Socialite Mollie Moon Used Fashion Shows to Fund the Civil Rights Movement
In the 1950s, famed Harlem socialite Mollie Moon transformed the Ebony Fashion Fair into a powerhouse fundraiser for Civil Rights activities. When she did so, she took part in a long tradition of fashion shows fundraising for Black political causes.
The glamorous Mollie Moon sauntered around the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel as she made minor adjustments to the decor. It was October 4, 1959. Moon, the founder and president of the National Urban League Guild, was preparing to bring the Ebony Fashion Fair to New York for its Big Apple premiere.
A pharmacist by training and a veteran fundraiser, Moon paid meticulous attention to every detail of the events she hosted, because she believed guests could feel her level of care. The Waldorf, with its Art Deco luxury, had hosted European monarchs, diplomats, and New York’s white upper crust. Why should the Black American guests Moon was hosting on this evening expect anything less than the royal treatment?
Moon, wife of the former NAACP public relations director, Henry Lee Moon, understood that Black Americans were generous givers who loved to dress up for a good cause. Give them an opportunity to show out and the money would show up! Ticket prices for the fair ranged from $3.50 to $12 (roughly $25 to $100 today) and came with a subscription to either Ebony or Jet magazine.
Proceeds from the NYC show would go to the National Urban League, the interracial civil rights organization Moon’s guild supported through savvy fundraising campaigns and volunteer work. In cities from Washington, D.C., to Peoria, Illinois, powerbrokers like Moon hosted Ebony Fashion Fair events to fund local nonprofit organizations, racial justice causes, and HBCU scholarships.
The idea for the Fashion Fair originated in New Orleans in 1956. Jessie Covington Dent, an accomplished pianist, a socialite, and the wife of Dillard University president Albert W. Dent, reached out to media mogul John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing about cohosting a fashion show fundraiser for Flint-Goodridge Hospital.
That first show was such a success that Johnson and his wife, the fashionable and cosmopolitan Eunice Johnson, decided they should make it an annual touring fundraiser. Ripping “Fashion Fair” straight from Ebony magazine’s monthly column of the same name, Ebony Fashion Fair took shape under the leadership of Johnson Publishing’s home services director, Freda DeKnight. The rebranded traveling fashion extravaganza launched in 1958 with the theme Ebony Fashion Fair Around the Clock, featuring the wares of American and European designers, a few models, lively music, elaborate stage props, and colorful commentary by DeKnight.
Give them an opportunity to show out and the money would show up
Ebony Fashion Fair was the perfect fundraiser. “It was ready-made,” Joy Bivins, curator of “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” explains. “For the organizations, they don’t really have to do anything but bring the show. It’s a package deal.”
And for the attendees, the shows created an opportunity to “get together and do what rich people do with each other: show off! But it had this philanthropic aspect to it that, in many ways, made it okay,” Bivins says. The shows also gave exposure and brought new clientele to Black ready-to-wear designers and milliners who were struggling to launch their careers due to Jim Crow racism and cronyism in the mainstream fashion world.
By the time Moon brought the event to NYC in 1959, it was among the hottest Black social events in the country. That year with an Around the World theme the tour expanded to 51 cities in 31 states. Moon supervised as DeKnight and the Fashion Fair team transformed the Waldorf Astoria’s Grand Ballroom into a Black traveler’s paradise, replete with stage props that included hat boxes and luggage with the names of European destination cities fancifully written on them.
Press coverage that ran in the Amsterdam News and the New York Age played up the exclusive nature of the event, dubbing the two-hour show a “one night only affair.” It was a massive show that featured 200 garments and more than 400 accessories personally selected by DeKnight.
The models swayed and sashayed across the stage in haute couture garments by Arthur Jablow, Martier Raymond, Maggy Rouff, Harry Young , and others. With more than 3,000 people in attendance, the standing-room-only event was a roaring triumph. It further cemented Moon’s status as the grande dame of Black social and civic life in New York City.
Fashion show fundraisers like the Ebony Fashion Fair were ubiquitous in the Black community during World War II and well into the Black Power movement era. The Fashion Fair reflected the Johnsons’ particular brand of Black cultural elitism, evident in the mink stoles, silk chiffon dresses, hand-beaded gowns, and dripping diamonds that were on display during the shows.
But any crowd, regardless of income, taste level, or political leanings, could find a fashion show that catered to their interests and supported causes they could throw their hard-earned money behind. Designer to the stars Zelda Wynn Valdes directed a show for Harlem’s Salvation Army, much to the delight of the neighborhood’s elderly and infirm population.
The Black Nationalist organization African Jazz-Art Society & Studios toured its Naturally fashion show down the Eastern Seaboard and through the Midwest. Naturally’s Afro-sporting Grandassa Models wore African-inspired dresses and pantsuits, which they had designed and sewn themselves. Other community shows featured local folks from maids to transit and postal workers who modeled clothes from their closets. Styling out in garments of their own choosing affirmed that they were much more than uniform-wearing laborers. Churches, youth groups, sororities, and fraternities all found a sense of Black pride and Black economic self-help through fashion shows.
Any crowd, regardless of income…could find a fashion show that catered to their interests
Moon and her contemporaries demonstrate how Black women have defined and redefined the contours of American philanthropy. “The biggest misconception is that Black women don’t give and that they’re not involved in philanthropy,” says Tyrone Freeman, author of Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving and assistant professor of Philanthropic Studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“The truth is, Black women are on the leading edge of generosity in their community.” Philanthropy for Black Americans has never been the province of the rich or even of the middle class. Black, community-based giving circles and mutual aid societies can be traced to the Caribbean and West Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, Freeman explains. Enslaved and free Black women’s philanthropic efforts helped to fund the abolitionist movement, the Black Freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement today.
Studies have also shown that Black Americans give a larger percentage of their disposable incomes to nonprofits than other races. Thus, giving was foundational to Black life long before exorbitantly wealthy white capitalists became the face of modern philanthropy.
Reflecting in 1982 on her career as a philanthropist and lifelong civic leader, Moon wrote, “Neither I nor my family had sufficient income to make significant financial contributions to this cause [Black Freedom]. We did, however, have commitment, energy and time to contribute.” Bake sales, chicken dinners, galas, card parties, dance-a-thons: All those fundraising events helmed by Black women who were not generationally wealthywere their chance at Black world making.
Black women were giving and raising money to create the world they wanted to live in. Ebony Fashion Fair was a vehicle through which they could perform this women-centered freedom dreaming. The Fashion Fair ran annually through 2009, raising nearly $60 million in its 51-year run. Moon and countless others whose names have been lost to history were the visionaries who kept the touring show in circulation.
At the time of her death in 1990, Jet reported that Moon had raised more than $3 million through the National Urban League Guild, which, under her leadership since 1942, had grown to nearly 30,000 volunteers in 80 guilds nationwide.