LORAINE RICKMOND can’t sit still for long. A vibrant, irrepressible energy resonates from her small frame, which osteoporosis has shrunken a couple of inches to under 5 feet tall. Fortunately, a busy schedule precludes any sitting still, what with bridge in the morning, playing the piano every Wednesday at the Richmond senior citizens center where she lives, and painting watercolors of the natural world around her.
Rickmond, who just turned 96 years old, relied on a cane just last summer, when the Links Inc., a national black community service organization, honored her for her 48 years of service. “This was like old times, ” she says about the ceremony and the party that followed. “We’re not only supposed to work hard. If you don’t play, you lose.” That was when Rickmond threw away her cane after friends cajoled her to come onto the dance floor. She hasn’t used it since.
A joyous spirit and the indefatigable ability to make things happen account for Rickmond’s successes as the founder of the Oakland-Bay Area Chapter of the Links. She has only missed three meetings with the group; she also served on its national board for six years.
The founding actually settled to her by default. In the late 1940s, Rickmond accompanied her mother to her home in Pennsylvania. While there, Rickmond met with a woman named Lillian Brown. They knew each other through their husbands, who had attended medical school and interned together. Brown served as the national membership chairwoman for the Links, a service organization started by Margaret Hawkins and Sarah Scott in 1946.
“The dream was to have the Links coast to coast, from the Great Lakes to Mexico, ” Rickmond says. Brown asked Rickmond to open a chapter on the West Coast. “I told her, I won’t organize, I’ll get someone to do it.’ ”
By 1950, the Oakland-Bay Area Chapter was organized, and Rickmond found herself the default leader.
Meanwhile, as Rickmond tried to find a leader, her best friend, Charlotte Enty, a piano teacher who worked at a dance studio for millionaires and their daughters, suggested the idea of the debutante ball as a fund-raising and community tool.
A cotillion, Enty believed, would prepare young people for a good future. When Rickmond’s husband said he would underwrite all the expenses, Rickmond and a group of women set out to raise seed money. In hats and gloves, they walked up and down Seventh Street in Oakland, where prostitutes loitered, trying to get stores to purchase souvenir book ads.
It took six years before the Oakland-Bay Area Chapter held its first cotillion at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley in 1955.
“We had three out there, but we outgrew it, ” Rickmond says. “We were all stunned at the success. People came from all over.” Eighteen girls made their debut, and communities both black and white praised the new tradition. “You have brought so much culture here, ” they would tell Rickmond, “and we love it.”
Under Rickmond, the Links became a strong supporter of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Every Links chapter took a life membership to the NAACP, ” she says. Those funds were pooled and presented to Thurgood Marshall, who would successfully argue against educational segregation in the 1954 case Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. “It was a thrill of a lifetime when Margaret gave that $29,000, ” Rickmond says. “I was so fortunate to be there.”
After decades of success, the fortunes of the cotillion fluctuated in the 1980s. One year in that decade saw only eight girls turning out for the ball, an all-time low. “We lost money finally because of drugs, and the children had the turnaround (in attitude), ” Rickmond explains. “It wasn’t the thing to do.”
The cotillion has since been reinvigorated; 21 young women debuted in 1997. “The people we get nowadays are so smart, ” says Rickmond, who partly attributes the revival to the Links officers who serve as role models. These former debutantes sought careers outside the traditional housewife role to be physicians, attorneys, judges and scientists.
“I’m not a college woman, ” Rickmond says of herself, but she has lived a full life. She did whatever she could, cleaning silver, clerking, housework. She played sheet music for potential customers at Woolworth’s and much later led a 24-piano ensemble in Berkeley. She enrolled in a child psychology program at Mills College some time back, but dropped out when she realized “I knew more than they did.”
She works with the Links’ Oakland-Bay Area Chapter on a consulting basis now. The Links’ mission to instill cultural pride in coming generations is a message that Rickmond has fiercely delivered her whole life. Despite her light skin and her mixed lineage “you name it, we got it” Rickmond never hid her African-American heritage.
“We’re all colors, and I never passed in my life, ” Rickmond says. “I couldn’t be bothered. My mother said, Never deny yourself.’ ” Rickmond’s own encounters with prejudice began in high school. “I was in the glee club there; the whites would say, you don’t need to go with them. I said, Listen, these are my relatives, and I’m going to go with whom I please.’ And they said, Why do you want to go with all that trash for?’ ” Rickmond did not take long to share the philosophy she still carries today
“Go to hell, ‘ I said, I’m going with whom I please.’ That was it. When I make up my mind, there’s no changing it.”
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features.