Having a Ball

Miya Carey slid into the satin-and-lace history of African-American cotillions, thanks to the new Leavell-Oberg Fellowship.

By Christopher Hann

The 1947 Bachelor-Benedict Presentation Ball in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution.

When her academic adviser told Miya Carey C’11 that her daughter was taking part in a debutante program in Essex County, the history major from East Windsor, N.J., wanted to know more. Carey’s curiosity led to a $3,000 fellowship that enabled her to conduct research last summer on the cultural significance of African-American cotillions, or debutante balls, in the first half of the 20th century.

The practice of formally presenting young women to polite society with an ornate ball is well documented among privileged white Americans, but Carey says historians have largely overlooked black cotillions. “There’s nothing specifically written about them,” she says. It makes it even better to research.”

Carey says she was surprised to learn that young African-American women were less interested in using cotillions to search for potential husbands. “It was not as major a focus as I thought it was going to be,” says Carey, who did her research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and both the National Archives and Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Carey intends to use her work, underwritten by the inaugural Leavell-Oberg Summer Fellowship to inform her senior thesis.

“Cotillions were a way for wealthy and middle-class blacks to demonstrate their achievements” says Carey. “If you look at cotillion programs and look at what the girls said they wanted to do, a lot of them said they wanted to go into professional fields like medicine or teaching or law.”

The fellowship honors history professor Perry Leavell, who retired in 2008, and his wife, Barbara Oberg, general editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University. Leavell acolyte and Invesco Advisers Senior Analyst Gerry Lian C’77 launched the fellowship as a way to honor his former professor, and to date, his appeals to alumni have led to commitments of more than $118,000 to the fund.

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