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How the Wilfandel Club Pushed the Boundaries of Gatherings in South Los Angeles

In the West Adams neighborhood of South Los Angeles, this 6,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home sits perched on the quiet corner of Adams Boulevard and 5th Avenue. 

While its airy porch, vibrant terra-cotta tile roof, and lush landscaping solidifies its spot among the most stately residences in the neighborhood, this home holds a special piece of South Los Angeles history. This is the home of the Wilfandel Club.

Founded over seven decades ago, the Wilfandel Club maintains the legacy of a civic-minded women’s organization and an elegant community venue that both rose to prominence in the highly-segregated Post-War era of Los Angeles. Today, the Wilfandel Club sits as the first and oldest Black women’s club in Los Angeles history. 

But now, in the 21st century and with Los Angeles’ celebrated diversity, what makes the Wilfandel Club significant today? 

To understand the Wilfandel Club and its modern purpose, we’ll have to explore the history of its co-founders, and the causes that brought them together during the first half of the 20th century. 

Gathering for a Cause

The story of the Wilfandel blossomed in the mid 1930s from a local assistance league that raised money for the Outdoor Life and Health Association, a charity organization committed to increasing community access to health education and encouraging individuals to participate in outdoor activities

Fannie Williams and Della Williams led the partnering, all-women assistance league for the Association, and they were both instrumental in fundraising thousands of dollars through church rallies, popularity contests, and raffles, among many other events. The funds Della and Fannie raised later helped the Outdoor Life and Health Association charity construct and maintain a Tuberculosis rest home that opened in Duarte, California, in 1940. 

The two women, who were unrelated but shared the same surname, stood as socialites, influencers, and organizers in Los Angeles’ burgeoning Black community.

“Fannie Williams was quite a force,” said Anne Luke, a former president of the Wilfandel Club. “She had owned a beauty salon, which was highly unusual in those days. And she did, financially, very well.”

“Della Williams was a leader in Los Angeles. First of all, she’s married to one of the foremost Black architects in the country. Everybody recognized her as a leader, if none other than her marriage to this man. But additionally, she was so gracious with it. They weren’t people who just sat around and thought, thought about ideas. They were people that acted on them, and were successful at whatever they undertook. So it was logical, those two would come together,” Luke added.

Della and Fannie rallied people through the Outdoor Life and Health Association assistance league and built many relationships in neighborhood homes and churches

But Della and Fannie envisioned something that could go beyond the assistance league: the establishment of a philanthropic women’s organization tasked with increasing the quality of life for the Black community in Los Angeles.

Establishing the Wilfandel

Space was extremely segregated in Los Angeles during the early 20th century, and expanding Jim Crow laws barred many people from using common meeting spaces such as hotels and established clubhouses in desirable parts of the city. With limited capital and space, the Black community had few distinguished and large event spaces to rent. Additionally, race-restrictive housing covenants prevented many redlined groups from buying property outside of select, often overcrowded, areas—namely Watts, Historic South Central, and just north of Downtown— which limited opportunity to build alternative and grand venues.

“All that area, which was comprised of small homes. So if you wanted to have an event in the winter, you were kind of stuck. You had to cram them in your living room. Because these homes didn’t have large living rooms. So there was a horrendous need for a facility like this,” Luke added.

Establishments such as the Dunbar Hotel, which opened in 1929 in Historic South Central, became one of the first luxurious venues made specifically to serve the Black community. 

Fannie and Della Williams, however, wanted to take that experience a step further—and a step west

Between the mid 40s and early 50s, West Adams slowly evolved into a hub for Black, middle-class wealth after race restrictive housing covenants were struck down in Los Angeles by landmark Supreme Court cases such as Shelley v. Kraemer and grassroots protests. These events allowed for non-white residents to branch out from contained areas such as Historic South Central. As residents in Los Angeles’ Black community moved west, areas such as West Adams became the new frontier for space.

Between 1945 and 1946, Fannie and Della Williams recruited four dozen other women in the community and incorporated the Wilfandel Club, an organization committed to philanthropy, community, and gatherings. 

The club’s name, Wilfandel, is a portmanteau of the founders’ firsts and shared last names. “Wil” for Williams; “Fan” for Fannie; and “Del” for Della. 

“The founders decided they would come together and create a space where they can celebrate the important events in their lives and in the lives of their friends, and the lives of the general community,” said Valerie Shaw, who has been a member of the Wilfandel for over 25 years. “Who were they as women? I think they were just proud women. They were devoted family members, devoted to their families. They were devoted to the community. And they wanted to celebrate their lives, find places to celebrate their lives. And the creation of this club happened because of those, those thoughts and feelings.”

The original roster of Wilfandel Club members included women who were well established in the community. For example, founding member Bessie Bruington Burke was the first Black teacher in the Los Angeles City school district in 1911, and the first Black principal in the city in 1918.

“I think that group of women was very, very forward thinking. They had a vision and they decided to make that a purpose and to actively pursue it, because it just doesn’t come out of whole cloth,” former Wilfandel president Glynis Morrow said. “Or you can imagine it, but you have to act upon it. And it was sort of a common thing for Black women to have get-togethers for the purpose of raising money for anything.”

Buying the Wilfandel Clubhouse

Shortly after establishing the Wilfandel, the women’s club set out to purchase a permanent property to house the club and to be used as a venue for the community. The women hosted fundraising events, such as concerts, teas, and popularity contests to raise funds for its future home. 

In 1948, the Wilfandel Club purchased a stately mansion in West Adams that was originally commissioned by silent film star Ramón Novarro in 1922. Famed architect Paul R. Williams, also husband to Della Williams, assisted in converting the layout of the home into a clubhouse. Paul R. Williams, who designed more than 2,000 private homes and dozens of landmark buildings, emphasized openness, elegance, and community throughout the redesign of the home’s interior.

My favorite room, and it’s not a room, is the balcony upstairs,” Morrow said. “I think that’s just very elegant. And the stained glass windows in the leaded glass is just beautiful, is…I could look for other words, but beautiful describes that feeling. And sort of an old romantic feeling as well, one of the other architectural features that I like, actually, too. I love the stairway. I think the stairway is elegant. And as a younger person, for many years, I participated in the Christmas decorating. So running garland up the balcony and decorating the top of the stairs was always a favorite thing to do.” 

Within the first 10 years of ownership, the women of the Wilfandel Club fundraised enough money to pay off the mortgage on the property

I was thinking… how hard these original women worked to get to this position to pay the mortgage, in effect to pay them when they all had their own mortgages,” Luke added. “They were still willing to come over here and do it. And what always tickled my funny bone was the fact that some of them didn’t cook but they’d come over here and cook chicken up a storm to make these chicken dinners to sell to their neighbors and friends and husbands to make the mortgage. But the level of dedication was really, really there. And I think the level of dedication, though different, is still here.”

And as a permanent venue in the West Adams neighborhood, the clubhouse became a central and alternative setting for large events for many in the Black community and beyond. 

“We have weddings, we have funerals, repasts, baby showers, birthday parties, every kind of event that you can imagine that celebrates the life of an individual or a family or community,” Shaw said. “And it’s just a beautiful, peaceful place with gorgeous trees. And there’s just a sort of a sense of freedom of expression when you’re on the grounds of this facility.”

The Wilfandel Club Today

Over 75 years later, the Wilfandel continues to uphold its founding principles, and remains a distinguished Black-owned, women-owned clubhouse in West Adams. Carrie Henley is now the club’s standing president.

“We have 45 multi-generational members who pay annual dues. So that’s part of our annual income. And then we rent our house out for social occasions like weddings, meetings, lectures, and that also provides income for our operating expenses,” Henley said.

Today, however, restoration and maintenance of this century-old home is top of mind for the women of the Wilfandel Club. In 2018, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Wilfandel Club a $75,000 grant to restore the property. 

“And with that, those funds, we redid the electrical and the plumbing. But when COVID raised its ugly head, we created a GoFundMe. And with that GoFundMe, the community response was astounding. We had funds that we raised from family and friends, private foundations, and even donor advised funds,” Henley said. “All the floors have been redone, and restored. We repainted the entire house. The outside exterior was recycled and repainted. We gave it just a beautiful facelift. One that would continue its historical value, but also just creating a beautiful space where people feel very welcomed.”

As time progresses, the Wilfandel Club continues to look for more ways to engage the community and uplift its history as a gathering place open to all. The club has maintained its traditions of hosting open lectures, dinners, and teas. And it also has a long history of benefiting students in the local community. In fact, for most of its incorporation, the Wilfandel Club has awarded scholarships to deserving college students, and for over 60 years, the club has awarded its Fannie Williams scholarship to young scholars, in honor of the club’s co-founder.

“We want to create endowment funds so we can continue our programs in this house in perpetuity. We want to have capacity building because we’re a volunteer organization. So we need staff, we need people to help maintain the legacy of this house,” Henley added.

The Wilfandel Club has an incredible history of pushing the boundaries of space, and it continues to find more ways to build bridges between people and communities. Today, its venue spaces remain open to anyone. 

“I think the last thing that I think about this club is that there is no end in sight. I think it’s the trajectory that it’s on. There will be Black women that are interested and feel something special about the house needing to continue into the future and who knows what it will turn out to be. But I feel very confident that this house will go on and I couldn’t be more prideful that I am part of it. And that I have been involved in it for some time, Morrow said.

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