When Paula Tuffin and her family moved to Essex Fells, N.J., a village of huge homes and hilly landscapes, they were unbothered by the fact that they were the only black folks for miles around. But soon Tuffin, a divorce mediator, began to worry. Her children Drew, 7, and Sarah, 4, were well accepted by their white friends, but they were barely being exposed to the black community at all. Thus Tuffin got together with 40 other black mothers, many in similar situations, and formed a chapter of Jack and Jill, a national family oriented black organization. "There would be more opportunities for my kids to meet children like them," Tuffin explains.
In turning to Jack and Jill, Tuffin was using an old organization for a new purpose. The group was born in 1938 out of exclusion, to provide elite black children with their own version of cultivated society--teas, cotillions and pool parties--from which they had been barred. Today Jack and Jill is enjoying a new life as black families respond, with mixed emotions, to their increasing inclusion. While this impulse dates back to the late '70s, it has grown even stronger in recent years as middle-class parents realize their children are less connected to their racial heritage. "We are living lives that are integrated. Maybe too integrated," Los Angeles author Karen Grigsby Bates, 49, wrote in a Salon essay about her decision to involve her six-year-old son in Jack and Jill. "We began to notice our kids weren't, well, as black as we had been."
It's a lament Jack and Jill national president Carla Williams hears often. "We just had cocktails for prospective members," she says, "and their stories were the same: we don't want our child without culture and tradition. We want him to have black friends; we want him to have someone to date."
That sense of urgency has given Jack and Jill a relevance it lost in the generation after its founding, despite its steady membership through the years. Though created because of bigotry, the group developed its own reputation for prejudice. Mothers, who hold the membership for families, have to be invited to join, a tradition that infamously favored light-skinned, well-to-do blacks. With the advent of the civil rights struggle, with its Afros, protests and black power, Jack and Jill began to look like a doppelganger of the white establishment and fell out of favor with younger blacks. "Someone would almost knife you rather than let you ask if he had been in Jack and Jill," jokes Bates about her college days.
Today many of these same people, now married with children, are signing up. Though Jack and Jill still carries an elitist image, these people see a need for the group. In search of better jobs, dream homes and superior schools, many black families have taken root in pale places, far from their old neighborhoods and extended families. "When I got into Jack and Jill 18 years ago, most black families lived in the same part of town," says Karen Clark, an Oklahoma City mother. "The majority of our mothers now live in predominantly white communities." Annette Schley, a college administrator who lives in Bellevue, a wealthy, white Seattle suburb, joined Jack and Jill after noticing that her son Justin was uncomfortable at church around other black children. Many members hope the group's mix of socializing and community service will help glue their kids to their people.