In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Angela Bell, president of the Fort Worth Assembly, talks with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about celebrating their 80th anniversary and having their first in-person debutante ball since the pandemic started. Fornoff and Bell spoke on Saturday, December 18th, 2021, the evening of the ball.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Marcheta Fornoff: Congratulations on the 80th anniversary of the Fort Worth Assembly. How does it feel to have another ball in person after postponing last year?
Angela Bell: It feels amazing. Last year, we met and we thought about everybody’s safety, so we decided as an organization to just go ahead and not have it. We hadn’t done that since World War II, since ’42 and I believe ’43. It was hard, but tonight we are so excited that we move forward. It means the world to the community and to the young young ladies that we are uplifting.
Fornoff: Can you tell me a little more about who Mrs. Lottie Mae Hamilton was and why she formed the Fort Worth Assembly in 1941?
Bell: Yes, Mrs. Lottie Mae Hamilton. I remember her well. I was presented in 1985, and she was a little lady with a big voice. Mrs. Hamilton’s whole idea was that she wanted to show the world that we had beautiful, intelligent college (educated) young ladies here in Fort Worth. Before the Fort Worth Assembly started, any young African American ladies that were to be presented, were presented through an organization in Dallas. There wasn’t an organization like this in Fort Worth, so she and 22 other ladies came together Jan. 9, 1941, and they had their first ball in November. It was important to them that we showed the world that Fort Worth had the same wonderful young women, college-educated African young women, as any other place.
Fornoff: Has that mission changed at all over 80 years? And what do you think Mrs. Hamilton would think of what the assembly looks like today?
Bell: The mission hasn’t changed. In fact, I just believe it’s expanded because we have expanded past just Fort Worth, past Tarrant County. Now we will present young ladies from all over. We’ve presented young ladies from the Houston area or, like tonight, the (Washington) D.C. area. So, we have really expanded our outreach. I think she would be pleased and proud at the fact that we again reached back to the community with our “les petits cygnes,” our little swans, and we’re mentoring those young ladies to become future debutants. Back in her time, they had the Junior League organization where they mentored younger girls toward becoming debutantes. So I believe Miss Hamilton would be pleased. There are some things, you know, that our younger people kind of do now that I don’t know that she be too thrilled with. But I do believe she would be extremely happy that the organization has lasted for so many years.
Fornoff: There’s a lot that has changed over the past few decades, and there are so many different ways to commemorate stepping into adulthood. Do you have a hard time getting young women who’ve grown up in a very different climate with social media and different means of representation interested in participating [in a debutante ball]?
Bell: Well, we went through a period where it didn’t seem to be as popular, but for the last, I’ll say, five years, it’s been on an uptick. One of the things that really helped us was outreach with our little swans. Once we started to get it out to our community that we were mentoring young women, and then once they saw what we were doing with our college-aged girls, it became very popular. A lot of families wanted their daughters to go through the same experience. So in a way, I don’t think it was unpopular. I just think they didn’t know about it. And our area has grown so much. Our Metroplex Dallas-Fort Worth area, we have a lot of transplants that are moving to the area. And as they find out more about what we do, they’re excited about the process for their daughters.
Fornoff: OK, and you hinted at this a little bit, but what do you remember from your own presentation?
Bell: Oh, wow. When I was presented back in 1985, I believe there were 12 of us, and it went a lot quicker because there were 12 of us. I remember that I look back in my video and I smile a lot because I was like, wow, it seemed like we did our bow extremely fast. But that’s one of the things that’s changed. We’re just more elaborate. We’ve changed with the times, with the florals, with the decorations, even though we had beautiful decorations every single year. The ball has just evolved. See, when I was presenting, members could bring their own food and they set their own tables and they had everything they wanted. So it’s a lot different now, but it’s still just as fun and exciting.
Fornoff: And what made you want to become a debutante, and what influence did it have on you?
Bell: My mother. Back when I was a deb, a lot of our mothers already knew many members of the Fort Worth Assembly and other people in the community. So it was kind of understood when you were growing up that you would go through the process if you were eligible. It was something that my mother always herself wanted to do, and I knew that she always wanted me to do it. So I did it, not really understanding what it was at the time. But once I went through the process, I was so elated to do it and I made lifelong friends.
Fornoff: In addition to being the current president of the Fort Worth Assembly, am I correct that you also have a computer engineering degree and have been doing that for many decades?
Bell: Yes, I’m an alum of the University of Texas at Arlington, where in 1990 I received my computer science engineering degree. I worked for Lockheed Martin for 16 years. I moved to AIG and now I am a server engineer for D.R. Horton.
Fornoff: What do you hope the future holds for the young women presented today? And why do you think this is especially important for young Black women?
Bell: Well, I think in today’s time, other young ladies need to see young women that are positive in the community. They need to see that they can aspire to do things that they want to do, too. We’re all striving and a lot of the families, you know, they come together and put money aside for this process. We just want the girls to go out and show the community who they are and help them to inspire other young women to become better in their communities. I think that’s the main thing. You know, representation means a lot. You don’t know to aspire to something if you don’t see someone that looks like you aspiring to do it.
Fornoff: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have? Any last things you wanted to mention about the organization?
Bell: Well, I’m excited to say that the organization has been growing. In fact, we grew by over 10 new members during the pandemic. We found a way to stay very, very active in our communities. We had meetings, we had membership intake mixers. We even continued to communicate with our little swans and have activities for them virtually. We had virtual tea parties. We had all kinds of creative things. And the main point is we wanted to keep in touch with them and make sure they were OK. The pandemic has taken a toll on everybody, you, me and everybody. It changed our lives. Our children had to learn how to learn on their own, be home on their own, what parents go to work. And so we continue to try to reach out to make sure our girls were OK. We’re growing, we’re expanding and we’re here. We’re just excited to tell the world about it.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.