The peach-toned Capital Ballroom of the new downtown Marriott Hotel was unofficially christened by black society recently when the exclusive 23-member Huntsmen Club held its annual Spring Ball.
The black-tie affair, which is held at the city's best-known hotels, is the celebrated event of the 36-year-old Washington social club, one of many old-line social organizations formed by upper-crust blacks in the years of segregation. On Saturday, March 31, 450 guests danced to the music of local band leader Bobby Felder and his group, black society's answer to Peter Duchin. Shortly after midnight, the guests dined on bacon and eggs, croissants and fresh fruit.
The members, whose average age is 52, were resplendent in tuxedoes, accented with red cummerbunds and gold-plated brass medallions. They were hosts to scores of elegantly attired Washington women. They wore sequined cocktail dresses and long gowns of silk and satin, their shoulders swathed in mink and fox.
The dance afforded a rare glimpse into the little-known world of Washington's black society. The Huntsmen Club is not the world of black politicans and newsmakers. Club members' names are virtually unknown outside the Gold Coast and their social strata, but tickets to their dance are much sought after, for it is one of the social events among the city's black elite.
Tickets for the dance are sold only to members, most of whom are doctors and dentists, with a sprinkling of school and government administrators. Each member buys 20 tickets, paying $450. They give tickets to friends and guests, who included: television host Carol Randolph, Metro General Manager Carmen Turner, former Redskins player Brig Owens, former police chief Burtell Jefferson, and D.C. Superior Court judges William Thompson, Paul Webber and Luke Moore.
"The dance affords us the opportunity to see friends we haven't seen in a while," said Dr. Clarence C. Gilkes, a dentist who joined the Huntsmen Club in 1958 and is now president.
The club was formed in 1948 by a group of young friends and neighbors who attended Armstrong, Dunbar and Cardozo high schools--then the city's three black high schools--most of whom later graduated from Howard University. Membership is held at 23, and currently there is one vacancy. To join, a person must be sponsored by a member and then invited in by the entire membership. Only two members have been taken in since Gilkes joined.
"We're just a social group," said Gilkes. "We meet twice a month at a member's house, and we try to have activities for the wives, too. We have a night at Rosecroft, for dinner and the harness races." The Huntsmen have also awarded scholarships and given money to Howard and Cardozo.
The club is one of several black social clubs developed by the emerging black middle class in the midst of rigid segregation. The organizations offered support and encouragement to educated blacks at a time when racial barriers denied them entrance into white society in general, much less private white society.
The Huntsmen--like the Guardsmen, the Bachelor Benedicts, the Chums, the Girlfriends (for women) and Jack and Jill (for children and teen-agers)--provided positive role models and social interaction for the black elite from Boston to Atlanta.
The Huntsmen Club has existed mainly as a social organization and that's what interested 47-year-old Bobby Mitchell, a former Redskins player who is now the team's assistant general manager.
"When I joined the club, I was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Press Club and a number of other clubs," said Mitchell, who became a Huntsmen member in 1969. "I didn't want to get in another civic association. I was assured that the Huntsmen Club was not that. This club forces you to take time for yourself."
To pass along the tradition and keep the club going, Mitchell said, members have an unofficial agreement that new members will be five to 10 years younger than current ones.
In addition to Mitchell, one of the new, relatively young members is Al (Jitter) Moss, a top Cadillac salesman and Howard University graduate.
"My uncle, who is now deceased, was one of the members," said Moss. "I always wanted to get in. These are a bunch of down-to-earth guys. They represent black folks very well in the metropolitan area. They are all successful. I've always looked up to them. I wanted to keep the tradition in the Moss family."