Perhaps no other social club in Gary has the longevity as the BookLovers Club. During their centennial celebration in October, held at the Center for Visual & Performing Arts in Munster, club treasurer Shirley Thomas looked back on their 101-year history. The book club was founded in 1921, but the COVID pandemic paused holding the celebration in 2021.
“We were founded a year after women won the right to vote. We’ve been through WWI, the Depression, WWII, the first moon landing, and the first U.S. Black president,” Thomas said.
Those 100 years mean a lot and offers insights into Gary’s history. Those 14 women who founded the club in 1921 were among Gary’s first Black teachers. Their purpose – “For the broadening and improving of the mind through study and research, to afford the opportunity to keep abreast of the times in current literature with an injection of history and art …” – was the glue then and still is today.
Charter member Elizabeth Lytle was the city’s first Black female teacher. Lytle arrived 2 years after Everett Simpson, who was the city’s first Black teacher. He was hired in 1909.
Female teachers were uncommon in those days, said BookLovers Club historian Loretta Piggee. “Hiring a woman meant taking a job from a man. Lytle likely wouldn’t have been hired if she had been married.” The practice was just not in Gary, but in many areas of the country, Piggee said.
The BookLovers were all migrants. Gary was just 15 years old in 1921; incorporated in 1906. The teachers only taught Black students in Black schools and Black students in separate classrooms in majority white schools until 1949, when Indiana passed a law prohibiting segregated schools on the basis of race.
The club grew and survived because club members remained. They were working to earn a living and raise their families. Some of the charter members were still teaching in the Gary schools in the 1950s and 60s.
“The book club is more than just a book. It gives members a time to share their thoughts, their joys, and their differences of opinions that are derived from reading a book and sharing ideas,” Thomas said.
Former Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the keynote speaker at the centennial celebration told them, “We owe you a debt of gratitude because you have been a gift to this community. Many of you have followed in the footsteps of your founders – teachers.”
Membership has always been small. When Thomas and 2 new members joined in 1982, they brought the membership to 13. Today, there are 10 members.
It’s not a club for observers. Members rotate holding office positions and rotate holding meetings on the 2nd Tuesday of each month. Club members also have the duty to review a book during the year or invite a guest to review a book or give a presentation.
New members come in by invitation. The name of a potential member is presented to the membership after that person has met the group as a guest.
If not the oldest social club in Gary, Piggee believes the BookLovers is the oldest African-American one. “There were at least 7 African-American women clubs in Gary between 1916 and 1924. I believe the BookLovers is the only one that is active.”