Last Saturday night, a 17-piece band led an 850-person crowd through “Happy Birthday” in the Hilton Anatole ballroom. Volunteers snaked through the tables, passing out “JLD 100” party hats, strobing glow sticks, and light-up glasses. Then the dancing began.
The gala was for the Junior League of Dallas, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year. The women’s leadership organization planned nearly a month of celebrations, kicking it all off last Thursday at its 11th Milestones luncheon.
A sold-out crowd of more than 1,500 piled into the Anatole’s ballroom on April 21 for the event’s featured speaker, Martha Stewart. The TV personality chatted with NBC 5’s Meredith Land about being a successful businesswoman, Snoop Dogg, and her career regrets (“I would have hired a better lawyer …”). While some of Stewart’s quips induced a few pearl-clutching moments, the audience rippled with laughter as the mogul joked about marijuana and owning peacocks.
The energy in the room was palpable, even before Stewart took the stage. Former Dallas Councilwoman Veletta Forsythe Lill received a standing ovation as she accepted her “Sustainer of the Year” award. Laura Bush received a similar reception when she accepted her “Lifetime Achievement Award.” As she took to the stage, the crowd jumped to their feet and the speakers blasted “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Even the man who brought Martha Stewart a new mic got a rousing round of applause.
The League’s centennial celebration week ended Saturday night as the gala partygoers filed out of the Anatole and munched on corny dogs and funnel cakes from the Fletcher’s truck outside. However, the League’s festivities still aren’t over. The organization is having a birthday party on May 4, the official 100th anniversary of its charter. A week later, they’re hosting the Association of Junior League International conference May 12–14.
“You would think that having two large-scale events within three days would be enough for us,” Junior League president Christa Brown-Sanford says, “but we’re the Junior League, we kind of do things big—this is Dallas, nonetheless.”
We chatted with Sanford about the history of the Junior League, how it’s changed over the years, and its centennial project.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a little of the Junior League of Dallas’ history?
Our League started in 1922 with just 40 women that came together, wanting to find an outlet to impact the community and help the community. When we started, we were focused on working with hospitals and doing work with disabled children. We even got involved in some of the tuberculosis clinics that existed in the day.
Membership in the Junior League used to be invitation-only, but that changed in the early 1990s. How was that a turning point for organization?
That I think was pivotal in the League’s history because it opened up the opportunity for so many others to participate in the organization, to be trained by the organization, to learn about the Dallas community, to learn and to give back to Dallas. And one of the things that I’ve said so many times is that I want this organization that is impacting Dallas so tremendously to truly reflect the Dallas community that we serve, and that’s within our board, our leadership council, our community chairs, and within our membership.
You’ve said the “look” of the Junior League has changed. What do you mean?
We as an organization have been willing to change, regardless of what was going on outside of our organization. Meaning: Diversity and inclusion issues is not something that just started in 2022. We had a president that started looking at these issues 15, 16 years ago, before diversity and inclusion became a corporate mantra over the past few years. We as an organization were looking into that and had a diversity committee back in 2009 … This year in 2022 we have our first ever diversity and inclusion vice president on the board.
How would you respond to the stereotypical image of a Junior Leaguer as a wealthy, bored, and out-of-touch housewife?
I would say you have got to talk to a Junior League member. When you talk to a Junior League member, you realize that stereotype does not exist anymore with us. When I look at our board, for example, of the 13 active members of that board, all of us have some involvement outside [of the League]. Most of us work and are fully employed by an external organization, and there’s one of us getting her master’s degree in counseling.
You’ve described the League’s impact as “broad and deep.” What you mean?
When I think about the Junior League and I look at Dallas, I see the fingerprints of Junior League members all over the city. Even if I look at the skyline and the landscape of Dallas, our Junior League members were at the start of helping to build the Dallas Arts District. Our Junior League members helped to start the Sixth Floor Museum—after what was a tragedy, it became something that we can understand our history, appreciate it, and then move forward, right? We’re now working with the city of Dallas to rehabilitate the Juanita Craft House, which is so special for our centennial project.
Can you tell me more about the Junior League’s centennial project?
[The House] takes us to the history of Dallas. It allows us to recognize and appreciate a woman who had a tremendous impact on the Civil Rights Movement within Dallas. She had an impact on the city of Dallas more broadly as a council member—she was the second African American woman to be elected to the City Council. She was deeply involved with the NAACP in Dallas. She helped to integrate the State Fair of Texas. And so bringing her story to light and to spread her story across those who are in Dallas and to visitors in Dallas I think is what we want to do by working with all of our partners.
During the League’s celebrations, what are you most excited about?
Letting people know who we are during our 100th year and broadly sharing that message across Dallas. If we counteract that narrative, that stereotype that has developed, it will allow us to make a broader impact than what we’re making right now. That’s the point. We want to bring in more members who are wanting to develop, who want get leadership skills, who want to improve the community. If we’re able to improve our membership by numbers, then that allows us to have a bigger impact in our community. That’s what I’m really looking forward to with all of this—that we are able to share our story on such a massive, broad stage that we’re really setting the League up for the next 100 years.