Forty Club celebrates 85 years of Black social life


The Forty Club of the Twin Cities, one of the longest enduring social clubs in the state, has designated 2010 as a commemoration year to memorialize its 85 years of active participation. Its calendar of events this year is being dedicated to the memory of those who initiated the club and have over the years maintained its viability and sustainability so that it has become one of the real giants of Twin Cities African American recreational life.

The Forty Club was formed in April of 1925, at a time when things were very different for African Americans in Minnesota – and in this country, for that matter. Most Black organizations were focused on civic and cultural equality, but the Forty Club’s organizational purpose focused strictly on recreation and entertainment.

The initial rules governing the club stated: “The object [of the club] is to promote social activities.” It even spelled out some of the activities by indicting that “dance parties will be given 4 times a year.” During that time, and for some time afterwards, dance parties were a main staple in African American entertainment circles.

Babe Salters, somewhat of a musical forerunner of the day, led one of the early music groups that played for some of the dance parties. Later, Percy Hughes and his orchestra were among the groups supplying music for club dances. (Incidentally, Percy Hughes’ father was among the founders of the club in 1925.)

Although the club is no longer bound to four dances a year, dances are still a part of the club’s party routine. The “Electric Slide” became almost a standard part of the club’s itinerary. As a matter of fact, at any of today’s functions you might still see a line assembled on the dance floor with the Electric Slide in mind.

Another rule decreed by the Forty Club originators was that the club would have at least one summer outing a year. This was later extended into several each year and became a major and highly anticipated activity of the club.

Myrrhene Crawford, a third-generation member whose grandfather, S.E. Hall, was an active founding member, relates that her grandfather owned a cabin on a lake in Little Canada and the club had access to it. The Hall brothers’ cabin was used for several years and left pleasant memories for many who still remember it.

The club today has several members who are second-generation members and a few third-generationers. They are referred to in the club as “legacy members.”(The club’s current president’s husband, Gary Allen, is a legacy member.)

The longtime generational loyalty to the club undoubtedly is one of the reasons for the 85-year longevity of its existence. One of the legacy members made this remark: “Growing up, I always looked forward to eventually becoming a member of the Forty Club the same way that I looked forward to the coming of Christmas.”

At the initiation of the Forty Club, it was decided to restrict club membership to 20 couples from the Minneapolis area and 20 couples from the St. Paul area – hence the name. Eighty-five years ago, Blacks in Minneapolis and St. Paul were somewhat estranged, and one of the things that Forty Club founders had in mind was uniting the two cities’ Black populations. With the requirement of an equal number of memberships from each city, the Forty Club was a pioneer in creating inter-city unification.

Over the years there have been various attempts to increase the membership size, but this has been resisted by the membership at large, and the club has remained at the 40-membership level. Some feel that the membership number is significant to the founders’ insight.

Others feel that by becoming too large the club would lose some of its intimacy. For example, Herticenea Self, a member since the ’70s, indicated,

“The combined 40 couples make for a nice, workable group size. When we first joined we knew few members, but…we were soon to know most members by first name.” Joseph Sizer, a member since 1966, echoed the same sentiment.

Although the club’s purpose was strictly social and recreational, many of its members were leaders in the city and state. None gained greater prominence than founding member Clarence “Cap” Wigington, the first African American registered architect in Minnesota.

Wigington designed an array of schools, fire stations, park structures, and annual ice palaces for the Winter Carnival. His designs for the Highland Park Water Tower, the Holman Airfield Administration Building, and the Harriet Island Pavilion (now named after him) are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Among the other founding members was Tela Burt, first African American realtor, and several doctors and lawyers who played prominent roles in the early Minnesota Black community.

Officers elected by the club founders 85 years ago were: Harold Combs, president; Mrs. Adina Gibbs, secretary; Mrs. Hattie Oliver, vice president; and Dr. Earl Weber, treasurer.

Matthew Little welcomes reader responses to