A Lithonia local plans to turn the old Woman’s Club into a viable institution again.
Born and raised in Lithonia, businesswoman Dawn Massey was always aware of the historic Lithonia Woman’s Club on Wiggins Street, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that she joined. “I was there when they transferred to the Arabia Alliance because the club was dying,” recalled Massey. Started in 1924, the organization was, at the time, the first civic club for Lithonia’s white women. However, by the end of the 20th Century, it was struggling to attract new members. Massey currently lives right across the street from the old club in sprawling Camellia Hall, an 1856 antebellum mansion, which she owns and manages, renting several of its rooms. “Most of the people in the Woman’s Club were older when I joined,” she said. “It’s a shame because they did so much good.”
Big Plans For The Old Club
In 2019, Massey purchased the Woman’s Club from the Arabia Alliance. Nearing retirement age, she loved the idea of renovating a historic property and the Lithonia native had a history of caring for her community. Massey is the executive director of Lithonia’s The Yellow Brick House, an assisted living facility she started in her grandmother’s old home in 1988, making it the first licensed assisted living community in DeKalb County. “My grandfather was a physician in the community and he died at 56,” said Massey. “But my grandmother continued to live there. When she needed more care than we could provide for her, we didn’t want to sell her house, so we created this business.” Massey has been helping run the family business ever since.
As for the Woman’s Club, after a new roof and two years of other renovations, Massey believes the historic structure is ready to be reinvented. “It’s not official, but I’m thinking about turning it into a versatile woman’s workspace,” said Massey, looking across Wiggins Street at the Woman’s Club’s iconic façade of gray, locally quarried granite. “I knew that I could repair, restore and maintain the building like it deserved. But these historic buildings are hard to maintain without a business model or some income as well.”
A Rich Civic History
The Woman’s Club started out as an informal Needle Work Club in 1907 that federated in 1912. In August 1924, the members of that group joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, then a popular worldwide organization that promoted feminine civic engagement through volunteerism. The Lithonia Woman’s Club gave some local females the ability to impact their community at a time when they couldn’t even own a business or house or run for public office. Some of the club’s achievements include housing DeKalb County’s first public library, which before then consisted of two bookshelves in a downtown office, as well as raising funds for the construction of the current building, completed in 1928. The Club also regularly hosted fundraisers such as fashion shows, lunches for the business community, and for a time even offered ballet lessons. However, while the Club opened doors for many in the area, like much of the rest of the Deep South it was a segregated institution until the 1970s. Lithonia’s first African American mayor Marcia Glenn Hunter was also the first to integrate the Womans’ Club.
Looking ahead, Massey wants to turn the old club into a viable institution again. She has lots of ideas about the local landmark’s future but she doesn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry. “Camellia Hall and the Lithonia Woman’s Club are lovely structures,” said Massey, admiring both from her backyard. “I wanted to preserve this part of history for future generations, so they were bought through the Georgia Trust, which means there’s a conservation easement on both. Whatever happens down the road, this will preserve the Woman’s Club and Camellia Hall in perpetuity.”