Monday, February 20, 2017

The Orpheus Club

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

During the 1930s, there were over a dozen clubs at the Elmira Free Academy and none of them accepted Black members. These clubs offered kids a chance to socialize, showcase their talents, perform community service, and enhance their academic studies, but EFA’s Black students were excluded from all of it. In the spring of 1938, junior Edith Smiley decided to change all that by creating the Orpheus Club. According to their statement in The Torch, the club was created “to increase the number of social activities for colored students and to give them an opportunity to exhibit their talents.” By the end of the school year they had formed a glee club and hosted a party at the home of one of the club officers.
Edith Smiley, Founder and First President
Over the next few years, the Orpheus Club became a vital part of the school. Club members performed for their classmates in various school assemblies. They regularly hosted a booth at the Annual Fall Carnival. They threw jitterbug dance parties in the gym and at club members’ homes. 1942 was a banner year in terms of programing. That spring, they brought in Rev. George F. Fauntleroy of AME Zion Church to lecture on Black history and sing traditional Black spirituals, and hosted the Double VV for Victory dance honoring the first Black fliers to receive their wings from the U.S. Army Air Corps (including former club member and Tuskegee Airman, Clarence Dart).  The 1940 EFA yearbook said “For the few years this club has been in existence, it has risen to be one of the outstanding and respected organizations in the school.”

Orpheus Club show off their dancing skills, 1942
In some ways, the success of the club lead to its disappearance in 1943. In just a few short years, the Orpheus Club had succeeded in integrating Black students into the social life of the school. During the 1940-41 school year, Blacks were finally allowed into the various clubs and the first Black student, Orpheus Club member Charles Brown, was elected to Student Council. By 1943, Black students were involved in so many different clubs it must have been hard to schedule Orpheus Club meetings around them. 

Original Orpheus Club, 1939

Thanks to the Orpheus Club, Elmira Free Academy’s Black students now had many opportunities to participate in the social life of the school. Once the club was gone, however, they lost the very group that had allowed them to organize and work together for social justice.

Orpheus Club in their final year, 1943

**As a side note, if you, dear reader, were a member of the Orpheus Club or know someone who was, I would very much like to speak with you. Please drop me a line if you’d like to share your story**

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