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Monday, June 29, 2009

Ebony Club Reunion to Honor Two



When Elizabeth Dudney arrived at Dobyns-Bennett High School as a biology teacher in 1972, plans for the Ebony Club were in its infancy. The club was struggling to form bylaws and a constitution and be recognized by the school.
Dudney, who was already at the helm of two D-B clubs, agreed to sponsor the Ebony Club.
“I was one who believed it doesn’t all come out of a book. You have to do things, be involved in things. It was under me that we were officially recognized by the school,” Dudney said.

Erica Yoon — Dawnella Ellis (standing, left), her mother, Jill Ellis (seated) and Elizabeth Dudney were an integral part of leading the Ebony Club at Dobyns-Bennett High School. Dawnella Ellis and Dudney will be honored when the club holds a reunion this weekend.

From 1972 until 2005, the club flourished, first under Dudney’s leadership, and then under the guidance of Dawnella Ellis. Both women will be honored this weekend during the Kingsport Ebony Club Alumni Association’s 2009 Reunion Weekend.
The club was created to give the school’s African-American students a better sense of their collective history, as well as a more accurate understanding of the varied contributions of their ancestors to the American way of life. Ellis led the club from 1976 until her retirement in 2005, and the club has not existed since then. Organizers of the Reunion Weekend hope that will change soon.
“We’ve been trying through homecoming and the reunion to re-establish the club,” Ellis said. “Everybody’s trying, but we just haven’t been able to get it off the ground.”
In the club’s early years, there was nearly 100 percent participation from African-American students, Ellis said.
“This was an outlet for the African-American students, even though we had some non-African-American students who joined. It was open. The word ‘ebony’ may have just suggested that [it wasn’t open]. We were open to any Dobyns-Bennett student and some of them did [join],” Ellis said.
Dudney’s ideas for the club didn’t mesh with those of the students.
“I wanted them to help people in their community, go out and put a lady’s garden in shape for her. ... That didn’t work out too well. They wanted to have something they could call their own, that they could be proud of. Something they could go on trips with, and they did, and they loved it,” Dudney said. “That was important to them, that as a group they could go places together, see things and do things that were exciting.”
For several of those early years, Ellis’ mother Jill Ellis helped Dudney run the club.
“When we had programs, Jill was right there to help me,” Dudney said. “When Dawnella came, she stepped in as my assistant .... and then she gradually took o v e r. ”
Dawnella Ellis said her goal was to give club members enrichment opportunities.
“We had an annual fashion and talent show. That was a fund-raiser and from that fund-raiser we would have an annual trip every April/May. We visited mainly historically black colleges and universities. We went to theme parks. We did community service activities and projects. We were one of the charter members of Rascals Teen Center. We were goal-oriented. We were community-based. We participated in Black History Month, Martin Luther King Day,” she said.
The Ebony Club actually had its roots in another social club at D-B, said Jill Ellis.
“Right after we integrated the school system, the girls felt the distance between themselves — the black girls and the white girls,” she said. “They felt like if they could organize a social club ... so we sent out applications and notices that we were forming a club to better relations.”
That club had two sponsors — Jill Ellis and Brenda Hurst.
Then it came time to name the club.
“They were black and white [girls], so they wanted something to indicate they were a biracial club. The first name that came out was Salt and Pepper, but they said, ‘Ewww, no they are seasonings.’ But it indicated that was the things you needed to keep things t o g e t h e r. ”
The students began looking at Greek names, and ultimately chose the name Sigma Phi, Ellis said.
“The mothers were involved. ... We went on trips, but the main thing we did for the year was a mother/daughter tea. It was a big thing,” she said.
The school allowed the club to meet on campus on Monday nights. “It was one of the foundations, the stepping stones, toward making desegregation a little easier. It started with the girls,” she said.
The girls-only Sigma Phi lasted until around 1980, then faded away because of the popularity of the Ebony Club.
The Ebony Club’s Reunion Weekend was planned to coincide with the Douglass High School Alumni Association reunion weekend. Registration and a welcome reception will be held from 2 to 5 p.m., Friday, at the D-B Alumni Hall. Comedy Hour with comedian Tim Hall will take place beginning at 8 p.m., Friday, at Rascal’s Teen Center in downtown Kingsport. An Old-School Music After Party will be held from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., Friday, at Rascal’s. The after-party will be open to the public.
Saturday’s events include participation in Kingsport’s Fourth of July Parade. Field Day will be held at the Douglass ball field from noon to 3 p.m., with the Ebony Club’s Alumni Banquet set for 7 p.m., Saturday, during which club members will honor Dudney and Dawnella Ellis.
Members are encouraged to attend local church services on Sunday morning.
Dawnella Ellis is excited about seeing her former students.
“I continuously call them kids, even though they’re all grown, married. I still have good contact with most of them. We’re still very good friends,” Ellis said. “This has always been a dream of mine to have a reunion.”
For more information, visitThe Kingsport Ebony Club.