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A whole new league

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Donna Campbell and Twana White have learned what it means to be strong.

They learned strength through watching their "sisters," generations of local women who have sought to make a difference in their communities and better their lives through the Charleston Woman's Improvement League.

Now, they're trying to do the same for other women in their community -- to lift them as they climb to help them secure their futures by reviving the league after six years of obscurity.

"I know how important it is to have people there to reach back and to help you; when I grew up, even though it was in another state, I had the same type of people there to help me and to help me realize my visions and my goals," Campbell said. "That group of women -- strong black women -- was present in my life. It's why I didn't want to see this organization fail.

"People in today's society, whether they're young or old, need to know there are strong black women reaching out to them to make a difference in their lives."

The CWIL was formed Jan. 20, 1898, by a small group of African-American women who saw a need for a club devoted to promoting high moral standards and giving back to its community. The club's motto, "Lifting as we climb," is something White, who has been a member of the club for 22 years, said the original members took to heart.

"They were sisters. They were really, truly sisters," White said. "They didn't pull each other down."

The league purchased a house in 1940 in order to further its commitment to community; it held receptions and balls there, and rented the space to local groups. When it approved the sale of its clubhouse in 2006, the league became defunct, although Campbell said several members still met and kept in touch during that time.

"Even when we were not active, there was just this burning desire for me to make sure our name was constantly out there until we did come to a point where we would reorganize," Campbell said.

The league began to reorganize in March 2012, and Campbell, its new president, helped create a steering committee to attract new members to the league. Four of its 14 current members are new, and Campbell, 63, hopes to reach out to young women to fulfill the league's mission to better the lives of people in the Charleston area.

"In 1898, they did what they called 'Polly Pigtails,' and that was reaching out to the community, young women, young ladies, young girls, and exposing them to cultural events, that sort of thing," Campbell said. "In 1994, we re-established Polly Pigtails but we called them 'League Teens,' because of the transition."

In 1998, the league held its 100 Years/100 Women celebration, an event that honored 100 local black women who had done something to impact their communities or their families.

"To me, to be able to see 100 black women in the state of West Virginia who had actually excelled and made a difference in other people's lives was special," Campbell said. "From an economic standpoint, and coming from a black background myself, there were always limitations to what you could excel in and what you couldn't growing up because of the culture.

"At that particular point, we were held back, so being able to see those women acknowledged was great. It didn't matter if you had a degree or if you had been a housewife; you had done something to add some value to someone else's life."

In 2007, the league was honored with the governor's Civil Rights Award, an award meant to recognize positive change and empowerment in the state.

The CWIL will hold a membership drive in July, and the club will induct its new members during its regular meeting July 21 at 2 p.m. during a reception and luncheon in the Garnet Center on Dickinson Street. White said the club hopes to attract women from all walks of life to join the CWIL.

"I'm not attached to the idea of it being an entirely black club now," White said. "I think we would take any race of woman in -- Asian, Caucasian -- as long as they met the criteria and wanted to be part of the organization."

When White and Campbell were inducted in 1990, the club had a selection procedure where the current members voted to approve new membership, and one vote could prevent a woman from admission to the club, which is a policy Campbell said the CWIL has dropped to promote inclusion.

"I think that there are a lot of talented black women who could have offered a lot to the organization during that time, but with that one-vote policy, they were not allowed in the club," Campbell said. "Today, that is a major change that we have made. We've removed it from our guidelines and our bylaws, to accept that any woman who has character, anyone who is dedicated and wants to make a difference in society and the community, we invite you to join us."

The league also plans to purchase a new clubhouse in the near future with funds set aside from the sale of its previous house. The house could be rented for $25 a day in 1898 -- the same price the league asked when White and Campbell joined.

"It's in our path to have a clubhouse again," Campbell said. "In 1898, the ladies worked hard to buy a facility, because they were meeting in each other's homes. They saw the need to have their own facility, and we still see that need."

For more information on the CWIL or to become a member of the league, email cwil1940@live.com. Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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