The social club for African American men continues to expand

As late May approaches, many Columbus high schoolers have already made lasting memories at their junior and senior proms. There have been sightings of teenagers of all races in evening gowns and tuxes taking selfies in front of houses, or spilling out of popular restaurants.

But in the early part of the 20th century, high school social life looked quite different. For example, in 1926 at East High School, African American students were not allowed to participate in social activities. Tensions soared, and a fight broke out between black and white students.

In the aftermath, a small number of African American male students founded the Merry Makers Club, a social organization where they could feel safe and included. Over 90 years later, the group is still active Downtown at a clubhouse at Spring Street and Jefferson Avenue.

“Tradition, membership and excellence have taken us from the beginning to where we are today,” said elder member Steve Cheek, who joined the Merry Makers in 1978. “We take this very seriously. … Over those 90 years, we have had some of Columbus' finest citizens [as] members.”

That legacy began with Harold Ward, one of the club's founding members and part of the family that started the country's longest-running black-owned business, E.E. Ward Moving & Storage. Over the years, membership has included restaurateurs, hotel owners, doctors and attorneys. Central Ohio journalism pioneer Amos H. Lynch Sr. and Robert Morton Duncan — the first African American to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court — were both Merry Makers.

“It goes on and on,” said Cheek, who continues to be amazed by the accomplishments of new members. “It adds to our tradition.”

Evolving from a teenage club after the founders grew up, the current group includes men in their 30s and older. Unless they are dismissed, Merry Makers can be lifelong members. Membership is generally invite-only, and the cap is 35 men at a time.

“It almost feels like we're in a new heyday for the club,” said social committee chair Diallo Wilkerson. “There's been some other clubs that have died off. And now we're again growing. … Just over the last year, we brought in seven members, which is the most number of members we brought in since 2011.”

That growth is due to the Merry Makers' increased social activity. Popular public events include annual Halloween and summer parties, and a new Bourbon & Cigar Happy Hour each month.

“But for the most part, it's people coming in and out to just relax,” said Wilkerson, pointing to members who watch TV, play cards or pour a drink from bottles stored in assigned lockers at the clubhouse. “They may host some friends here who just want to come and hang out, sit out on the patio.”

Some members have emphasized that the opportunity to fellowship with other black men away from race-based scrutiny is an advantage of joining the Merry Makers Club. But that doesn't mean membership will remain exclusive to African Americans or men in the future.

“It would be great to see some ground broken,” Wilkerson said. “As we start to include people into the things that we do, I think we need representation for people of different demographics.”

Beyond the social component, the Merry Makers Club also has a long commitment to giving back to the community. Through its foundation arm, the group contributes to endowed scholarships at Ohio State and Columbus State. As of 2017, 145 awards have been distributed to students.

“We're very pro-education here,” Cheek said.

Building a lineage of educated or otherwise accomplished members helps counter longstanding stereotypes of black men, Cheek explained.

“One thing that we have a problem with is that society thinks of African American men in a very unkindly way,” he said. “We're not what society thinks we are.”