“Lifting as we climb”: The Aurora Reading Club Records

The Aurora Reading Club celebrating its 90th anniversary in 1984.
The Aurora Reading Club celebrating its 90th anniversary in 1984. Aurora Reading Club Records, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.

“Lifting as we climb” means to encourage and provide for others while making one’s way in the world It is what Pittsburgh’s Aurora Reading Club did at its founding in 1894 and continues to do after 124 years. With so much history and plenty more to make, the Aurora Reading Club records kept in the Detre Library & Archives continue to expand with new additions.

This club for “the mutual improvement of the membership in literature, art, science and matters relating to the vital interests of the day”[1] began when Rachel Lovett Jones, a resident of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, invited the five other charter members to her home for the first meeting. These six charter members, Mrs. Lovett Jones, Frances Golden, Hannah Lovett, Virginia Proctor, Anna Posey, and Cora Washington, eventually expanded to the 23-member group that continues to congregate to this day. The membership includes the descendants of multiple generations and community leaders, all subject to the group’s nomination-only process. The time period that saw both the results of Reconstruction development efforts and the grassroots work of Victorian suffragists gives context to the creation of a unique space for African American women (which later was open to other races beginning during the Civil Rights Movement). Even as circumstances change, the traditions, mission, and vibrant discussion have remained the same.

Aurora Reading Club quilt, on display in the Special Collections Gallery.
Aurora Reading Club quilt. Heinz History Center Collections, Gift of Aurora Reading Club of Pittsburgh, 2016.66.1.

In recent decades, there has been a shift toward greater community service within cultural groups. The Aurora Reading Club, the oldest African American women’s club in Western Pennsylvania, dedicates its funds and services to promoting literacy. Through collaborations with Reading is Fundamental, Beginning with Books, and book donations for various initiatives both domestically and abroad, the organization has grown to sponsor many events related to literature and the promotion of cultural institutions throughout the city of Pittsburgh.

In achieving their mission of self-study and improvement, the Reading Club collaborates with community members to give talks and presentations. Guests hosted by the club in the past include Rev. Leroy Patrick, who was known for fighting to desegregate swimming pools in Pittsburgh; Alex Haley, author of the famous novel “Roots”; Lawrence Thurman, who was curator of the Harmony Society; and John T. Writt, Sr., a prominent caterer in the city. His wife, Susan Hutcheson Writt, is one of the first recorded members on the earliest club rosters, and her sister-in-law, Mrs. William Writt, was admitted in 1898. Emma Writt Richards was club president in the 1920s. Martha Richards Conley is the current president, continuing the family tradition.

The presence of club members in the city of Pittsburgh and the scope of their interests becomes more evident when we look at the books and other African American collections in the Detre Library & Archives. For example, the Writt-Richards Family Papers and Photographs document the lives and activities of the family, which gives more context to the lives of the early club members who were involved in many local organizations and are to this day. The Dr. Vivian Davidson Hewitt Papers reflect upon the first African American librarian in the Carnegie Library. The club’s quilt project is kept within the Special Collections Gallery at the History Center, along with a sculpture by Vanessa German, a self-taught, renowned artist who resides in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The organizations they worked with, be it the Urban League, local schools and churches, or the YWCA, also have records and papers that can be found within the holdings of the History Center.

"The History of the Aurora Reading Club" explains the origins of the group and highlights notable events and changes in the club’s practices up until 1962.
"The History of the Aurora Reading Club" explains the origins of the group and highlights notable events and changes in the club’s practices up until 1962. In it is an excerpt of a poem John T. Writt, Sr. wrote for the Aurora Reading Club in 1898: "Their minds are teeming full of knowledge / Just as if they were fresh from college. / Some are artists, lovely painters, / Others bewitch us with their graces; / Some can charm us with their music, / Instrumental, song, and duet. / Some deliver speech offhand / That would do credit to any man." Aurora Reading Club Records, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
Sculpture by Vanessa German.
Sculpture by Vanessa German. Heinz History Center Collections, Gift of Aurora Reading Club of Pittsburgh, 2015.61.1. ©Vanessa German.
A page from a scrapbook created by the Aurora Reading Club for their 2009-2010 yearbook.
A page from a scrapbook created by the Aurora Reading Club for their 2009-2010 yearbook. This page highlights club curator Pam Golden, a fourth-generation member. Aurora Reading Club Records, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.

[1] Constitution and Bylaws of the Aurora Reading Club, Records of The Aurora Reading Club, 1900-2002, bulk 1943-1995, MSS#379, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Iris Afantchao is the summer 2019 Robert F. Smith Intern at the Heinz History Center.

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