As the twentieth century dawned, Birmingham was a small town of two and three story buildings with a few church steeples punctuating the skyline. It was from these church steeples that two groups of young women formed to help others in need.
In 1916, from St. Mary’s Church, came the “Volunteer Relief” group focused on supporting service men called up to fight at the Mexican-American border. They collected much needed items of comfort, like toothpaste and soap and, after the war was over, hosted events raising money for Children’s Hospital. Also looking to help those less fortunate, thirty or so young women known simply as “Mrs. Shook’s Group” were engaged in the same type of volunteer work. In 1921, both groups, individually, reached out to the newly formed AJLA, petitioning for membership.
Representatives from each group were invited to an AJLA convention in Atlanta to present their case for admission into the Junior League, where it was suggested the two groups merge and form the Junior League of Birmingham – and so it happened and on May 10, 1922, the Junior League of Birmingham held its first meeting at South Highland Presbyterian Church. The meeting was called to order by Mrs. C. Powell Noland and the group elected its first slate of officers, including
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In the throes of the Great Depression, the Association of Junior Leagues of America (AJLA) and its member Leagues matured collectively and as individual organizations. Junior Leagues throughout the country identified the needs of their respective communities and implemented programs to meet those needs, including the establishment of volunteer bureaus to recruit, train and place volunteers in the community. In so doing, Leagues defined the vital role of the volunteer to the well-being of society. They focused on meeting needs not met by Federal direct relief programs and on increasing awareness of culture and the arts. Across the nation, Leagues opened nutrition centers and milk stations. They operated baby clinics and day nurseries for working mothers as well as birth control clinics and nurse training programs. Leagues formed State Public Affairs Committees to affect public welfare policy. The AJLA numbered over 100 Leagues and included Leagues in Canada and Mexico.
As had the AJLA, the Junior League of Birmingham (JLB) had “grown up” and its members were self-described "social engineers." While the primary focus was the betterment of the lives of women and children, many projects assisted all members of the community. Given the vagaries of the Great Depression, the JLB established a Salvage Station to collect clothes, household and other miscellaneous items for local agencies who then distributed them to those in need. Between September 1932 and January 1933 alone, 17,000 garments, 200 pairs of shoes and other comforts were distributed. The Salvage Station operated as needed throughout the decade. The JLB supported the Red Cross milk and ice fund for children and steered neighborhood campaigns to collect money for the Woman’s Division of the Community Chest (regularly exceeding its quota). For several years the JLB enlisted the help of both community agencies and the public to collect and dress 2000-2500 dolls annually for the Community Toy Shop, thus providing a special Christmas gift to needy young girls.
Other projects included the $200 League Memorial Scholarship given yearly to a deserving girl. The JLB assisted the Beulah Moore Kindergarten in providing daycare, meals, healthcare and vaccinations to children and prenatal care for mothers. JLB volunteers served at Neighborhood House, a daycare center and safe haven for children of working mothers, providing basic care and hygiene, kindergarten instruction, and after-school playtime. Other members worked with the Children’s Aid Society, Advent Kindergarten, the Clinic Committee of Children’s Hospital and the Society of the Hard of Hearing. Between 1922 and 1934, JLB contributed almost $25,000 to hospitals, the JLB Baby Home notwithstanding. In 1935, just under 13% of Actives were placed in welfare work. By 1939, this figure reached 45-50%.
Among the JLB’s most significant endeavors were the funding of a medical social worker at Children’s Hospital, establishment of a Visiting Nurses Association and the development of children’s theater in Birmingham. In 1935, the JLB collaborated with Children’s Hospital in the interviewing and hiring of a medical social worker and paid her salary and transportation costs. JLB volunteers provided clerical services and case work assistance, including home visits. By June 1936, JLB volunteers had assisted in over 1100 cases. The project was so successful that it was featured as an exemplary League endeavor at an AJLA national conference. Two years after its inception, the fledgling project was ready to fly under the auspices of the hospital and other agencies.
The JLB then focused its attention on a new demonstrative project, a Visiting Nurses Association (VNA). In 1937, the JLB began working with the Public Health Department to hire and staff a supervisor and two nurses, one white and one black, designated to provide nursing services for individuals who were not indigent yet who could not afford the full price for an hourly nursing service. Patients meeting the criteria for services were able to pay some amount up to $1.25, the cost of a home visit. During March 1938, its first month of operation, the VNA handled 180 cases- 124 maternity cases and 56 morbidity (disease, injury) cases.
As other Leagues across the country pioneered children’s theater in their communities, so did the JLB. Among its offerings were such titles as “The Little Red Hen," “Cinderella” and “The Secret Garden” in addition to marionette shows and plays written by JLB members. The JLB handled all aspects of production including direction, casting, staging and financial backing. Ticket sales raised money for JLB projects. Concurrently, free admission for needy children fostered awareness of the arts and provided safe, wholesome entertainment for those who would not otherwise have it. In 1937, the city of Birmingham collaborated with the JLB in a production of “Peter Pan”. The show netted $700 and was seen by 2700 children free-of-charge. This seminal event marked the first ever cooperative effort between the city and the JLB.
The JLB undertook myriad fundraising efforts during the 1930’s. The Shop and Library anchored JLB fundraising with net profits ranging in the hundreds of dollars annually most years. The Shop featured clothes purchased at merchandise markets as well as fine hand-sewing by JLB members. Toys sold for prices ranging from 5 cents to 25 cents. The Library offered a $1 lifetime membership with book rental of 3 cents per day. In 1932, the JLB sponsored a wrestling match, described as “one time the League has a real man entertainment.” Repeat fundraisers included sponsorship of a Food Show and presentation of the Follies. The Follies, professionally produced variety shows held in 1935 and 1938, showcased JLB members and netted from $2500 to $3700 each for JLB projects including the VNA.
The JLB of the 1930’s had “grown up” per se. At issue on a national and local level was the intertwined defining of the volunteer’s, and the Junior League’s, role in society. Of interest were the increased need for volunteer time and service due to the prevailing economic gravity and how to educate the community about the JL and its work. A recurring theme was not depending on the government but rather, citizens themselves taking responsibility for voluntarism. Issues pertinent to the AJLA included the ability to pay dues, time spent on fundraising relative to volunteer service (approx. 30% in 1932-33) and average amount of money raised ($1400 in 1932-33). The JLB instituted a Placement Chair in 1932, and throughout the 1930’s addressed hours of service (125 in 1932) and accounting for hours served. Age eligibility for membership, sustainer relations and how to accommodate working members were other important issues. By the close of 1939, war had begun in Europe and would soon command our country’s full attention, again prompting the JLB and its sister Leagues to evolve to meet the needs of the world around them.
A force of social change in the United States of America, the Junior League navigated the 1940’s inextricably linked to the events of World War II. Canadian and American League members served at home and overseas, and League members chaired hundreds of war related organizations in nearly every city where Junior Leagues operated. Oveta Culp Hobby of the Houston League was a founder and first leader of the Women’s Army Corps. The Canadian Leagues established Motor Corps, worked in blood banks and formed volunteer bureaus to recruit and train volunteers for war-related services. Hundreds of U.S. Leagues, including the Junior League of Birmingham (JLB), followed suit and established volunteer bureaus in their own municipalities. Junior Leagues maintained an increased emphasis on the need for selfless volunteerism and the importance to national well-being of strong welfare services at the local level.
Alongside the wartime effort, other issues commanded the attention of the Association of Junior Leagues of America (AJLA), including changes in member classifications due to service by members and/or their husbands. Debate over whether AJLA should become involved in legislative action was an on-going concern. Guidelines for interaction of Leagues at local and state levels regarding legislative matters were also addressed. AJLA established minimum League standards for membership, education, placement service and finances. Two notable projects undertaken by other southern Leagues were the establishment of the first mobile cancer service by the Louisville, KY League and publication of the first Junior League cookbook, Recipes from Southern Kitchens, by the Augusta, GA League in 1940.
Responding to the needs of its community as part of a nation at war, the JLB maintained its focus on serving the people of Jefferson County while also contributing to the war effort. Current and former JLB members served as WAVEs, international Red Cross workers, aircraft assemblers and in other capacities. The JLB sold war bonds totaling over $400,000 during several war bond campaigns. Volunteer hours at home were given primarily through the Red Cross and USO but also through other organizations such as Travelers’ Aid Society and Bundles for America (and Britain) which remade old clothes into new ones for servicemen and their families. A JLB poll conducted in late 1942 of 222 members revealed that 4,262 hours of community service were given each month above and beyond one’s placement. Of these, 3,733 hours were directed to the war effort and 529 were served in non-League, non- war related capacities.
The JLB’s welfare projects remained relatively stable throughout the decade. Volunteers for the Children’s Hospital Committee assisted with patient registration and clinical work and served on the bandage committee. They made scrapbooks and posters for the children to view and gave seasonal parties for the patients. Over 20 volunteers were placed annually. In 1942, volunteers assisted with 7,564 patients and in 1947, volunteers gave 13,260 hours of service.
The Children’s Aid Society Committee offered volunteers opportunities to perform foster home investigations, clerical work and records research at the Health Department or Courthouse. When needed, members supervised children in their own homes. Volunteers for the Crippled Children’s Clinic registered patients, recorded patient histories and entertained patients waiting to see the physicians. In a given day, the might assist with as many as 50 outpatients and 40 Convalescent Home patients. In December 1940, the JLB gave its annual $200 Memorial Scholarship to train four League volunteers in Occupational Therapy Skills in order to teach O.T. crafts to patients at the clinic.
The JLB continued its work with the Beulah Moore Day Nursery, formalizing the application to the nursery and ensuring that the children received necessary medical care, including tonsillectomies and dental services. Other needs met included laundry and diaper service, adequate bedding and meal planning. Volunteers remained in service at the Neighborhood House, which provided boarding services for infants and children three months to three years of age and day programs for kindergarteners through high school students. Mothers were required to pay a small fee, usually five cents per day, for their child’s care. In 1943, the JLB began to assist with the Jefferson County Anti-Tuberculosis Mobile Bus. The bus, equipped with “Photo Roentgen” (X-ray) equipment, was taken to areas of the county in which T.B. was prevalent, and screening chest x-rays were performed in at-risk populations in order to detect early, asymptomatic cases. In 1945, the JLB financed the training and salaries of leaders for nine minority Girl Scout troops comprised of 180 girls aged 10-15 years.
The Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) formed in 1938, initially operated under the auspices of the JLB. Beginning with two nurses and adding a third in 1939, the VNA grew its patient base from 3,000 to 5,000 during its first three years, averaging six patients per day. Having thus reached a level of operational sustainability, the VNA became a subsidized agency of Community Chest in 1941 and received its final JLB payment in December 1942.
Cultural education remained an important focus of the JLB, and in November 1940, its Children’s Theater project was re-established after a hiatus of some years. The “JLB Theater of the Air” began with a series of half-hour radio broadcasts based on dramatic readings of classical literature. Featured titles included The House of Seven Gables, Little Women and Silas Marner. The committee presented marionette shows of “The Three Bears” and “The Three Little Pigs”. To promote interest in reading, the JLB also sponsored “Books Bring Adventure”, a series of children’s stories adapted for radio. The JLB Shop sponsored rotating art exhibits featuring local and national artists, works by soldiers and an exhibit from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that featured works by John Singer-Sargent and George Bellows.
The JLB’s fundraising remained anchored the Shop and Library. The Shop purveyed varietal goods including layette and children’s clothes, toys and home accessories until 1947 when it was converted to a Nearly New Shop. Each member was required to donate $10 quota to the shop, which was located in 5 Points South. The Library joined the American Lending Library Association thus streamlining its acquisition of books and its operation. The Musee de Noel, a two-week Christmas market, was first held in 1940. Regular Newsheet advertisers included the still popular venues Gus Mayer and Savage’s Bakery.
Fiscally mindful then as now, the JLB determined the cash value of volunteers’ time at five welfare placements. Volunteers at Children’s Hospital, Children’s Aid Society, the Crippled Children’s Clinic, Beulah More Day Nursery and Neighborhood House contributed hours worth $5,140 annually. Shop volunteers saved the JLB $1,560 each year. JLB membership grew from 336 in May 1942 to 486 in April 1948. Concurrently, the AJLA grew from 153 Leagues with 35,000 members in 1941 to 158 Leagues with 47,000 members in 1948. Having matured as an organization through the Great Depression of the 1930’s and then World War II, the JLB celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1947. It did so among the ranks of Leagues such as Charleston, SC, Dallas, TX, Pittsburgh, PA and Portland, ME. The JLB then began its next 25 years with the establishment of two major projects, the Junior Program for Children a community-wide collaboration of the JLB, PTAs and other civic groups to sponsor arts performances for children and The Speech School for Children, a school for deaf and hearing-impaired children.
As the 1940’s drew to a close, the JLB set its sights on two projects, one focused on health and well-being, the other on arts and cultural education, that would signify its work through the next decade. The Junior League School of Speech Correction, Inc. opened in September 1948 at the Church of the Advent. Upon its opening, the school consisted of a Board of Directors, Miss Hattie Harrell (school director and instructor) and 30 students with speech and hearing impairments. Twenty five JLB volunteers worked with the students. Children needing speech instruction were taught in a day school setting. Deaf children aged three and one-half to five and one-half years received speech and nursery school instruction. Older children needing speech instruction were taught individually or in small groups of two or three. The school provided diagnostic and referral services to children and adults and conducted 145 such interviews during the first two years. Parents of students were taught the skills to continue their children’s education, informally, at home. Tuition was based on the number of teaching-hours received and put on a sliding scale for families unable to pay the full cost. The school then worked with the families to make satisfactory financial arrangements.
In October 1950, the school became the Junior League Speech and Hearing Center. Enrollment numbered 38, and two teachers were added to the staff. A parent organization was formed, and enrichment activities such as weekly art and dancing lessons were incorporated into the curriculum. Over 200 children from Birmingham and 31 other towns received diagnostic conferences. The school continued to grow and in 1951 moved to 28th Place South near Rhodes Park. The cohort of JLB volunteers grew accordingly and numbered as many as 45. In 1955, the JLB voted to commence a gradual transition of the Speech and Hearing Center to appropriate community agencies. The Hearing and Speech Clinic of the Medical College of Alabama opened in 1956 in the former Salvation Army building to evaluate applicants for appropriateness for admission to the Center and for placement in the programs best suited to their needs. The Clinic also conducted follow-up evaluations to monitor students’ progress. In 1957, after appropriate funding had been secured, the administration of teaching was turned over to the Birmingham City Board of Education. The name given to the combined services of the Clinic and the Speech and Hearing Center was the Alabama Foundation for Hearing and Speech (AFHS). The Diagnostic Clinic provided actual diagnostic services and audiological assessments and made referrals to the Speech Center, now with an enrollment of 80, under the auspices of the public school system. Speech therapy was given at school, at the Speech Center or at South Highlands School. Deaf education classes were also taught at South Highlands, allowing deaf students to receive their full education there. The Center’s success was such that during 1957, the JLB received letters of commendation from Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Spencer Tracy (wife of the actor and mother of a deaf child). In March 1958, the Speech Center was moved to the same location as the Diagnostic Clinic.
Though the JLB Follies of 1949 raised over $15,000 for the Speech School, funding for it, and later the AFHS, came primarily from the JLB’s annual Christmas Eve Caroling program, begun in 1948. Each Christmas Eve, JLB members and their families caroled and collected donations for the School. From an initial $600 profit the first year, Christmas Eve Caroling grew into a city-wide project that netted upwards of $25,000 annually by the mid-1950’s. Churches, PTAs and other civic groups participated in the event whose slogan rang, “Give so that others may speak”. In 1958, the JLB initiated a two-year plan to let the AFHS Board assume responsibility for Caroling. The JLB remained actively involved with financial support, and in all aspects of promoting and carrying out the event. For several years, the JLB Memorial Scholarship was awarded to a student in the field of speech and hearing with the idea of training future teachers for the School. Some of the School’s audiologists were awarded the scholarship in order to pursue graduate studies in the field.
The Junior Programs art series for school-age children began in 1948. With a giraffe mascot named “JuPe”, the Junior Programs brought ballet, music, theater and puppet shows to thousands of Birmingham’s children. Season tickets were sold as a subscription series. Additionally, civic groups purchased many of the tickets and distributed them to children free of charge. Performances were given by local and national art concerns and in some cases, by JLB committees. A performance of “Peter Rabbit” by the Puppet Committee was seen by over 7,700 children. Other titles in the series, which included several performances per year, were the opera “Hansel and Gretel”, the ballets “Puss in Boots” and “Copellia” and the play “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp”. The program became so popular that the JLB had to limit ticket sales due to space availability. In 1954, the Junior Programs Children’s Conference took place in Birmingham. Two years later, during JLB year 1956-57, the Junior Programs transitioned to a community project strongly supported by the general public with the JLB maintaining an active volunteer committee.
Alongside these leading demonstration projects, the JLB maintained welfare placements at Children’s Hospital, the Crippled Children’s Clinic, Girl Scouts, Mercy Home and Fresh Air Farm, among others. Volunteers also served with Community Chest, Girls Club, Easter Seals, the Art Association and Civic Symphony. The Professionals undertook a project of collecting, sorting, packaging and cataloguing thousands of samples of medicine donated by over 100 local physicians. The samples were subsequently distributed to indigent patients at Hillman Hospital. Another interesting JLB project was the publication of the program for the Metropolitan Opera’s annual visit to Birmingham. The Arts Committee sponsored a series of art films from the Museum of Modern Art; proceeds were donated to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
The JLB celebrated its 35th anniversary in 1957. During this time, the JLB produced four AJLA Regional Directors from among its ranks: Mrs. Lewis Underwood (also served as AJLA Vice-President), Mrs. Walter Bouldin (also served as AJLA Secretary), Mrs. Robert I. Schwartz, and Mrs. Virginia Simpson. In 1956, Helen Given was elected President, following in the footsteps of her mother-in-law, Susie Given who had served as President during 1929-30. This occurrence marked the first time such a succession had occurred in JLB history. The Newsheet and Nearly New Shop grew during the 1950’s and remained profitable endeavors which supported the JLB’s operations and welfare projects. After having spent its entire existence in borrowed and leased spaces, the JLB moved into its own (and current) headquarters at 2212 Twentieth Avenue South. The JLB renovated an existing building and oversaw all aspects of acquisition, architecture, contracting and interior design. The JLB now had a place to call home, allowing even greater efficiency to train and educate volunteers and to meet the needs of the people of Birmingham and Jefferson County.
During the 1960’s, the JLB celebrated forty years of service to its community with over 300 Active members. While continuing to identify and implement projects to meet needs in the areas of health and welfare, education and the arts, the JLB increasingly emphasized involvement in public affairs. Such matters ranged from being an informed citizen to addressing social issues facing teenagers.
In 1960, the JLB endowed a building fund of $50,000 for the Alabama Foundation for Speech and Hearing (AFSH) to build a permanent clinic, thus formally ending the twelve year relationship between the two. In total, the JLB contributed over $200,000 and countless volunteer hours to the AFSH. By 1964, the AFSH served over 8,000 Jefferson County children. The JLB continued to lend support by participating in the annual Christmas Caroling program.
The Arts received much attention during the 60’s. The JLB Choral Group made its debut at the December 1961 membership meeting to rave reviews. Still singing, the Choral Group delights audiences at home and abroad with many performances each year. JLB funds endowed the Concert Master’s chair of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for at least two years beginning in 1962 for $2,500 per year and also revitalized the Alabama Pops Orchestra. The JLB underwrote the salary for an Art Education Coordinator for the Art Museum and purchased a kiln and other equipment. JLB funds purchased extensive slide sets of art and history; volunteers assisted the museum by presenting the slides to area school students. In 1964, Junior Programs became the Birmingham Children’s Theater and continued to present quality live arts performances to local children. A new recipient of support was the Birmingham Civic Ballet.
Beginning in 1961, the JLB committed $24,000 over two years to underwrite a cottage for adolescent girls at Mercy Home. Volunteers concurrently served in many capacities at the home. Service at Children’s Hospital was expanded with the formation of a Junior Guild of male and female teenage volunteers. The Guild was reportedly the first opportunity for minority girls to volunteer in the city. The JLB hired a social worker for Children’s Hospital. Members served senior citizens in the Golden Age program at the Salvation Army. The JLB purchased a Braille Writer and volunteers transcribed textbooks into Braille for blind students at Powell Elementary School. Two other important projects were the expansion of the Arthritis Clinic and the establishment of a Reading Diagnostic Clinic that focused primarily on children with dyslexia.
A Community Volunteer Services program, later called the Volunteer Board, was formed in 1962 to match community volunteers with suitable opportunities. The program thrived and during 1963-1964, over 22,000 volunteer hours were logged. Recognizing its 40th anniversary in 1962, the JLB published a pamphlet explaining “who it is, what is does and how it does it”. This was distributed to Newsheet advertisers, community agencies and other Leagues. In 1965, The JLB compiled a Guidebook detailing available educational tours for elementary and secondary school students and distributed it to private and public school teachers. Also on an educational front, the JLB served as the publicity arm of the Birmingham Southern College Planetarium, which opened in 1964. These efforts resulted in over 20,000 visitors to the planetarium during its first year of operation.
Public affairs and social issues also concerned the membership. The JLB was instrumental in the formation of a Parent-Youth Association to address challenges facing young people and to foster healthy social development. The Memorial Scholarship Fund was initially begun in memory of Mrs. Harold L. Bissell and provided numerous scholarships to deserving students. Fundraising continued via the Follies, held in 1962 and 1968, the Nearly New Shop and Newsheet advertising.