Geraldyn Hodges is born July 29, 1894 in Chicago, IL and by birth a socialite.
“Not quite so long ago there was born in Chicago a bright eyed, brown girl-child. The joy of her coming, however, was dimmed by sorrow; for her mother, one of the South Bend Powell’s, was not able to survive the supreme effort of child birth and her father, overcome by the sudden loss of his wife, never forgave the innocent cause of his bereavement. So little Geraldyn Hodges was duly adopted by her aunt, Mrs. Maud Lawrence and,…was graduated from Wendell Phillips High School with such a degree of promise that she was awarded a scholarship at the University of Chicago. Just about this time Aunt Maud and Uncle Dave introduced her into Chicago Society with a party, which so impressed South Siders that to this day events are referred to as before or since Geraldyn’s debut.” Pittsburgh Courier, 8/6/1927, Sect. 2, p. 1
After graduating high school she attends the University of Chicago, earning a Bachelor of Philosophy in 1915 and two years later an education degree from Chicago Teachers College. A dynamic student, Geraldyn appears in a benefit production called, “Thy Will Be Done” at Chicago’s Pekin Theater, an early display of her vast talent and charitable mindset. She wins the heart of Henry Binga Dismond, the big-man-on-campus and the first black amateur track sensation in America. Running for Chicago, he ties the World Record 440 yard dash in June 1916 with the 47.2/5 time set by Ted Meredith. He later defeats Meredith, earning his varsity letter and for the next three years is the Western Inter-Collegiate Conference champion in the quarter-mile sprint. Geraldyn works as an assistant at Mrs. Mayme Clinkscales’s millinery shop on 36th Place and State St., above Jesse Binga’s Bank, before taking her first teaching position.
“Out on the Midway, Miss Hodges majored in English and history, and minored in attending track meets…After receiving her degrees of Associate of Philosophy and Bachelor of Philosophy, she posted in Chicago’s City Normal for teachers. This finished, she accepted an out of town try out at Lincoln Institute, Jefferson City, MO., where her pedagogic activities included dramatic art, physical education and interpretive dancing. After a year, however, being unable to withstand the call of her metropolitan birthplace, she returned to the identical Douglas Public School from which she had graduated…Here, in addition to her assignment, she became school clerk, a distinctive honor, since 95 per cent of the teachers were non Aframerican (African-American), and organized the Douglass Public School Community Center.” Pittsburgh Courier, 8/6/1927, Section 2, p.1
The couple marries on December 17, 1917 at Camp Logan in Houston, TX, shortly before Binga ships out to France. During wartime, Geraldyn is a Red Cross nursing Major, a teacher at Douglas public school and she performs special work for the Chicago Urban League. After eighteen months of military service Binga returns to Chicago, graduating from Rush Medical School. As a Provident Hospital medical resident he invents the Radex Steam Infuser, a device for treating respiratory diseases. In 1924, he accepts an invitation by Harlem, NY doctor’s to develop an x-ray and electro-therapy practice. Soon after, the Dismond’s establish themselves in New York City, where Geraldyn’s journalism career begins.
“After the storm-three more years of teaching in Chicago-then New York…She has not taught since coming to New York, but she has been far from idle. Her endeavors include, the Women’s Auxiliary of the Urban League, the Edgecombe Sanitarium, the Bethune-Cookman League and the N.A.A.C.P. She has organized the Chicago Club of New York; is a member of es Seize, Lambda Alpha Sigma and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Pittsburgh Courier, 8/6/1927, Section 2, p.1
Binga eventually becomes a Harlem Hospital physician, pioneering a practice in physio-therapy (treating disease and injury by physical means with light, heat and electricity). The Dismond’s entrench themselves in the Harlem Renaissance social scene, attending parties and other social functions with A’lelia Walker, Harold Jackman, Bessye Bearden, Ethel Waters, Langston Hughes and many other notables. An innovator at heart, Geraldyn dubs herself a publicity agent. Thereby, establishing the “Geraldyn Dismond Bureau of Specialized Publicity,” the catalyst precipitating her extraordinary impact upon the African-American media scene.
“She is the owner of the Geraldyn Dismond Bureau of Specialized Publicity, with diversified mailing lists of over 10,000. This bureau at present has charge of the Harlem publicity for “Africana” at Daly’s 63rd Street Theater and is aiding materially in keeping Ethel Waters’ “Weary Feet” on Broadway.” Pittsburgh Courier, 8/6/1927, Section 2, p.1
Her debut newspaper article, “NAACP Dance to Draw Elite of City” appears in the Chicago Defender, National Edition the New York Age and the Pittsburgh Courier in early March of 1925. As Publicity Chairman for the NAACP “Annual Spring Fundraiser,” she writes a brief article, also creating and placing newspaper advertisements. From this modest beginning, Geraldyn rapidly becomes an entertainment critic, feature writer and a nationally syndicated society columnist. She pens her entertainment reviews and addictive repartee for various newspapers including, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Inter-State Tattler, the New York Daily Citizen, the Baltimore Afro American and the Amsterdam News; and her first editorial position is as managing editor of the Inter-State Tattler.
“Of the many newspapers owned and published by Negros, women figure largely as owners and editors. Mrs. Geraldyn Dismond, perhaps the races’ most distinguished woman journalist, is feature writer and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest colored weekly, and is also a pioneer in a new field for women, being an owner of a bureau of specialized publicity.” Pittsburgh Courier, 9/17/1927, Section 1, p. 3
This meteoric achievement affirms Geraldyn’s massive appeal within black social and media circles. Duly regarded as bearing public influence and genial competence, she shrewdly seizes an opportunity to be featured on WABC’s “24th Negro Achievement Hour.” Her topic, “Newspaper Women of the Negro Press” exposes black female journalist’s influence toward advancing “the cause of the Negro press,” very progressive subject matter for the time. She boldly highlights African-American women journalists and newspaper owners who work toward eradication of the systematic economic, educational and social restraints of “Jim Crow” racism, by illuminating the enduring hatred, ostracization and legal obstructions vexing African-American lives. Geraldyn’s appearance on a mainstream radio broadcast is a ground-breaking opportunity, denoting a professional milestone within her relatively diminutive career. Successively, she’s repeatedly called upon to face the microphone for every sort of presentation, on-air banter or topical discussion.
By 1930, the Dismond’s live in a Striver’s Row townhouse. The jovial couple host countless club meetings, cocktail gatherings and dinner parties earning Geraldyn the moniker, “Harlem’s Hostess.” They frequent all the best clubs, parties, social functions, and group weekend and holiday getaways. They become a very active, fashionable, fun loving and popular couple. Over time, Geraldyn’s soirees famously include prominent celebrities, high society darlings and the most beautiful and interesting people of the moment, factors causing her bids to be highly coveted by all. Consequently, she candidly signs her invites, “La Dismond.”
“The Binga Dismonds’ new home at 245 West 139th Street, was given a surprise shower Saturday night, by a group of friends including A’Lelia Walker, Mamie White, Bertha Cotton, Bessye Bearden,…Alberta Hunter,…Harold Jackman,…The Julius Greens acted as host and hostess,…Art objects, vases and linens appropriate for the modernistic studio apartment…were bought by the ladies, while their escorts furnished the refreshments. The party started at around 12, but between the playing of Alex Hill, Carol Boyd and Joe Johnson, the singing of Alberta Hunter and Edith McDougald and the dancing of Jimmy Daniels and McCleary Sinnette, it was dawn before the leave-taking set in.” The Afro American, 6/28/1930, p. 7
Over her lifetime, Geraldyn is a co-planner, public relations envoy and master of ceremonies for many fancy dress balls, fundraisers, fashion shows and other upscale social events. The Dismond’s New York life is a hectic whirlwind of hard work, social obligation and extravagant merriment.
Persisting for 16 years in a momentous, yet intensely busy marriage takes a heavy toll on the lovers. During the Early 1930’s, the Dismond’s experience months of separation, later politely residing in their Harlem abode for a short time. By December of 1933, Geraldyn obtains a Mexican divorce from her once beloved Binga. In her book, “Gerri Major’s Black Society” she describes him as “impetuous and jealous,” clearly factors instigating divorce. She also accuses Binga of unabashedly cheating with many women.
“That summer, I went to Chicago to see Aunt Maude and stayed a rather long time. When I returned to New York, I didn’t move my trunk out of the foyer of the 139th Street house. I had decided that I wanted a divorce. Binga was excessively jealous, and yet he could race around with half a dozen women and no one would say anything about it. Binga believed that every man should have as many women as he could support. After sixteen years, I was tired of being Wife Number One.” Gerri Major’s Black Society, 1976
While not compatible for lifelong marriage, they remain friends until his death from cancer on November 21, 1956. Later, Geraldyn takes on two more brief marriages one to prominent Canadian entertainer Gilbert Holland and another to John R. Major, an Atlantic City mortician. She went on to have many more romances, but was never to marry again.
In 1953, Geraldyn is hired as an associate editor handling coverage of social events for Ebony magazine and coordinating the society pages for Jet news, entertainment and social digest. Now known as Gerri Major, she begins a 28 year career with Johnson Publishing by traveling to London, England as a correspondent reporting on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and other international cultural and social activities.
“Gerri Major, society editor of Jet Magazine, left New York’s International Airport en route to London, where she will join an international press corps in covering the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Her Column, “Gerri Major’s Society World,” will be cabled from London and other European cities, including Munich, Rome, Madrid and Paris. Miss Major will provide complete coverage of the Coronation for Jet readers in special dispatches as well as her society column.” Jet Magazine, May, 1953
Being an extensive world traveler, on assignment or as a global citizen, Gerri’s rich and diverse experiences are translated through her glamorous lifestyle and eclectic body of work. She ultimately becomes Ebony’s senior society editor, supervising and coordinating feature articles and other activities. In 1976, Johnson Publishing affords her the opportunity to author “Gerri Major’s Black Society” (with Doris E. Saunders), a book chronicling the role and contributions of the black upper class from 1776 through 1976. Parts historian and innovator, she’s often called upon by talk show producers, news correspondents and other media professionals to share her knowledge, thoughts and opinions about black involvement in the entertainment industry and beyond.
After becoming a published author, Geraldyn’s let go with 50 other Johnson Publishing Company employees, in a 1981 downsizing action; she was 87 years old.
“The black communications world was set abuzz in June with the announcement of John H. Johnson’s decision to reduce the payroll of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., a move which sent 51 employees to the streets scrambling for other jobs. Included in the purge were several staff members who had been with the company for more than a quarter of a century…The Chicago headquarters staff of the company was hard hit and, so were the Los Angeles operation and New York office. Included in the layoff, according to reports, were Alex Poinsett, the senior staff editor of Ebony magazine, who had put in approximately 28 years with the company; Gerri Major, the society editor, who is probably more than 80 years old; and Ariel Strong, who edited Black Stars magazine, a publication that Johnson closed down as a part of his austerity move.” The Afro American, 7/4/1981, p. 2
Gerri Major is considered an early 20th century “New Negro,” an original black jet-setter and one of the most well-known African-American women in the United States. She fulfilled her life’s purpose and was a powerful role model by effectively functioning as a celebrated socialite, teacher, civil rights worker, nurse, public relations expert, noted syndicated society columnist, radio announcer, civil servant, journalist, managing editor, celebrity model, master of ceremonies, world traveler, author and much more. She was the quintessential modern woman, a person who never gave up on her dreams and someone who lived life on her own terms. Gerri’s professional integrity and immense success was undoubtedly informed and distinguished by her involvement with the NAACP, the Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women. She was also active with American Women in Radio and TV, the Capital Press Club and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Gerri received over 30 awards and citations for her journalistic excellence and wide-spread social influence. Gerri Major died at the age of 90 on August 17, 1984, in New York City.
©2011, C. Rae White
NOTE: Henry Binga Dismond is a cousin from the Binga branch of my family.