When Eleanor Herd joined the Dorcas Arts and Social Club she knew she had a lifetime of work ahead of her.
Dorcas Arts was already a pillar of Anniston’s black community, a small clique of women who’d sewed, crafted fundraised and campaigned for social reform in their city for half a century. Forty-eight years later, Herd and the rest of the group are still at it.
“We give scholarships. Sometimes we feed senior citizens,” Herd said, ticking off just some of the group’s projects. “We take baskets to RMC’s intensive care unit.”
Herd was among more than 150 people who showed up at Wiggins Community Center in Anniston Saturday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dorcas Arts, a group that traces its origins to 12 Anniston women who gathered in the Anniston home of Mrs. Lula Harris in 1919 in starched aprons, according to club lore, ready to work for the community.
The club’s motto is “full of good works,” a phrase used in the King James Bible to refer to Dorcas, a woman known for making fine garments. It’s strongly implied that she gave those dresses to the poor.
Outwardly, the group consists of ladies who lunch. The social page of the Anniston Star often followed their doings — bake sales, fashion shows and “hat-o-ramas” in which members showed off their best headgear.
Behind the scenes, though, lies a lot of work, often uncelebrated. Members say the group sponsored scholarships for students from Barber Seminary, one of the city’s segregation-era black high schools. They sponsored a day room at Fort McClellan, and sent Christmas packages to Partlow Developmental Center.
The club outlived all those institutions. Today, members say, they deliver blankets and water to homeless people in Zinn Park, assemble care packages for inmates at Tutwiler and, yes, still award scholarships to Anniston students. All the work is done by a small core of volunteers.
“We usually don’t have more than 25 members,” said Barbara Curry Story, a 23-year member of the group. She said the group is about six women short of that total now, and is looking for younger women as candidates for membership.
The group’s reputation for “servant leadership” will help them recruit, predicted Teressa Woods Streeter, the president of the Alabama Association of Women’s Clubs.
“It will be the sustainer of the organization for the next 100 years,” Streeter said in a speech at the anniversary event.
Despite the group’s small membership, Dorcas Arts can draw a crowd, one that filled the parking lot at Wiggins and had latecomers parking on the roadside. Joe Steele, Jr., 82, said his late wife, Jerusha, was a member of the group for 55 years. As a former school administrator, Steele said teachers have figured prominently in the group’s ranks.
“They fill many, many functions,” he said. “They help out at boys’ and girls’ clubs, at Head Start. A lot of them are still working as teachers or administrators.”
State and local leaders sent the group good wishes Saturday, either in person or by proxy. County Commissioner Fred Wilson read a proclamation by the county honoring Dorcas Arts. State Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, read proclamations from Anniston’s mayor, from Gov. Kay Ivey and from the Alabama Legislature.
Boyd is a longtime member of the group and its current president. She said groups such as Dorcas Arts are part of what Anniston needs to improve its fortunes.
“We could almost turn some things around if we can just put aside our differences,” she said.