Just 30 minutes before the Phi Beta Sigma “beautillion” starts, a year of planning for the boys’ glittering debutant ball threatens to unravel: What should be a trio of white-gowned female escorts is only a duo.
That could mean one “beau” won’t have a partner for the intricate ballroom dance the boys have practiced for weeks.
“I think it’s gonna turn out OK,” organizer Elmer Seay Jr. says.
There’s more at stake than a fancy dance. The beaus in white tails and glinting white shoes are young black men, honor roll students bound for college.
Seay has challenged statistics showing young black males battling grim rates of joblessness, poverty and unintended fatherhood. He has arranged career forums and corralled the teens into dance classes and etiquette lessons.
Most important, he and his fraternity brothers have offered genuine concern for their future.
By evening’s end, beaus Jarratt Day, Mark Turner II and Kevin Wyatt will emerge as upright, goal-oriented men.
The Links, a Washington-based social group for affluent black women, has spent 50 years hosting black-aimed coming-out functions — cotillions for girls and increasingly popular beautillions for boys as young as 9.
‘Fed up’ with media portrayals
“African-Americans weren’t permitted to participate in the cotillions that were held mainly by white, aristocratic social clubs,” explains Janet Walker, head of The Links.
Today, these events draw black parents seeking opportunities to highlight the good in their sons.
“A lot of people are just fed up with the way that black men are portrayed in the media,” Walker says.
In addition, beautillion participants get scholarships, and contacts.
“If you want to go to fraternities or college and stuff, this is a step,” says 17-year-old Julian Alford, who is eyeing the University of Virginia.
In a studio, Kevin Wyatt claps and tumbles to African music as the beaus practice a celebratory dance.
There’s plenty to celebrate. For starters, no more stiff ballroom moves.
“The type of dancing we were doing? Boring, I’m not going to lie to you,” the 17-year-old says after practice.
His ball cap tilted to the side, a tiny diamond dotting his ear, Wyatt is an academic-minded baseball player who volunteers with children. But he worries about his future.
“I fear that I’m going to give up and not keep going,” he says, as the studio clears.
‘We lost ourselves’
While others celebrated the desegregation of schools in the ’50s, Charles Crute Jr. remembers an uncle warning that blacks would abandon their sense of community.
“I’ve grown and matured to understand what he meant — we lost ourselves,” the 58-year-old former detective says as six professional black men with him agree.
It’s five days before the beautillion, and the men of Phi Beta Sigma have met to iron out details.
They’re multi-degreed, representing decades of black male success. They’ve paved the way and worry today’s black men have fallen behind.
“We need black men to look at the home and at the children that are theirs,” says James Quash Sr., 84. “We need them to take a look and do something.”
The men created the Richmond beautillion in 2001, mimicking an event they saw in Washington.
The idea is to recognize young black males who are doing right, while giving them an official ceremony that says it’s time to grow up.
They’ve groomed 42 boys and seen them off to schools like Howard University in Washington and Morehouse College, in Atlanta.
Still, what started as 16 potential beaus this year shrank to eight by the second group meeting. And five of the remaining group — including Julian Alford with his two jobs, church and wrestling — were just too busy to commit.
A prideful evening
On the night of the beautillion, Seay can finally relax as the third young woman arrives. Soft string music starts and the starched beaus take the spotlight, twirling their dates in dainty pirouettes.
As Mark Turner II finesses his way across the floor, his father watches with pride. The elder Turner drove eight hours from Atlanta to attend, one of several recent gestures to smooth a relationship strained by distance and tension with his former wife.
“He’s going to start to deal with things that unfortunately his mother can’t help him with,” the elder Turner says.
Mark, 18, a tennis player with a 3.7 grade point average, says things have been “in the middle” since his dad began visiting more. “I was open to the opportunity, but bitter,” he says.
As the music winds down, the three fathers line up across from their sons. Mark holds a blue candle, his father a medallion, as a man in African garb explains the significance of the ceremony transforming three boys into three men.
One by one, each dad offers his son words of encouragement.
Turner hangs the medallion around his son’s neck, whispers “I love you,” and hugs the newfound man.