Frances Robinson of Olathe is a past president and 23-year member of the Pierian (pie-ear-ian) Club of Kansas City, Kan. The African-American literary society celebrated its 120th anniversary last month. Robinson’s grandmother Mamie Bradley was a charter member, and her mother, Gladys Bradley, also belonged.
In 1994, when the club marked its centennial, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of the group’s history. The University of Kansas Library also maintains a collection of papers and photographs documenting the club’s history. The club recently added a Greater Kansas City chapter. If you are interested in joining either group, call Alice Banks at 816-536-8235.
Robinson earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a bachelor’s of fine arts in piano at the University of Kansas, and a master’s in education administration from the University of Northern Iowa. This conversation took place at her home.
Where does the name Pierian come from?
It comes from a poem by Alexander Pope called “An Essay on Criticism.” It goes: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing/Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring/There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain/And drinking largely sobers us again.”
What were the goals of the women who organized the club in 1894?
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It was a way for the wives of men who were prominent in the community to get together and study, because they did not have college educations. The word “respectability” got tossed around quite a bit back then. At the time they were not considered equal, but by studying the arts and humanities (the wives) could demonstrate that they were equal intellectually. The founder was Salina Rivers, and she invited 13 women to form the club.
What kinds of topics did they study?
Over the 120 years, if you look back at the yearbooks, you can see the women studied subjects ranging from popular fiction to African-American literature to home economics, Shakespeare and modern drama. At the start of each literary year we publish a yearbook that lists the works to be read and the topics to be discussed in the coming months. Sometimes we study current events as well. Recently we had a discussion about the legalization of marijuana.
Do you have to be African-American to join the club?
No. Right now all 30 of our members are African-American, but that doesn’t mean it is limited to that.
Tell us about your grandmother, who helped found the club.
She died before I was born, so I never met her. She was married to my grandfather I.F. Bradley, who was one of the original members of the Niagara Movement. The Niagara Movement was the forerunner of the NAACP. They met at Niagara Falls.
I know from my mother that my grandmother was a very prim and proper lady. She was well-respected because of her husband’s position, and she was a leading society figure among African-Americans.
My mother, Gladys, married I.F. Bradley Jr., and she was also in the Pierian Club.
Did the ladies of the club ever meet at your house when you were a girl?
Yes, they did, but I can’t say I was really tuned in to it at that time. My mother belonged to several other social clubs, including the Inter-City Dames and so on. And a lot of times, entertainers who came to town and were not allowed to stay in hotels would stay at our house.
I was kind of shy, so I didn’t really hang out with them. I would go to my room. But all my mother’s friends, they knew how to organize entertainment activities because — you may know this — back then, African-Americans were not allowed in many entertainment venues. My mother and her friends served well — there was always good food. We had a lady that came in and did our cooking and cleaning for us.
What made you decide to join the club in 1991?
I didn’t join as a young woman because I moved to Nebraska and then Iowa with my husband. When we first moved back I took care of my mother until she died in 1989, so I didn’t participate in a lot of things.
After my daughter graduated from high school in 1990, Suzanne Knowles, who also had a mother and grandmother who had been in the Pierian Club, encouraged me to come in. She and I are the longest-standing members now, because we recently had two 40-plus-year members pass: Geraldine Strader and Eldora Gray. Joining the club was a way of honoring my mother and grandmother.
What are meetings like now?
We open with kind of a social part where we eat, and then we get into the business part, and then there’s always a program at the end. The program is a discussion of a book or a topic. If it’s a book, we’ve all read it, and if it’s a topic, we’ve all investigated it to gather information.
We meet once a month either at someone’s home, or we will rent a room at a restaurant. For special parties, like the anniversary party last month, there are musical selections as well.
You have a beautiful piano. How long have you played?
A hundred years (laughs). I probably started when I was 5. My baby grand piano is the one that was in my parents’ house near 12th Street and Everett in Kansas City, Kansas. It is older than I am. … I love this digital piano, because I can plug my earphone in and play at 3 o’clock in the morning without waking anybody up.
Even though you live in Olathe now, do you still belong to the original Kansas City, Kansas, group?
I belong to both, and the two chapters have joint meetings at least once a year. I am president of the Greater Kansas City chapter this year, because I helped them get started and my daughter, Stacey Knoell, is in that group. She is our first fourth-generation member. It’s great to continue the tradition with these younger women.