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"Listening to History" has been reprinted with permission from The News & ObserverCopyright 1998-2008.


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Mary Everett: The End Of The Century Book Club

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 5/13/2001. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Mary Everett belongs to one of the state's oldest book clubs, the End of the Century Book Club in Greenville. For its 100th anniversary celebration last year, Everett studied the club's minutes, correspondence and yearbooks all the way back to 1899. She shared her research at a banquet that brought together all 25 of the city's women's book clubs.

Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of women's book clubs continue to flourish across North Carolina. Their members carry on a tradition that dates to the Progressive Era from the 1890s into the 1920s. Bringing women into public life for the first time, those early clubs talked about books but also were at the forefront of social and political issues in their day.

Mary Everett and the 23 other members of her book club are especially proud of Sallie Southall Cotten, the club's founder and a pioneer in the women's club movement in North Carolina.

In Mary Everett's words: 

Mary Everett. Photo by Chris Seward, 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

Anytime any of us try to talk about the book club, especially with younger women, they are drawn to Mrs. Cotten because she seems far beyond her times. She grew up in Murfreesboro and went to Greensboro Female College during the Civil War. She taught school for a couple of years, and then she married Mr. Robert Cotten in 1866. Maybe in the late 1870s, they moved to Pitt County, around the village of Falkland, and he ran a dry goods store and had a big plantation.

Governor Carr had a neighboring plantation, and in 1893 he invited Mrs. Cotten to be one of the "lady managers" for the state's exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. At this fair, she came in contact with women around the country. She saw that women were beginning to band together for social clubs, book clubs and other organizations to further women's activities, or just to have communication. Because you think, she herself lived 7 miles from Greenville, and even Greenville had only about 2,500 population in 1900. It was mostly tobacco warehouses, saloons, dirt roads.

I don't know why it took her six years, but things move slow sometimes, and in December of 1899 she gathered around her six or eight women and they formed the End of the Century Book Club to "develop their mental and social culture." They only had access to a few newspapers or books and wanted to further their education. At this time, of course, women could not vote and probably were not on any civic committees. They were only supposed to have an interest in running the households.

Mrs. Cotten -- the women in the club called her "Mother Cotten" --wanted the women to speak up. When all of us were growing up even in the 1940s and '50s in the South, women sort of kept their place. You didn't say a lot and left it to the men, and you know it must have been worse in the 1900s. So the club meeting would come to order, and they'd have a roll call. When their name was called, each member was expected to answer with a literary quotation or a response on some assigned topic. This assured that they would have to say something during the meeting. They couldn't just sit there with their hands folded and smile.

These women never marched in the streets or anything like that. They were just not that way. But they were very civic minded. We take great pride in the fact that the book club founded the public library in Greenville. In 1903 they rented a room at the Masonic Temple, furnished it, gathered up books and raised money. As other book clubs formed, they all began to donate books to this library. The first library opened November of 1904 and from then into the 1930s it was the women in town, through their book clubs, that supported the library.

In 1913 the book club formed a civic committee, and they sought ways to improve the appearance of the courthouse square. They attempted to have the power cables laid under the new streets that were being paved. They asked that railroad crossings be placed on Fourth and Fifth streets. They raised money in 1916 to have equipment on the new city playgrounds. They did a lot of very forward-looking things.

Another member that we had, Mrs. J.B. Spilman, was just a wonderful person. She joined in 1925. I joined the book club in 1973, and Mrs. Spilman was still a member then. She was the most active, most mentally alert person I have ever been around. She was a very small, petite lady. She was always dressed elegantly, as you can imagine, not like all of us today who wear our slacks and casual attire, and she always referred to her husband as "Mr. Spilman."

Mrs. Spilman had been very active in politics. In the 1920s she was a precinct chairman, and in the 1930s she ran for the General Assembly but lost. Even though women had the right to vote by then, many of them did not deem it proper and would not go out and do it. She would go give a talk in the different precincts about the responsibilities of voting.

She always thought of herself as very progressive. A lot of her nature came from having grown up in Chowan County and seeing the problems with the Populist movement. There was evidently a black man elected to office, maybe the General Assembly, during the Populist era, and he was arrested and jailed, as she implied, for some trumped-up charges so that he wouldn't be able to go to Raleigh. In supporting him, her family felt very much in danger. That was a life-changing experience for her.

My point being in all this is, in 1925 she was invited to join the End of the Century Club. I think that shows the foresight of the book club. They had been involved in their own, quite different brand of politics, but they supported her when a lot of women would not. Mrs. Spilman told us that many women in town would move to the other side of the street or turn their head when she walked by, because they thought it was most improper for a woman to be in politics or run for office. It was a very prestigious book club in those days, but these women accepted her.

As time went on, and everything changed, the value of the book club from its early beginnings changed. The majority of us work now. There are so many things in Greenville, as in every other town, that you can be involved in, and so many things that these women were involved in have been taken over by the government -- the school systems, the playgrounds. When this book club was formed, there was also no university here, no movies, no TV.

I still think book clubs are important, just for a different reason. Now I think it's simply the enjoyment of being together. We still enjoy, just within the group of women, talking about our lives and our families. In this modern world, where you still have the house, and you still have the families to rear, and now, thrown into that mix, many times, jobs, maybe it's good just to have a nice quiet time to be together.

Listening to History: David Cecelski explores North Carolina's history, one person at a time.

David Cecelski is the Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at East Carolina University.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "Mary Everett."  Photograph. 2001. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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