History of Key Women of America, Inc.
The Key Women of America, Inc., was founded by Rev. Bertha Nelms Harris, who was born in Athens, Georgia in 1892. After graduating from Athens High School, Bertha migrated north to New York where she was ordained a minister at the A.M.E. Zion Church by the late Bishop Brown. In the early 1950's, as a member of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Harris became the forerunner of a group that organized a community educational center. Consequently, this group continued to grow, and strived to improve the Manhattan community by diligently working to reach the needs of "at risk youths." This group mentored and solicited citizens to adopt these youths. Rev. Harris and her followers hoped to prevent these youngsters from becoming involved in delinquent activities.
On December 3, 1954, Rev. Bertha Harris and her followers became "Key Women of Manhattan." With Rev. Harris as their founder, the charter members of this organization were:
*Mrs. Wilhelmina Adams *Mrs. Plugenia Peters
*Mrs. Ollie Bailey *Mrs. Edna Reed
*Mrs. Hazel Brown-Cusaac *Mrs. Maude Small
*Mrs. Mae Gavis *Mrs. Rosa Williams
*Mrs. Hattie Madison
As the need for more youth advocates became necessary in the community, the Key Women of Manhattan expanded to the surrounding areas of New York, thus, leading to the formation of branches.
The Queens Branch was the first extension of this organization. On September 10, 1957, Rev. Harris appointed Mrs. Hazel Brown-Cusaac (a charter member from the Manhattan organization), to be the first president of this newly formed branch of Key Women. One of our founder's major concerns was the problem of youth in conflict with the law. During her many visits to penal institutions, she noticed that young male adults were incarcerated with older hardened criminals. At one of her visits to the Tombs, a penal institution in Manhattan, she met our very own Key Woman, Alice Groves, who counseled inmates at the institution. They became good friends and Rev. Bertha Harris encouraged Alice to join the organization.
Mrs. Harris was a person who was extremely knowledgeable and observant. She saw potential and qualities in people that they, themselves, were unaware of. She saw a special talent in Alice Groves. That talent was the gift to converse and write. Mrs. Harris knew she had to do something outstanding to bring the ills of the penal system to light and to the public, so changes could occur. With this need, came the idea to use Alice's special talents. She told her, not asked her, to write a play about youth incarceration and the problems they faced after they were released.
Mrs. Harris had that special quality in which she got things done. All she had to say was "Do it" and you would do it without any hesitation. So without any questions, Alice, who had never written a play before, wrote a magnificent play about the ills of youth incarceration called "Am I Alone." The play was performed at Siloam Presbyterian Church, Hotel New Yorker, at numerous luncheons, and at various institutions. The show received such recognition and notoriety that the state finally paid attention to the ills of the penal system for young men and established the first residential home for boys between the ages of 16 and 21 at 453 West 153 Street. Through Alice's play and Bertha's determination, a long needed institution was built.
Rev. Harris did not have any formal degrees, however, she did have a doctorate in living and she stressed the need to read and acquire knowledge. Rev. Harris started the Key News newsletter and initiated scholarships for graduating high school students. She even started an International Scholarship Fund. The first recipient of this International Scholarship was a student from Africa named Emeka Ishmael Okeke.
Knowing the history of Key Women should make every woman feel honored and proud to be a member of this group. Our past reflects what we were and where we came from, while the present shows us what we are doing, and our long-range plans show us what we will continue to do in our present millennium.
Key Women of America, Inc. has had six past presidents, Bertha Harris,* Ophelia Dorch,* Lorraine Warren,* Fay L. Ming,* Aleathia V. Boddie,* and Gloria M. Dixon. The current president is Geralynne Hughes Brandon.
Written By Clarice E. Brooks, Historian (Excerpts From Key Sister Gloria M. Dixon's History of Key Women 1999)