell, a presidential assistant who is part of the old-girl network, as she looked over the spotlights into 800 faces, "it is from one another that we gain courage."