Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

American Women’s Club, President Carter Visit

In January 1978, I was asked to join the board [of the American Women’s Club]. Philanthropy had been part of the mission of the club since its inception. But the discussion about the charitable cause at the time, the Motherless Babies Home, seemed paternalistic. I didn’t want to be part of fundraising or events for “those poor Nigerian babies.” My husband and so many other Nigerians were talented and educated, running their own businesses or running the government. Besides, Clem and I had enough to do to support people in our family and clan.

Then the president introduced the topic of governance. “Is there anyone who would volunteer to head a committee for bylaws revision?” The club’s constitution and bylaws had been written in the 1960s. After a decade of feminism and a much larger membership, some changes in language and procedures were needed.

“I’d be interested in that.” I looked around after I spoke and saw Mary, across the table, making a face as she said, “You like that stuff—rules and procedures?”

“I like creating procedures that work. And I like organizational structures that make sense.” I also wanted to lead something, even a committee. Two other women from the board agreed, though without great enthusiasm, to help. I was good at the nitty-gritty details, and they knew the recent history of the organization. We worked well together. Two months later, I presented our recommended revisions, and the board approved. The changes would go to the whole membership for a vote in June, and the project was my stepping-stone to becoming president the following year.

I bought more trade beads, and on a trip to London with Clem, I found a shop that sold bits and pieces I could use in my jewelry making. These were the hooks, different sizes of nylon fishing line, and filler beads to use in jewelry making, called “findings,” a new word for me. I bought tiny pliers to use in bending the hooks and tying the nylon. I had bought a heavy wooden bar with three leather-covered barstools, and I set these up as a room divider between the living and dining areas. I could now spread out my beads and implements and leave unfinished projects. I added books on African beads.

I sold a few necklaces and earrings at American Women’s Club craft fairs. I’d never before thought of myself as artistic or creative, and this gave me a thrill.

In early spring of 1978, President Carter announced a visit to Nigeria. He was bringing his wife Rosalyn and daughter Amy. This was a major diplomatic event for the Nigerian government and a major social event for the American community in Nigeria. I was invited, with other American Women’s Club board members, to the ambassador’s residence for a Saturday evening reception for the Carters. “What can I give Mrs. Carter that shows her the beauty of Nigeria?” I said to Priscilla, the mother of my newest piano pupils.

“Your necklaces are lovely,” she said. “Why don’t you make one for her?” I loved the idea and worked hard over a necklace with several lovely chevrons—blue, white, and red beads of different sizes. I wrote a note to go with it to say that I wanted her to have something from the country that I, an American citizen and former Peace Corps volunteer, had made my home.

“Thank you very much. This is lovely,” said the aide to whom I handed the package. “But the Carters have agreed not to accept personal gifts. Mrs. Carter will be told, but the necklace will go with all gifts into a vault at the White House. If you decide not to donate it, I’ll understand.” I kept it. A few weeks later, I displayed it at the American Women’s Club craft fair, with a sign, “Necklace made for First Lady Rosalyn Carter, but declined, as are all personal gifts.”

Before the Carters left, there was a swimming party at the ambassador’s for ten-year-old Amy Carter. Beth was invited. I was excited for her to be swimming with the president’s daughter at the residence of the ambassador. For her, it was just another fun afternoon.

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