Diamond brooches, beach houses, biscuit recipes. Every family cherishes precious heirlooms and unique traditions, carefully passing them to the next generation. In long-standing local families, one such treasure is membership in the Assembly, the oldest women’s social club in Greenville, and one of the most revered in the state.
By constitution, the Assembly exists exclusively to host an annual ball. But in reality, the venerable group has preserved Southern heart and heritage by maintaining time-honored decorum through cultural shifts and changing mores.
Current president Susie White is still coming down off the high of organizing 2016’s ball, the 92nd, which was held in November. “It was such a joyful night celebrating friendships and our new debutants,” she recalls with affection. “To see the smile on their faces . . . and the décor was so elegant. It was simply spectacular.” Attendance was also the highest it’s been in a decade, with 312 members and guests participating, partially due to the president’s hard work.
Susie’s commitment to the group is notable, as her membership came through marriage. “This was not a tradition I grew up with,” she explains. “What I enjoy most is knowing I’m a part of something that is significant to the family I married into. When you marry into tradition, it becomes your tradition, and you appreciate it.”
The Assembly consists solely of women—specifically, daughters, and daughters-in-law of past and current members. Consider it a storied invitation etched at birth, or betrothal, dating back to 1923 when 16 local ladies enlisted their friends and created the social club. Little could the Prohibition-era housewives have predicted the professionals who would be holding dance cards today.
After working in New York City and Atlanta for a decade, Kathryn Hilton is amazed with her hometown’s growth. “There are so many great things changing in Greenville,” she observes. “It’s wonderful to see those, and it’s important to remember the past.”
Both of her great-grandmothers were charter Assembly members, and Kathryn made her debut at the ball as an 18-year-old Clemson student. She’s committed to sharing that legacy with her newborn daughter Mills. “As Greenville evolves, it’s important to show the history that comes with the culture. The Assembly gives a nod to that time. I want her to know her family’s history.”
Perhaps no one speaks as well to the group’s matrilineal roots as its volunteer historian. “We hope in setting this standard, we will establish a tradition that will be handed down to our sons and daughters,” reads Betsy Zimmerman, from the brittle meeting notes of her ancestors. Like many members, she can trace her lineage back to the original 16. “I love history. I’m glad to be a part of something that has been around for quite a while,” she reveals.
Each fall, Betsy can’t wait for the ball. “With today’s busyness, it’s a touchpoint,” she explains. Susie sums it up best, adding, “Women’s friendships should be celebrated. I think the South is particularly fond of traditions, especially those that celebrate friendships and family. And that’s what we do, with one elegant evening.”
Belles of the Ball: Betsy Zimmerman, Susie White, and Kathryn Hilton are members of the Assembly, Greenville’s oldest social club for women, dating back to 1923. Membership is based on family lineage and marital ties. Last November, the club celebrated its 92nd ball in grand style at the Poinsett Club. While the Assembly remains dedicated to familial tradition, it now welcomes single women, and its membership reflects a new age of diverse, independent professionals.