August 26 marks the date in 1920 when American women were enfranchised equally with their male counterparts. Nonetheless, African American women continued facing barriers to voting for decades, as well as negative stereotypes, harassment, and unequal access to jobs, housing, and education. Black women banded together to form their own clubs and organizations where they could try to effect change and focus on issues they cared about.
One such organization was Cheyenne’s Searchlight Club. A Club president, Sudie Smith Rhone, explained the group’s purpose to a local reporter in 1969,
We the Negro women of the city of Cheyenne, feeling the need of a systematic effort along social, charitable and intellectual lines, in order to elevate our people, to help others as well as ourselves, organized the Searchlight Club.1
The organization was formed on December 4, 1904, as a literary and service-based group and was the first women’s club in Cheyenne specifically for African American women. Its goal each year was to have a minimum of 20 members, and they maintained that membership goal through the years.2
The Searchlight Club provided an avenue for Cheyenne’s African American women to have intellectual discussions on social and cultural topics of interest to them. The women also formed friendships and supported the African American community. One of the projects they especially enjoyed was giving baskets of fruit and candy to the sick and shut-ins during the holidays. They prepared the baskets themselves and personally delivered them.3
The Searchlight Club also gave scholarships to students. For instance, along with the Cheyenne Women’s Club, the club contributed to the education of Marjorie Witt Johnson who was born in Cheyenne in 1910, the daughter of a Buffalo Soldier. Witt Johnson went on to earn a B.S. degree in social work from Oberlin College in 1935 and founded a Black dance company, the Karamu Dancers, that stole the show at the 1940s World Fair in New York.4
Activities of the Club are described in briefs found in Cheyenne newspapers beginning in 1905. The ladies met at each other’s homes on Thursday evenings to hear presentations and discuss topics with titles such as “Music: Its Use in Churches, Homes, Schools and on Public Occasions,” “Are We as a People Less Devoted to Singing than the Europeans?” “Heredity vs. Environment,” “The Press: Its Recent Developments,” “Irrigation in the West,” “Egypt and Its Customs” as well as to talk about notable African Americans and even vacation experiences.
At times the Searchlight Club joined with Cheyenne’s Colored Civic League to host events, such as one held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in May 1919 to honor Lieutenant J.R. Leonard, an African American who had recently fought with the American expeditionary forces in France.5
In 1921, after a massacre of Black residents and the destruction of their homes and businesses by whites in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma during the summer, members of the Searchlight Club issued a newspaper notice asking Cheyenne residents to donate clothing for the almost 10,000 African Americans who had been left homeless.
The Club participated in annual multi-day meetings held in June of the Federated Clubs of Colored Women of Colorado and Wyoming. At the 1909 convention in Cheyenne, “a most cordial invitation [was] extended to all race lovers and those interested in the race to attend the meetings…to see the rapid strides these women have made in forty years…”6 Governor B.B. Brooks welcomed the conventioneers to Cheyenne in an evening address that began the conference. The ladies discussed such topics as the overall importance of education, the role of higher education for Black women, and livelihoods for African American graduates in the West.
By 1926, Wyoming had formed its own State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Their first annual convention was held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Casper on June 10, 1926. Casper Mayor John T. Scott welcomed the ladies to his town on the first evening. The Searchlight Club was represented by Fannie Butler and was one of nine organizations at that first convention. Other clubs represented were the Cheyenne-based groups of Needlecraft, the Cheyenne City Federation Reciprocity Club, American Beauty Ceramic, and the Young Matrons Culture Club; Casper-based groups were the Wyocolo Art and Literary Club, Juvenile Literary and Art, and the Mutual Uplift Club; and from Sheridan came the Joliet Art and Literary Club. Ollie Reed of Cheyenne was elected as the organization’s first president with Emma Sander (Casper) as vice president, Mrs. DeMarge Tolliver (Cheyenne) as recording secretary, Julia Newsome (Sheridan) as corresponding secretary, and Ethel Henderson (Casper) as chairman of the executive board.7
There was also a Searchlight Club in Rock Springs with both men and women members that was first mentioned in the Rock Springs Miner in January 1904 and, like the Cheyenne-based club, held discussions on topics of interest that included everything from socialism and race problems to Darwinism, discoveries in physics, and early aviation. The Rock Springs club frequently shared presentation and study topics with the Cheyenne group.
As of 1988, the Searchlight Club in Cheyenne was still active.8 If you have more information about the Searchlight Clubs in Wyoming, please let us know at the AHC.
Post by the AHC’s Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
- 1. April 1969 article in unnamed Cheyenne newspaper, Box 10, Harriett Elizabeth Byrd papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
- 2. Field, Sharon Lass (ed.), History of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Dallas, TX: Curtis Media Corp., 1989, p. 432.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. The History Makers, oral history interview with Marjorie Witt Johnson, March 22, 2006, https://www.thehistorymakers.org/taxonomy/term/42452
- 5. Cheyenne State Leader, May 01, 1919, p. 8.
- 6. Cheyenne State Leader, June 29, 1909, p. 7.
- 7. Casper Star-Tribune, June 10, 1926, p. 9.
- 8. Field, 1989.