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Published on November 30th, 2014 | by Millennium Magazine Staff

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100 years later, Charleston black fraternal society still ‘about nothing’

It began as an informal group of 16 black men who wanted to play cards after putting in a long day at work.

A century later, Charleston’s Owl’s Whist Club has become one of the nation’s oldest African-American membership clubs – one that its members say has survived not because it does good deeds but because it simply gives them a chance to relax and have fun.

“(The actors on the TV hit show) ‘Seinfeld’ claimed theirs was ‘a show about nothing,’ ” he says. “Ours is a club about nothing.”

Well, not exactly nothing. Its approximately four dozen members meet monthly at their own building on the banks of the Ashley River, where they eat, play poker, socialize and maybe watch a ballgame. Their conversations range from serious political happenings to whether their grass should be cut with a mower or a scythe. Recently they celebrated their centennial with dinner and dancing inside a Lockwood Boulevard hotel.

The formality of that sit-down dinner contrasts sharply with the more informal nature of its other gatherings, says Willi Glee, a member and the club’s historian.

“People ask me what we do, but I tell them the club really doesn’t do anything,” he says. “We just have fun.”

Glee says the group began meeting in private homes – its first meeting on Feb. 14, 1914, was at 195 Smith St. – for food and games of whist.

It formed only about five years after the NAACP, but unlike that organization, its purpose was purely social.

It added members in groups of four because the club’s namesake game requires that many players, but its number of members would be just one of many things that evolved over the years, as its members watched racial and political barriers fall to the side.

Like many other private clubs in Charleston, the Owl’s Whist has kept a low profile and is known by few beyond its members and their occasional guests. And like many others, it has kept its segregated tradition, although there’s no membership restrictions in its bylaws. At least one current member is a direct descendant of one of the original 16.

“It’s probably one of the oldest African-American membership clubs in the country, when you think about it,” Glee said.

Hillery Douglas, a retired chemist and former chair of the Charleston County School Board, says most of the club’s members are involved in other charities, churches and civic groups – so the Owl’s Whist Club offers a welcome change of pace.

“I guess the (founding) guys wanted to have some social outlet without having to raise money,” he says. “Sometimes you need to be involved with something that is not as taxing.”

The club made only one ambitious move, financially, when it bought property and built a $20,000 meeting space in Maryville as World War II came to a close. Some members resigned because of that assessment – which is now $1,000 a year and includes the annual Thanksgiving Eve Dinner Dance.

Many of the early members were barbers and letter carriers, but today’s membership includes doctors, lawyers, real estate developers, insurance agents, school administrators, funeral home directors and office holders, including Rep. David Mack, Sen. Marlon Kimpson, former Rep. Floyd Breeland and Charleston City Councilman Louis Waring.

Almost every occupation has been included – except men of the cloth.

“We get our spirit guidance on Sunday mornings,” O’Neill jokes. “We don’t need any on Wednesday nights.”

Inside the club, the main changes have been that its members no longer smoke cigars and don’t drink as much as they once did.

And they don’t play nearly as much whist, either.

Outside the club, so much has changed in Charleston’s black community during the past century, and the club’s members have witnessed it all – from Jim Crow to Barack Obama.

“When we started this, because of segregation, African-Americans had to make their own fun,” O’Neill says. “We still make our own fun.”

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