For five decades now , a group of women has been connected by friendship and the desire to do good in their community. They are members of the Baton Rouge Chapter of The Links Inc., and on Dec. 13 they will celebrate the chapter’s 50th anniversary.
The local chapter, chartered on Nov. 28, 1964, was the idea of Jean Butler, Allene Rayford and Bessie Holland.
“I knew of The Links on a national level and had close friends in the New Orleans chapter, and they encouraged us to form a chapter here in Baton Rouge,” recalls Butler, retired head of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency who, along with Thelma Perkins is the only surviving charter member.
“Friendship was and is the No. 1 thing,” says Perkins, long known for her humanitarian efforts with her late husband, Huel Perkins. “The Links made that a point. We get together and talk about what we can do for the community, what had been done … specific things we had to do.
“This is not a fundraising organization,” she continues. “You are invited to become a member based on what you’ve done for the community. You have to pay to become a member … we give, we don’t raise.”
The Links Inc. is an international, nonprofit corporation established in 1946 by Margaret Hawkins and Sarah Scott, of Philadelphia. The membership consists of nearly 14,000 professional women of color in 280 chapters in 41 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. It is one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service organizations of women who are committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African-Americans and other persons of African ancestry.
The local chapter has 43 active members and 12 alumnae, and their list of accomplishments is long, including founding the original Beauregard Gallery in 1974 on Europe Street, which not only showcased black artists but also offered classes and seminars.
In addition to supporting art enrichment programs, the group addressed the national organization’s goals — Services to Youth, National Trends and Services, International Trends and Services, the Arts, and Health & Human Services — with a variety of projects, from breast cancer seminars to hosting the premiere of HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story,” starring charter member Butler’s daughter, Lynn Whitfield.
Today, the group continues its community work by addressing issues such as childhood obesity — 47 percent of Louisiana children are overweight — to swimming lessons for low-income black youth, of whom an estimated 70 percent have little or no swimming ability.
To teach those skills, the chapter recently donated more than $11,000 for scholarships for 140 kids to attend the Links Kids Boot Camp at the ExxonMobil YMCA.
Another current project is the Rosebud Club, which is at Buchannan Elementary School this year. Beginning in third grade until they “graduate” in fifth grade, club members receive support and interaction with Links members on a regular basis.
The Links’ LIFE program was implemented in 2009 and deals with minority high school students ages 15-17 who are interested in attending college.
According to current chapter President Yolanda Dixon, the program exposes the students to international career opportunities, such as business and foreign services, and provides them with a mentor base as well as education and service activities throughout the year.
The chapter also financially supports the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge’s Debbie Allen Project and actively participates in the national Linkages to Life organ, tissue and bone marrow donation awareness program.
Above all, The Links is known for the extraordinary women who become members.
As charter member Julia Brogdon Purnell, who died in 2013 at the age of 97, said in a 1978 story in The Advocate: “It was formed by prestigious, affluent black women who wanted to improve the quality of life … the idea was to link together across the nation … to form a chain linking leadership and services to meet the challenge of community and national needs.
“Most black women of any status are members of Links,” she added, mentioning Marian Anderson, Patricia Harris and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
Purnell, who was a professor of education at Southern University, served as the national organization’s seventh president from 1978-1982. Perkins was her public information officer.
Along with Butler, Perkins, Holland, Purnell and Rayford, other charter members of the local chapter included Lena Cooper, Marjorie Lawless, Jewell Thompson, Eva Williams and Dorothea Yates. Holland served as the first local president.
It was when Purnell was serving as director of the southern area that the Baton Rouge Chapter took on what may have been its biggest challenge — hosting what became the final chapter-hosted National Assembly. The year was 1972 and the chapter pulled out all the stops.
“After we threatened to kill her for volunteering us to host it, we went to work,” says Butler, chuckling at the memory. “It was the most successful Nation Assembly meeting ever … very elegant, lots of Southern hospitality. They’d never seen anything like it. Vivian Beamon (national president) was still talking about it years later.”
“They’re the ones who started the White Rose Banquet, which is still the culminating event for the national meeting,” adds current president Dixon, who is assistant secretary of the state Senate.
“We had faith and wonderful husbands (Connecting Links),” says Perkins of the feat, which drew almost all the presidents of black colleges in the country.
Butler and Perkins like to think it’s because they raised the bar so high that no chapter has since hosted the event.
The local chapter also hosts the Mid-Winter Conference, which brings in international mid-level government officials living in the United States to Baton Rouge for a week of events in cooperation with the National Council for International Visitors.
When members of the Russian delegation visited, the group again went all out. Butler’s late husband, Dr. Valerian Smith, and her youngest sister, Heddy Butler, teamed up to write a song.
“I still remember it,” says Butler of the tune. Perkins quickly joins her in singing: “A world so large and yet so small, creates a bond between us all … our cultures blend in harmony races of one family.”
Another major event in the life of the chapter was its 40th anniversary celebration in November 2004.
“I can remember Allene (Rayford) saying we needed to have a big celebration for the 40th because so many of us probably wouldn’t be here for the 50th, and she was right,” says Butler, a catch in her throat.