In the hallway outside the ballroom at the DoubleTree Suites at Southcenter on a recent Sunday, a dozen young women in flowing white dresses chatter and fidget as they wait their turn to walk the aisle at the annual Washington Rhinestone Club Debutante Ball.
Sixty-seven years ago, the Washington Rhinestone Club (WRC) was formed when founder Naomi Murray realized that Black women in Seattle were not taking advantage of the higher-education resources in the city.
With four other academically minded, young Black women, Murray founded a debutante program unlike any other at the time — one with the primary goal of encouraging young Black women to enroll in college. To become debutantes, these young women begin participating in educational workshops with WRC starting their junior year of high school.
Since the club’s beginnings in 1952 (the first ball was a year later), criteria for selection has included a commitment to continuing one’s education after high-school graduation and enrollment at a college or university at the time of the annual ball. More than 1,000 women have participated in the program since its founding, and many have gone on to boast continued academic achievement and estimable careers.
At the annual ball — held after the debutantes’ first quarter or semester in college — community sponsors, alumni and WRC members provide scholarships of varying amounts to the debutantes.
This year, 12 women were presented as Washington Rhinestone debutantes at a ball held on the last Sunday in December.
As each girl prepares to enter the ballroom through the sparkling, gold curtains, she takes a deep, nervous breath. Behind them, fellow debutantes in line whisper encouragement: “You got this, girl!”
Queen Johnson, an 18-year-old from Seattle, studies political science and psychology as a freshman at Virginia State University. She seems to be the only debutante in line who isn’t nervous.
Fancy dresses and debutante balls aren’t really her thing. Johnson is more comfortable in sweatsuits than flowing dresses, and she joined the Washington Rhinestones only because her mother, Aiyana Brown, pushed her to apply. But on the day of the ball, Johnson seems happy to be there, smiling and laughing with her fellow debutantes, waiting their turn to walk the aisle and take the stage.
“I’m glad I was pushed to do it,” Johnson says, still calm and smiling before her turn. “I think I went into it with a negative mentality. But it’s been really nice. Being here, I’m just excited.”
Kiel Walker is the last to enter. Clutching a jeweled scepter and smoothing out her heavy, red-velvet robe, she takes a few slow, deep breaths to calm her nerves.
As a freshman kinesiology major at Texas Woman’s University with plans to work in physical therapy, Walker, originally from Seattle, graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average in high school, thus earning the role as queen of the ball, an honor that goes to the Rhinestone debutante with the highest GPA.
Walker has been looking forward to this moment since she first heard about her family’s tradition of becoming a Washington Rhinestone.
Thirty-three years prior, in 1986, Kiel’s mother, Renee Walker, made a similar walk to a ballroom stage for her debut with WRC. Nineteen years before that, in 1967, her grandmother, Charlotte Ann Jacobs, became the first in her family to debut with the Washington Rhinestone Club.
“It’s here,” Kiel says before entering the ballroom. “My princess moment.”
As Kiel steps through the curtains, the spotlight brightens her face and she eases into a smile that overtakes the nerves that had her fidgeting only moments before.
Escorted by her father, she walks gracefully down the aisle and toward the stage, where she will join 11 other young achievers to be presented to society as Washington Rhinestone debutantes.
‘This is Black girl magic’
Seated at a table out in the crowd at the DoubleTree ballroom, Jacobs tears up as she watches her granddaughter being presented as a Rhinestone debutante.
When Jacobs was selected to be a Washington Rhinestone debutante, she didn’t have much say in the matter. Jacobs’ stepmother, the locally famous Margaret Hardin, who was 106 years old when she died in November, was an ardent supporter of WRC, and she made the decision for her stepdaughter.
Raised in Seattle’s Central District, Jacobs enrolled at a predominantly white high school in 1964 as part of the voluntary-busing program in Seattle. There, she endured racist slurs and calls for her to “go back to Africa.”
Looking back, she sees that being a debutante with WRC was an honor, because it acknowledged the challenges she had overcome to pursue higher education.
“I told Kiel that her great-grandmother will be smiling down,” says Jacobs, who graduated from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in social work in 2005, at age 56.
“An education was really stressed in my family,” Jacobs says. “They were always talking about the importance of us going to school and getting a college education, and marriage and children could always come later. [My daughter] Renee has passed on to Kiel what I passed on to her. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to finish school, as long as you finish.”
Although they do not debut until the holiday break after their first few months of postsecondary studies, debutantes begin their journey with the Rhinestones in their junior year of high school, taking workshops on topics like college preparation, financial literacy and etiquette.
“There’s another standard for you as an African American woman,” said Washington Rhinestone Club president Carol Bell-Daniel. “There are so many things in society that teach us to be divisive and competitive, and it really doesn’t encourage us to be connected and unified in what we do, and be stronger together. An organization like this teaches that to young ladies.”
Although today’s debutantes feel some of the club’s notions, like the idea of a young woman “coming out to society,” seem old-fashioned, many of them have put a modern spin on these ideas.
“It’s kind of like your princess moment,” Kiel Walker said. “You’re just on your best behavior, [trying to be] the person you looked up to when you were a kid. You know, when you’re younger and you see Disney movies and you see the princesses that are strong and courageous. I know some people’s little siblings are coming, and it’s like a majestic moment.”
Even as the club adapts to the changing times, touting the importance of higher education remains its bedrock — and is its primary appeal to parents, club members and debutantes.
“School! Schoool!” Frances Stephens, the Rhinestone Club’s last surviving founder, says emphatically when asked about the most-important aspect of the club. “Our aim is that we would encourage the girls to go on to college. That was our requirement and it is still our requirement — that you must be accepted and attending a college for a least one quarter.”
The whole experience is steeped in tradition. Over the past 66 years, more than 1,000 young women have debuted with the Rhinestones. Many of them have sisters, mothers or even grandmothers who were Rhinestone debutantes before them, and some go on to become dues-paying members of the club themselves.
One family, whose daughter, Alexis Williams, debuted in 2011 and died young, has honored their daughter’s love for the organization by staying involved. This year, they provided a scholarship to two debutantes, including Kiel Walker.
“As a people, we’ve lost some of our traditions or it’s been culturally appropriated, and it feels good to me to still have something that is our own,” says Renee Walker. “Sometimes, our girls are not going to get uplifted by others in the world. So it’s good for them to have a chance to be uplifted by their own community and see that they are loved, that they are supported, they are being encouraged.”
“I will support anything that supports Black girl magic,” Renee Walker says. “This is Black girl magic.”
Debutantes like Kiel Walker are following in the footsteps of the mothers and grandmothers who debuted before them. But for some debutantes, it’s the beginning of a new tradition.
A new tradition
Queen Johnson never saw herself donning a white dress and being “presented to society” as a debutante. An aspiring FBI agent, her interests lie more in the crime procedurals she watches with her cousin, and in creating safe spaces for conflict resolution, like she did with the “Harmony” club she founded in high school.
Yet, over the last two years, she attended every Rhinestone workshop (a feat for which she earned the WRC Verna Bush scholarship), and over her college winter break, there she was with the 11 other debutante escorts, putting in five to 12 hours each day to rehearse for the debutante ball.
Johnson says going to college has helped her understand the value of organizations like the Rhinestone Club, and of being presented to society.
“What you’re a part of holds weight,” Johnson says. “When I really got to thinking about it, it’s like you’re really growing up. You are venturing off in the world. It’s for yourself, really. You have to find out a lot of stuff for yourself, so it’s real.”
Seven of this year’s 12 debutantes are legacies, with family members who have been debutantes or club members before.
Johnson, however, is the first person in her family to debut with the Washington Rhinestones.
Her mother, Aiyana Brown, says the Club has been welcoming and supportive, even arranging for Johnson, whose father died five years ago, to dance with a Rhinestone member’s husband during the father-daughter dance.
Brown hopes this will be the beginning of their own family legacy.
“Maybe Queen will see the benefits of it and make sure that when she decides to have her kids, maybe she’ll bring her daughters and put them in Washington Rhinestone debutantes and let them carry the torch,” Brown says.
In a recorded tribute to her daughter played during the ball, Brown tells the audience that Queen has “made me proud even as a young child.”
“I just can’t wait to see what it looks like when she blossoms and turns into the woman she is destined to be,” Brown says.
By the end of the night, each of the debutantes had been presented with at least one scholarship (Walker and Johnson both received several), danced five choreographed dances, and had been presented to more than 200 guests as high-achieving young women.
As the live band kicks up the tempo from smooth jazz to lively soul, the debutantes, Queen Johnson and Kiel Walker among them, invite their mothers, fathers, escorts and guests to celebrate with them. They finally let loose, dancing and cheering each other on.