Naomi Edinburgh Murray was founder of the Washington Rhinestone Club, formed in 1952 to recognize the achievements of young debutantes and promote their education and community service at a time when blacks were not allowed to participate in mainstream social coming-out ceremonies.
More than any other, Naomi Edinburgh Murray’s name is synonymous with Seattle’s time-honored Rhinestone Ball, a Christmas season rite of passage of “presenting” young African-American women as debutantes into what many consider Northwest black society.
“Mama Murray,” as literally hundreds of her young debutantes came to know her, was founder, along with four friends, of the Washington Rhinestone Club, formed in 1952 to recognize the achievements of young debutantes and promote their education and community service at a time when blacks were not allowed to participate in mainstream social coming-out ceremonies.
The ball, always held during the holiday school break at an upscale downtown location, is a 54-year tradition. Dawnmarie Murray Cooper, Mrs. Murray’s only daughter and a past club president, says it’s a tradition she expects to continue.
Mrs. Murray, 87, died Aug. 18 at the Central Seattle family home where she had lived for more than a half-century. For years, she made annual visits to New Orleans, where she was born and grew up. She was visiting there three years ago when Hurricane Katrina struck. She was one of those rescued by military aid workers, then flown by helicopter out of the path of the hurricane’s devastation. She suffered a stroke a year later, her daughter said.
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A graduate of the University of Chicago and a nurse by training, Mrs. Murray worked as a medical-lab technician shortly after coming to Seattle in 1951. She later established a preschool for severely disabled children in Seattle’s Central Area in the early 1960s. The program became a forerunner to the nonprofit Northwest Center for the Retarded, said her daughter.
She was employed by Seattle Public Schools, teaching special-needs youngsters at Green Lake Elementary School until retirement in 1990.
But it was the Rhinestone Club and her active involvement in Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church that made her a community notable. She never served as club president, “but she was always in the background working,” said longtime club member Gertrude Jackson, of Bellevue.
“She was a beautiful, talented lady who would do anything in the world to help someone,” she said. “She loved to entertain, and she was a social person, but she stayed in the background.”
Murray Cooper said the Rhinestone Club has awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships to young African-American women for college over the years.
“It was an honor to be asked [to be a debutante] and it was a highlight, not just for you, but for your family,” said Elaine Seay-Davis, of Seattle, a 1968 debutante. “If there was something that needed to be done, and you didn’t have enough money or materials to do it, Mrs. Murray could get it done,” she said. “She could cook. She could sew. She had contacts.”
Sandra Smith-Jackson, a 1967 debutante, lauded Mrs. Murray for placing good character and career development above social advancement. “She always tried to push my generation forward,” she said. “We understand that our goal was to be the best-educated women we could be.”
Besides her daughter, Mrs. Murray is survived by grandsons Milton Cooper II and Michael Cooper, both of Seattle; and a sister, Mildred Washington, of New Orleans.
A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at First A.M.E. Church, 1522 14th Ave. A viewing is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Bonney-Watson Funeral Home, 1732 Broadway.