"In those days we were just trying to break the barriers, trying to open the way for black women to help their own community," said Eula Trigg, one of the founders 31 years ago, of the Washington, D.C. Links, Inc.

Her eyes were trained softly on the club members as they filed into a reception at the Smithsonian Institution, watching the elderly ones lift up their eyeglasses to read photo captions and the young ones lift up their children to touch the artifacts.

Times have changed for the Links, but the need for breakthroughs hasn't, and last night the black women's group stepped forward as the force behind a black crafts exhibition at the nation's most prestigious archives, the Smithsonian Institution.

The Links are part of a little known, and often maligned, tradition in black life. Three decades ago, when the Junior League and other avenues of status, fellowship and charity were shut to black women, they found a way to contribute by forming their own organizations.

A diverse group arose: Jack 'n Jill; the Smart Set; the Circlettes; and the Links. Some were based on money, degrees and husbands' professions. Some seemed merely to mimic their white counterparts.

"As far as I knew, the Links started out as a club of a few friends, all community- and service-oriented. They thought collective action would be better than isolated," recalled Thelma Perry, a Link for amost 25 years. But the Links, like all the others, began by being caught up in the status strife: who gave the biggest party or donated the most money to the NAACP.

Unlike many of the others, however, the Links managed to find a blend of social prominence and social responsibility, and have survived. In fact, as the 1980s begin, the Links are stronger than ever. And they are taking determined steps to shake the old image and close the gap with the majority of black women.

One example of that change was apparent yesterday as Celestine and Ida May Turner, basket-weavers from rural South Carolina, mounted a platform at the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology and demonstrated the survival of the African technique of coil basketing.

The women, both participants in a new exhibition, "The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts," wore the sturdy shoes and cotton dresses of their simple craft and life sytle. "I learned from my grandmother and I have tried to teach my eight children,"Celestine Turner, 52, said shyly. "And sometimes we can earn a living by baskets, sometimes we can't."

As she tooled the sweetgrass and palmetto fronds, Turner was asked if she was familiar with the Links. She looked genuinely puzzled, and said she had never heard of them, but added generously, "Whoever is responsible, we are happy."

The Links -- a 33-year-old national social and service organization with over 200 members in the Washington area -- is one of the first black groups to forge a full-partner relationship with some of the country's major museums. The Links chapter in Cleveland suggested the idea to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and chapters in each of the seven cities where the show has traveled have responded with financial and educational participation.

It is the first time in recent memory that a black group, or a local Washington private club, has participated so broadly in the planning and underwriting of an exhibit.

That participation contradicts the traditional view of the Links as nothing more than a black middle-class social set devoted only to balls and elitist frivolities.

"We have always tried to meet the needs of the communty as we see them," said Mercedes Palmer, president of the Washington, D.C., Links, as she studied the last-minute installation of the exhibit. "We hope this will raise public awareness that we are not just a social organization.

"So often -- because you are middle class -- people think you are narrow and closed-off. But if you look at us individually and collectively, you will see we have worked hard for the community."

When the Links were founded in Philadelphia in 1946, the black society that had existed since the days of slavery -- and had stratified along occupational, income and interest lines -- was solidly established.

College fraternities and sororities were the pacesetters, and the degree-carrying group carried some of those same ideals into their private world with the establishment of social and community organizations like the Links, the Moles, the Continentals, the What Good Are We's and the Guardsmen.

During the '50s while two extremes -- the degrading "Beulah" of television and the glamorous, untouchable Lena Horne -- dominated the white American image of the black woman, the Links quietly found a world in between. Yet it remained a world largely hidden from most of black America, which peeked at the white-glove and diamond-tiara set through the pages of Ebony. They looked selective and elitist -- and many were.

Although that image of a closed and snobbish society persisted through the 1950s, the Links were making their contributions. In Washington, which has the third-oldest chapter, the group integrated theater audiences for childred in 1954.

"There was no theater for black children. We decided to bring down an establishment company for all youngsters. And it worked," recalled Anne C. Reid, a Washington charter member. In 1947 she started a separate drama department at Howard University, and subsequently taught at several universities.

"When we started there were a few enclaves of people who were cause-related and we considered oursleves radical," Reid said. "When I lived away from Washington, I joined the local chapters because I still see its uniqueness as a fresh approach to community services."

Then, in the '60s -- although they continued to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for national and local groups -- the Links came under severe criticism for lack of social consciousness. And many of the critics, like Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, came from families tied to the same social circles.

In a recent book on black women, educator Jeane Noble observed that "very few risks have brought (the Links) into the social-change arena, where unpopularity might result. And while raising the consciousness level of the nation about what is wrong is admirable, moving boldly to right these wrongs requires a tenacity of spirit and effort, and such collective strength has yet to be fully demonstrated."

But Thelma Perry, a lawyer, author and consulting editor to the Negro History Bulletin, desagrees: "When I lived in Charlotte, N.C., during the 1960s, we as individuals boycotted stores. That was a decision made in meetings but we didn't do picketing as a club." And the membership has included many black women pioneers, such as former representative Barbara Jordan and Jewel Lafontant, former deputy solicitor general.

As the Smithsonian show indicates, the Links have made a concentrated effort to update their image and recruit younger people during the past decade. Alma Brown, 38, the director of a labor project for the National Council of Negro Women, joined in 1972 because "I thought they were trying to do different things and most social groups wre primarily concerned with parties and dances."

Some potential second-generation Links have hesitated to join because of the time commitment. "The time when the voluntary organizations were more social and accused of elitism is passing," said Victoria Assevero, a lawyer at the Department of Commerce. "I am not ready to make the time commitment, but I do feel a lack in my life because my groups are male-dominated professional organizations."

Some young professional women remain ambivalent. "Any group that raises significant dollars has got to be a value. But what's on the mind of young women is: Can they afford the group, because it does take an amount of keeping-up and time constraints because you are expected to give," says Mary Helen Thompson, press secretary for Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.). But the need to belong to a volunteer group still exists. And in the last year, three more Links chapters have been added to the four already established in the Washington area.

In Prince George's County, the group has attracted a dentist, a naval engineer, six PhDs, a businesswoman and an attorney. Their activites include an annual cotillion, a free health screening program for senior citizens and expectant mothers, and charitable fund-raising. The District of Columbia chapter has a similar diversity, and last week sponsored a luncheon with a speech on "Black Female Property Ownership During the Civil War."

For the exhibit at the Smithsonian, the Washington, D.C. Links sewed weghts for the hanging quilts, addressed the invitations for last night's opening reception, contributed $500 for maps on black population, underwrote a symposium on African-American esthetics scheduled for Nov. 9, and supported the production of 100 educational kits for the schools.

"Thanks to the Links, we have been able to enrich the original exhibit," explained community life curator Richard Ahlborn. "With the extra money, we were able to buy some splendid wood carvings from a farm worker around Savannah. They showed a powerful intuition and residual influence of an African stye."

Located on the third floor of the History and Technology Building, with a dominant introductory exhibit on the main floor, the exhibit covers nine decorative arts from quilting to graveyard decoration. It is expected to attract at leat 500,000 visitors in the next three months, and in the process to discredit the still widely held view that the craft tradition did not survive slavery.

It took six years to convince the Cleveland Museum of the idea's value, Leatrice Branch Madison recalled at last night's reception. "We decided it was time for that museum to do something about black culture. But it took six years . . . Their excuses dwelled on money but we proved we had strong Links everywhere and could guarantee an audience."

In most corners of the exhibit, the women were already planning the next strategy: how to attract the schools to the exhibit. "It's important that all youngsters have a sense of this continuum, but especially the black kids," said Adelaide Clark.

While the weavers were selling their products faster than they could make them, Anne Reid drifted into personal nostalgia. Her grandfather had been a Reconstruction congressman from South Carolina and his home was in the middle of the basket country. "So I can really believe when people talk about this tradition going back," said Reid. "It gives you a sense of having been here before."