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(Southern) Black Women’s Presence in Invisibility: Miss Georgia Gilmore & The Club from Nowhere

Miss Georgia adjusts her hat while she poses for a picture in 1956

When I think of some of the Black women in my life, I think of care and love as radical ways of building community. I think of cooking, in addition to other forms of care, like greasing my scalp as a child. I think of the various cookbooks my grandma, Joyce Dale Swain Holloway, has. I remember how cookbooks have been a way for Black women to document care and memory passed from mother to daughter. I won’t spend this time warning against the romanticization of the relationships I have with the Black women in my life or warning against the big-mama tropes of asexual, kitchen-bound Black women, because we Black women and girls are more than the oppression we experience. We exist, love, and build as humans. So, for this blog, I want to talk about Miss Georgia Theresa Gilmore — a Black woman embodying all the lively, opaque, and radical forms of love — and her Club from Nowhere.

Miss Georgia was one of five children and was born in Montgomery County, Alabama in February 1920. Many people whose memories are documented remember her as a lively woman who had a biting sense of humor, gave people foul nicknames, and graciously welcomed those she fed. Miss Georgia was born into generations of hardworking, overworked, and exploited women like many other Black women who were simultaneously workers, mothers, and othermothers. Among other things, Miss Georgia Gilmore was the founder and only publicly known member of an essentially clandestine and fugitive group of Black women beautifully and cheekily named the Club from Nowhere. The women of the Club from Nowhere helped to sustain, fund, and feed the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ran from December 1955 to December 1956.

My grandmother’s copy of a cookbook that the young people’s department at my church created in 1997.
A list of submitted dessert recipes

Janie Gilmore, Miss Georgia’s mother, was a low-wage worker like many other Black women in Montgomery. Miss Janie was born around 1892 and was a domestic worker and laundress for white families. [i] Laundry work was tiresome work, as Miss Janie had to take public transportation or walk to collect dirty laundry, steam water, and then soak, scrub, rinse, hang, and press the clothes daily. Miss Georgia Gilmore, maintaining several jobs, worked as a cook at the National Lunch Company in Montgomery in the 1950s until she either got fired or quit because of her activism, which was essentially illegal and immoral in the eyes of white people/bosses. [ii] Miss Janie was likely the person who taught Miss Georgia to cook, bringing to life the ancestral knowledge of food that Black American people had created over generations. In this same tradition, my grandma learned to cook and can fruit and vegetables from her mother, and my great-great-grandmother likely learned from her mother, an enslaved Black woman.

Miss Georgia preparing food in her home restaurant

Miss Georgia started the Club from Nowhere at 35 years old and with five children, a sister, and niece under her care. She galvanized and empowered Black women who sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott in an imaginative, absurdly practical way. She got involved with the boycott at the first Mississippi Improvement Association (MIA) meeting that was held to rally Black people around boycotting the city-operated Montgomery Bus Line after Rosa Parks, a very well-known community figure, was arrested for her famous resistance. MIA was an association formed by Black male ministers, like Reverends Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Edgar Nixon, on December 5, 1955, to house and organize the boycott. As I’ll talk about later, the hidden figures and brains behind the boycott were Black women.

Miss Georgia attended the first MIA meeting at Mt. Zion AME Church because the grievances being made resonated with her. She had experienced racial discrimination from the bus system — one day after she paid her bus charge, the driver told her to get off through the front of the bus and walk in through the back Colored entrance. Before she could get back on, the driver pulled off and left Miss Georgia to walk alone.

At that first MIA meeting, Miss Georgia collected $14 from attendees and used the money to cook chicken sandwiches with lettuce that she sold at the next meeting. After that, Miss Georgia grew the group to a large network of Black maids, cooks, laundress, and service workers who prepared food like pork chops, greens, mac and cheese, fried chicken, and cake. MIA meeting attendees and boycott supporters knew to look for Miss Georgia and her friends “in the parking lot and on the front steps of the [Black churches]” for hot food to eat after they rushed from work to the meetings. [iii]

The logic behind the group’s name was evident when Miss Georgia dropped the Club from Nowhere’s funds into the collection plate at each meeting: the money came from nowhere — an unknown group of Black women. MIA used the money to partially support the drivers and upkeep cars used in the carpool system that transported Black folks in Montgomery. Around the same time, Inez Ricks founded a similar group in West Montgomery called the Friendly Club. The Club from Nowhere and Friendly Club had fundraising competitions to see who could raise the most money. Since then, Miss Georgia has inspired other Black womxn, like Martha Hawkins who opened Martha’s Place in Montgomery in the 1980s and still running today, and Kia Damon’s Supper Club from Nowhere, also currently active.

1978 in Montgomery, AL

After Miss Georgia was unemployed during her time in the Club from Nowhere, she opened a restaurant out of her home with the support of Reverend King. Countless community members and well-known people ate in her home. In 1990, Miss Georgia passed away from untreated peritonitis. Days before, she had started preparing food for a Selma March anniversary. Her funeral guests ate the food she had started preparing.

The Club from Nowhere is part of a larger tradition of Black women being the sustainers, strategists, and community-rooted organizers and connectors of social movements. Amidst the vehement misogynoir of Black liberation movements, Black women acted as connectors between formal organizations, communities, and rural communities especially. [iv]  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was actually thought up and maintained by middle- and working-class Black women. The Women’s Political Council in Montgomery had been thinking up and considering a boycott for years, as experiences on public transportation has always been racially gendered. Black women suffered threats of (sexual) violence and vicious name-calling from white passengers and drivers. For instance, in retaliation to Viola White refusing to give up her seat, as she was known to do years before the boycott, a police officer named A.A. Enger kidnapped and raped one of Miss Viola’s three daughters in a cemetery in 1946.

Miss Georgia’s home and a historical marker in front of it

Black women, like Miss Lucy Bentley, maintained “freedom houses” where community organizers and members could eat, sleep, and clean up. Black women, like Miss Lucy, opened their homes, which were likely already full and housing generations in working-class and poor families. Freedom homes were places where people, from MLK Jr. to Freedom Riders to SNCC organizers, could meet and commune without the overwhelming fear of state surveillance. Miss Georgia’s sweet singing as she dropped $300 in a collection plate at an MIA meeting is exemplary: “Whoa, shine on me Lord/ shine on me/ Let the light from the lighthouse, shine on me.” Miss Georgia is among a slew of Black women who created abundance, oftentimes for and by Black women, out of scarcity.

Janay Draughn is the MDC Dan Broun Summer Intern.  She is from Greenville, North Carolina and is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English with a concentration in Africana Literature and Culture. She enjoys learning about the South and loves reading imaginative, Black Feminist, and experimental literature. She fiercely believes that orange juice is much better than apple juice. If you find any errors in this article, please reach out to [email protected].

 

Reflection

Part of this blog is concerned with food culture and the literary memory that’s attached to Black Southern cuisine and Black Southern women’s culinary magnificence, in the form of recipes and other archives. So, instead of questions, I’d like to create a short list of cookbooks, archives, and recorded histories that you can interact with and discuss in community or alone:

  1. Here is an interview done with Miss Georgia for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 short historical documentary series that provided a history :
  2. Here is a podcast episode about freedom houses and the overlooked and purposefully forgotten work that Black women did during the Civil Rights Movement. I hyperlinked the podcast about Miss Lucy Bentley.
  3. Pies from Nowhere is a children’s picture book written by Dee Romito about Miss Georgia Gilmore and the Club from Nowhere.
    • The book underwent editing to change language that wasn’t equitable — by being written in the passive tense and/or didn’t fully acknowledge the work and intentionality of Miss Georgia and other Black women, like those of the WPC who organized the boycott. You can read about the process here.
  4. The National Council of Negro Women has periodically released cookbooks — different from more informal and less publicly documented and acknowledged cookbooks maintained by Black women — since 1958. Take some time to learn about the cookbooks and, if you can, order one or two.
    • Discover some other cookbooks, especially those that are radically interested in memory and transformation.
  5. If you’re Black, take time to learn if any women in your family maintain their own cookbooks. Share your stories and cookbooks with friends to see if anything similar exists in their family.

Sources

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, pp. 280–97.

Marshall, Sylvia. Nourishing the Movement: Georgia Gilmore’s Club from Nowhere during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Ann Arbor, 2022.

ROBNETT, B. “African-American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Gender, Leadership, and Micromobilization.” The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 101, no. 6, 1996, pp. 1661-1693.

Endnotes

[i] See Marshall’s dissertation on page 13

[ii] See Marshall’s dissertation on page 45

[iii] The quoted text is included in Marshall’s dissertation and is originally from John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South

[iv] See Belinda Robnett’s cited article to learn more about Black women’s role as organizers, micromobilizers, and leaders in the Civil Rights Movement