CAAM explores LA’s Black debutante culture and empowerment

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In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president, and superstar Nat King Cole sang at his inaugural gala. Kennedy was a fan of Cole’s, and later that year, Cole performed again for the sitting president at the Hollywood Palladium. After the performance, Kennedy headed west to The Beverly Hilton, where he met 28 young Black women making their debut into society.

A debutante ball.

Cole’s 17-year-old daughter, Carole, was one of the debutantes. A tradition in Black communities across the country eventually became a feature of Black life in LA. 

A new exhibition at the California African American Museum (CAAM) explores that tradition. It’s called “Rights and Rituals: the Making of African American Debutante Culture.” 

 “The origins of debutante culture trace back to Europe,” says Taylor Bythewood-Porter, the curator of the exhibition. “At that time, it was a signal to say that a young woman was eligible to be married. But over time, that idea has changed, and with African American debutante culture, being a debutante or having a cotillion means that you are leaving high school, you are going into this young adulthood. And we want to present you to the world and be able to see what amazing things you're going to be doing in the future.”

Taylor Bythewood-Porter curated “Rights and Rituals: the Making of African American Debutante Culture.” She says the meaning behind debutantes have evolved over time. Photo courtesy of CAAM.

The exhibition includes photographs and personal memorabilia. “My favorite is the cotillion dresses. We have a cotillion dress from 1952, which was from the first cotillion here in Los Angeles,” says Bythewood-Porter.

She goes on to explain, “It became a part of Black life in a way to assert respectability, to confirm that there was and is a growing Black middle and upper class. And I think it mostly formed as a way to combat racial stereotypes and biases. And a way to show that people of color, women of color, are worthy, that we deserve more. And if outside groups or institutions and societies aren't going to give that to us, then we will make our own organizations and institutions.”