Presenting Miss Althea Hawthorne," said the cotillion's master of ceremonies as Hawthorne, 14, strolled gracefully down the tan-and-brown carpeted runway. All agleam in her white formal gown and pearls, Hawthorne, now a debutante, seemed a Cinderella story away from her mother's tidy apartment in a decrepit, crime-ridden Southeast Washington public housing complex.
"My name is Althea Hawthorne. I attend Stuart Junior High, and my future ambition is to be an administrative secretary," she said proudly. As she turned to walk away, she flashed a beaming smile.
Hawthorne had just completed six weeks of classes in which debutantes were instructed in proper ways for ladies to behave: how to sit, stand, walk and speak in public, how to dress for work and church, and how to apply makeup. In completing that training, she symbolically embarked on womanhood. Several months ago, Hawthorne didn't know what a cotillion was.
Robin Jackson, 14, from far Northeast Washington, also was in the debutante spotlight during the evening, and although the social formality of events such as balls were not unfamiliar to her, in some ways she relived some of the experiences her mother had had when she was a debutante many years before.
Her mother watched her and smiled. "I can remember when I made my debut . . . . I could see the same happiness in her eyes," Diane Jackson said.
More than 250 parents and friends came to see Althea, Robin and 22 other debutantes age 14 to 17 follow a traditional rite of passage Saturday at the Martin Luther King Debutante Cotillion Ball at the International Inn at Thomas Circle. The girls were escorted by Howard University's Army and Air Force ROTC cadets.
Sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. D.C. Support Group, an organization that promotes the ideals of the late civil rights leader and lobbies in support of a national commemorative holiday in his honor, the cotillion was designed to teach the girls some of King's philosophies as well as etiquette.
"Martin Luther King not only believed in the three Rs, but also dedication, good character and integrity, and we need to nurture these kids," said Floresteen Dickerson, head of the cotillion committee.
Delores Roberts, a volunteer instructor during the debutantes' training, said the cotillion was "part of the education process that a lot of these young black girls would have never experienced." She talked to the girls about goals, something several said they didn't have.
"Martin Luther King talks about living the dream," Roberts told the girls. "If you have a dream, you can do what you want regardless of what color you are."
To promote goals, the organization also awarded two $500 college scholarships to District residents Denise Hamlett and Reba Patterson for the highest grade-point averages among the debutantes.
Most girls at this cotillion, who were from middle- and lower-income families from Washington and the Maryland suburbs, were unfamiliar with the ritual and probably would not have had the chance to participate unless the organization and others had financially helped them. A few also had been unfamiliar with the philosophy and ideals that King promoted.
During their training, however, some girls learned how to help one another and to feel better about themselves by gaining self-confidence.
Hawthorne's mother had not heard of a cotillion until a member of her church, Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Northeast, encouraged her to enroll her daughters.
"I thought those kind of things were just for rich kids. Someone who had money to sponsor their kids and send them to charm school," said Althea Hawthorne, who has the same first name as her daughter.
"They told me that in order for me to enter my daughter I would have to pay $50 the cost of entering a girl into the cotillion . I told them I didn't have $50," she said--not to mention not having money for the gown or accessories.
"Praise God, there were so many people in our church that pulled together to help me. They made her dress and bought my other girl's dress and shoes, and the ladies of the church gave me gloves and pearl necklaces . . . . The Lord really blessed me through my church, 'cause I couldn't afford it otherwise," she said.
Hawthorne, the mother of six, lives on public assistance in a neighborhood where some streets are cluttered with glass, apartment windows are boarded up and the street noise never seems to cease.
"It's not normal when it's quiet around here," she said, adding she fears for her family's safety.
But the younger Althea doesn't seem to share her mother's fears. She likes her neighborhood. "You meet a lot of friends, and there's always a lot of action going on," she said. A couple of weeks ago, she said, a team of D.C. police armed with rifles searched for a criminal. "I was just coming from school so I stood there and watched it. That's what I call exciting," she said.
Her mother disagreed: "I don't call that exciting. I was in the kitchen on the floor."
Hawthorne said she didn't tell her friends about her cotillion experience because "no one knows about debutantes around here."
Although the debutante affair was something Hawthorne never dreamed of, several girls said they had wanted to be debutantes because their mothers had been.
Robin Jackson recalled seeing pictures of her mother in her white gown during her own debutante ball in 1963. Although Jackson had never heard the term "cotillion" before, she knew the event was "a ball where debutantes are introduced to society."
Robin, who lives in Capitol Heights in Northeast, attends Elizabeth Seton Hall, a private, all-girls Catholic school, where she is an honors student. She also attends a college prep program at Howard University and likes the status of designer clothes.
Some girls were unable to link the cotillion with the teachings of Martin Luther King, but Althea proudly noted: "He was a great man. He broke the segregation lines, at least in this town."
At a tea given for the girls after their six-week training clases, she recited King's "I had a dream" speech. "Martin Luther King tried to help people," she said.
Helping others was one important lesson she learned as she helped several girls in the classes, Althea said. "Some of the girls needed help with their steps . . . . Others needed comfort when they were upset," she said.
"We should help each other, that's the only way we are going to make it in this world," she added.