BRISTOL, Va. — Superheroes live among us. None belong in either Marvel’s or DC’s universe, yet they’re as solid as Iron Man, strong as the Hulk, and super as Superman.
Call them the Blue Stocking Club, superheroes engaged in the act of community improvement.
Established in May 1920, the community service club of 35 women will celebrate its 100th birthday at the Paramount Center for the Arts in its beloved downtown Bristol on Sunday, April 19. Contemporary Christian superstar Amy Grant headlines the fundraiser indoors. Outdoors, Nashville’s heralded Time Jumpers will wage its swinging take on country and western music.
“In March of last year, we decided that the lighting at the Paramount was in critical condition,” said Mary Lynn Satterwhite, a member of the Blue Stocking Club for 20 years. “By May, we had the money in hand: $180,000.”
In keeping with the Blue Stocking Club’s history of community service, proceeds from the concert will benefit Paramount Revival 2020 to assist in restoring the historic venue.
“This club is not just a ladies club,” said Lucyann Jewell, a Blue Stocking Club member for 14 years. “It’s not a ladies social club. Everybody in this club is in it to do something for the community.”
In April 1920, former Major League Baseball player turned evangelist the Rev. Billy Sunday led multiple revivals in downtown Bristol. Each service drew thousands of people. Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Bristol, Tennessee were among those in attendance.
A month later, First Presbyterian members Mrs. Armin King and Mrs. Arthur King established the Blue Stocking Club as a Bible study group in May 1920. Pauline DeFriece served as the club’s first president.
“Pauline DeFriece was only 23 years old when she led the group,” said Satterwhite, a past president of the club. “They were not allowed to vote, but they took charge.”
Blue Stocking Club beginnings
As if with a trumpet in hand, the Blue Stocking Club charged forth.
They quickly morphed into a service organization, as evidenced by the club’s work with the Red Cross and Salvation Army in the 1920s and ’30s. During its initial 15 years or so, the Blue Stocking Club adopted a modus operandi for community service that remains well intact today.
“They were thinking like we are today,” Jewell said, “to do something for people in the community.”
Consider their years of existence. By the time of the Blue Stocking Club’s birth, neither rock ’n’ roll nor country music were terms used to describe music of any kind.
Warren G. Harding won the presidency in 1920. New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs and the National Football League was born.
In 1920 movies were silent, alcohol consumption illegal, television not yet invented. There was no such thing as sliced bread, nuclear weapons, or electric guitars.
Yet for all America was not yet doing, the Blue Stocking Club took a lead in Bristol.
DeFriece served as the club’s president during its first two years. Her photograph hangs inside the Blue Stocking Club room at the Bristol Public Library. Her words echo through the passage of decades and members and uninterrupted attention to community service.
“We set as one of our goals that first year (1920) … to learn to pray in public,” said DeFriece, as documented in the Blue Stocking Club’s archive of its history. “We started by reading quotations from the Bible, then memorized them. We followed a stiff training course … made us more self confident and led to activity in church, study, civic and social group.”
Those were but the opening salvos of the Blue Stocking Club. The club quickly arose from its swaddling birth to stand up, take notice, and take charge to improve the twin cities of Bristol.
“We found we were not happy studying mere words,” DeFriece said. “We must translate words into practice … we must help others and do our bit.”
Consequently, the Blue Stocking Club embraced volunteerism as essential to its membership.
“You’re required to volunteer,” Jewell said. She added that a handful of the organizations with whom club members currently volunteer include Bristol Faith in Action, Healing Hands Health Center, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
“Volunteering,” Jewell said, “I’ve gotten so much more out of than I’ve put in.”
Blue Stocking Club members of yore established the precedent of giving back in some way. For instance, from the 1920s through the 1990s, they staged an annual Society Day. It began as Club Day, a fashion show staged at H.P. King department store. Ruth McClellan, club president in 1924, coined the title “Society Day” for the annual event.
Inspired to do more, the Blue Stocking Club established a weekly Motherhood Advice Clinic during the 1930s in the office of Dr. William Gammon. By 1939, the club opened a free prenatal care clinic at King’s Mountain Memorial Hospital in Bristol, Virginia.
“To me, over the years, the clinic at King’s Mountain, which continued at Bristol Memorial Hospital (in Bristol, Tennessee), is what I am most proud of,” Peggy Rogers, president of the Blue Stocking Club in 2002, said 10 years ago. “It was active for 54 years. Out of 54 years, just think of the needy people who were helped.”
Such volunteerism paired with fundraisers as a means for the Blue Stocking Club to contribute to and foster an improved Bristol citizenry. For instance, its annual Society Day luncheon and fashion shows raised funds for such organizations as The Literacy Academy of Bristol, Girls Inc of Bristol, The Boys & Girls Club, Abuse Alternatives, YMCA Youth Scholarship Fund, Healing Hands and Wellmont Bristol Scholarship Fund.
In 1999, The Blue Stocking Club began sponsorship of live shows at the Paramount, which replaced Society Day as its annual fundraiser. First they sponsored the staging of “Anything Goes” starring Gloria Loring at the Paramount in 1999. The event raised $27,000 for the Children’s Advocacy Center in Sullivan County, Tennessee, and Washington County, Virginia.
Subsequent fundraisers included shows at the Paramount by the likes of western music’s Riders in the Sky in 2001. Two years later, the Blue Stocking Club presented The Coasters, The Platters, and The Drifters for two nights at the Paramount. Proceeds of $30,000 benefitted YWCA’s Adult Day Care Program.
Look around town for evidence of the Blue Stocking Club’s contributions.
“We have a room in the Bristol Public Library,” Satterwhite said. “We have a room in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. We have a room in the YWCA.”
Blue Stocking Club at 100
“Oh,” Peggy Rogers said a decade ago, “I look forward to our 100th year.”
Imagine that, the Blue Stocking Club turns 100 in 2020.
While seated in the room dedicated by their club at the library, Satterwhite turned to Jewell. Each grinned and expressed joy and awe.
“One hundred years,” Jewell said, “can you imagine that?”
Satterwhite cast eyes to a wall of photos that document much of their club history.
“What stays true for 100 years?” she said.
The Blue Stocking Club, each replied.
“It’s a commitment to community service at our core for 100 years,” Jewell said. “That’s what keeps people in it. For me, that’s the draw.”
Satterwhite nodded her head, took a look around the room. Finally, she smiled a smile that accompanies each member of the Blue Stocking Club when they come calling to help.
“The Blue Stocking Club,” Satterwhite said, “has done me a lot of good. We’re not a tea and cookies organization. We help people. When we see a need, we act.”
There’s no use in wondering why. They do not wear capes, yet like speeding locomotives, the Blue Stocking Club take action when called upon for one underlying reason.
“Hey,” Jewell said, “we love Bristol.”
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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