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African American Heritage Corner

The African American Heritage Corner Week Seven

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Ariel S. Bowen was born Ariel Serena Hedges on March 3, 1863, in Newark, New Jersey, to Harriet Taylor and Charles Hedges. An “accomplished vocalist and musician,” according to the African American Registry, Bowen was also literate in Greek, Latin and German, and well-versed in piano and pipe organ. Bowen was raised around cultured individuals and settings with the educational advantages of a privileged childhood. As a young girl, she lived in Pittsburgh, attended Avery Institute, and received musical training before relocating with her family to Baltimore around 1873. 

In Baltimore, Bowen received an education from the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church’s school, and later graduated with honors from Springfield Massachusetts High School in 1885. After high school, Bowen passed the teachers’ course and examination and began teaching in Springfield. She then went on to teach history and English under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, and later taught music at Clark University in Atlanta.

On Sep. 14, 1886, Ariel married John Wesley Edward Bowen and subsequently had four children — three of whom survived to adulthood (Irene, Juanita and John Wesley Edward Jr.) and one (Portia Edmonia) who died in early childhood. Bowen and her husband lived in Washington, D.C., and together served the Methodist Episcopal Church. Bowen eventually organized and served as the first president of the Washington Methodist Episcopal Church’s Woman’s Home Missionary Society and assisted in pastoral duties at Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church. During this time, Bowen enrolled in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and graduated as a member of the “Columbia” Class of 1892. The following year, Bowen moved to Atlanta where her husband began teaching at Gammon Theological Seminary. She immersed herself in Atlanta’s community organizations, becoming a member of the Georgia Federation of Colored Women’ Clubs. She served as president of the Women’s Club of Atlanta and Colored Women’s Club of Georgia, and as a committee member at the Atlanta Congress of Colored Women in 1895.

As “one of the foremost and best cultured women of her race,” according to Prabook.com, Bowen often published articles about moral and social reform, and was particularly devoted to the cause of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, serving as president of the second Georgia WCTU, and becoming so well-respected among Black women for her work with the organization that it is said they esteemed her alongside Frances Willard, the WCTU founder. 

In 1876, Willard attended the Chautauqua Assembly to discuss the work of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as “an interesting and convincing platform speaker,” according to an edition of The Voice of the Negro. Bowen delivered an evening lecture about the “Work of the WCTU No. 2 of Georgia” in August 1899. Five years later, Bowen suddenly died on July 7, 1904, while attending the St. Louis World’s Fair for a meeting of the National Association of Colored Women. Bowen was 41 years old.

—Emálee Sanfilippo, Independent Research Consultant

The African American Heritage Corner Week Six

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Twenty-two years after its inception in 1874, Chautauqua Institution presented its first known Black lecturer: Booker T. Washington, a prominent orator and lecturer, as well as founder and principal of the Normal and Tuskegee Industrial School in Tuskegee, Alabama, now Tuskegee University.

On the morning of Aug. 1, 1896, Washington took to the Amphitheater to give his address, titled “The Negro Problem in the Black Belt of the South.” The 13th Amendment, which outlawed the practice of chattel slavery in the United States, was passed and ratified in 1865. Washington was 9 years old.

In the years that followed, many discussions arose as to what fate should befall the now-emancipated population of Black people who could no longer be exploited as free laborers.

According to an 1896 transcription of his lecture published in The Chautauqua Assembly Herald, Washington began his speech with a note that in 1895, a group of 600 African Americans had boarded a ship in Savannah, Georgia. Its passengers were destined to arrive in Liberia, then a small territory in West Africa nestled between Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

The very first group of resettled African Americans arrived in Liberia in 1820, according to National Geographic. An organization known as the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, was instrumental in resettling African Americans. The society’s mission was to send Black people back to Africa as an alternative to emancipation.  

In his speech, Washington humorously contended that the push to send African Americans back to Africa was not feasible, as the population’s birth rates outpaced those of its emigration rates. He advocated instead for racial uplift in the form of vocational education for African Americans, much like the one he had received.

The Library of Congress reported that in 1867, just two years after the 13th Amendment’s passage and ratification, more than 13,000 people had migrated to Liberia.

Although he had expressed opposition to the emigration to Liberia as a circumvention of just treatment for African Americans in the United States in his speech at Chautauqua, Washington would later prove instrumental in maintaining its sovereignty.

In 1846, at the behest of the American Colonization Society, Liberian settlers from America were asked to declare their national independence, being that it was neither a sovereign power, nor a legitimate U.S. colony. By 1847, they had done just that, writing a constitution and establishing the first known republic within the African continent.

Despite its official independence as a nation, a 1996 article published in the African Studies Review stated that the small nation, one of only two to stave off European colonization, faced the threat of annexation from various powers, including France, England and Germany.

Washington would prove to be a fierce advocate for Liberian sovereignty, placing Liberian affairs onto the Roosevelt administration’s diplomatic radar.

Washington had close ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had famously invited him to dinner which, in 1901, made Washington the first Black man known to receive a dinner invitation to the White House.

Later, in 1907, he would use his political connections in favor of the country, writing a letter to Roosevelt in which he advocated for U.S. support of Liberia’s independence. 

His advocacy continued for several years as he supported and pushed for commissions and delegations to and from Liberia. His efforts ultimately led to a strengthened United States-Liberian diplomatic relationship that would continue into the Taft administration, halting any imminent threat from European colonial powers.

—Mariam Keita

AAHH Program Director

The African American Heritage Corner Week Five

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“… here we are ‘really and truly’ at Chautauqua. … We imagine that we are unknown among these many thousands, but friendly faces greet us at every turn, … and we begin to feel quite at home.” 

—Hallie Quinn Brown at Chautauqua, 1886

Since its inception in 1878, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle has welcomed African Americans to its membership, with several individuals — including Theodore F.H. Blackman, Joseph Courtney, and George A. Maston — graduating in 1882 as members of the four-year reading course’s inaugural class. During the course of research into the participation of African Americans in the CLSC on behalf of the African American Heritage House, 21 individuals have thus far been identified as having graduated from the CLSC during its early history and, of those 21 graduates, three are known to have attended Recognition Day ceremonies on the Assembly Grounds. One of these three Recognition Day attendees, originally brought to the attention of the AAHH and the Institution’s archives following the African American Heritage House Speaker Series presentation by the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor at Johns Hopkins University Martha S. Jones during Week Five in 2020, is educator, elocutionist, activist and writer Hallie Quinn Brown.

Brown was born to freed slaves Frances Jane Scroggins and Thomas A. Brown in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she lived during her early adolescence until the family relocated to a farm near Chatham, Ontario, after 1860. The Brown family’s residence in Canada was brief, and they returned to the United States in time for Brown to begin coursework at Wilberforce College (Wilberforce, Ohio) in 1868. After graduating from Wilberforce in 1873, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree as one of six graduates of the school that year, Brown continued her education as a member of the CLSC.

In the summer of 1886, after “four years of patient toil and study” and “hours of severe work,” as described in an article she wrote for The Christian Recorder titled “Chautauqua Cullings,” Brown traveled to Chautauqua to attend Recognition Day festivities with fellow graduates of “The Progressives” class. Brown’s recollections of Recognition Day as they appear in her article, including an evening reception at the Athenaeum Hotel at which John Heyl Vincent, his wife Sarah Elizabeth Dusenbury, James H. Carlisle, Edward Everett Hale, and Mina and Thomas Edison received “with true Chautauquan cordially the many thousands who pass through the spacious parlors,” are largely drawn — and in many instances, including this particular quote, borrowed nearly word for word — from accounts of the day as they were recorded in The Chautauqua Assembly Herald in August 1886. Nevertheless, in recounting the days before and after Recognition Day, Brown’s personal reminiscences of “How vast and beautiful is Chautauqua!” tell of how she spent her time on the grounds “comfortably ensconced at the Spencer Cottage,” meeting and greeting fellow CLSC instructors who had imparted “such rare mental feasts” during her course of study, walking along the streets of Chautauqua “admiring this pretty cottage and that,” visiting Isabella Macdonald Alden’s “Pansy Cottage” on Forest, attending lectures and performances in the Amphitheater and Hall of Philosophy, and visiting the Museum, Oriental House, and model of Jerusalem before ultimately “realizing how utterly useless it is to try and exhaust Chautauqua.”

Following her graduation from the CLSC, Brown began touring and lecturing on behalf of her alma mater with the Wilberforce Grand Concert Company. When Wilberforce offered Brown a teaching position in elocution and literature, she declined to accept instead a position as dean of women at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, only to later accept the proffered appointment upon her return at the close of the 1892-1893 school year. When she returned to Wilberforce, Brown served as a professor of elocution and English and traveled extensively throughout Europe, touring as an elocutionist.

While in Europe, Brown held membership in the British Woman’s Temperance Association and was responsible for helping establish the first British Chautauqua. Upon her return to the United States, Brown served as president of the Ohio State Federation of Woman’s Clubs and helped organize the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C., for which she served as president from 1920 until 1924. In addition to her involvement in a number of social and religious organizations and reform movements, Brown was a talented writer and essayist, authoring several books before her death at her residence, Homewood Cottage, in Wilberforce, Ohio, on Sept. 16, 1949.

—Emálee Sanfilippo

Independent Research Consultant, Chautauqua Research Services

The African American Heritage Corner Week Four

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“Are Chautauquans afraid of burnt cork?” Written in The Chautauquan Daily on Aug. 6, 1909, the puzzling question captured the reluctance of the Chautauqua public regarding their participation in the annual minstrel show. However apprehensive early Chautauquans were, figures like Arthur E. Bestor (the director of the Chautauqua Institution and later president) stated they were not afraid to “blacken up” for the sake of continuing the show. On the subject of the Daily article, American Studies scholar Elizabeth Lloyd Harvey writes that “community leaders could … (push) the bounds of what they would usually say and do, because they were in blackface.” In short, blackface performances amplified race and class distinctions while offering prominent figures an opportunity for “escapism,” however problematic.

Courtesy of Institution archives A listing in an August 1909 edition of The Chautauquan Daily with the schedule of events for a “Minstrel and Vaudeville Performance.”

Traditional to 19th-century blackface minstrelsy, “burnt cork” was used by white performers as a costuming effect to darken their faces and physically embody exaggerated caricatures of Black enslaved people on Southern plantations. Blackface minstrelsy dominated as the main source of theatrical entertainment for wealthy, white, male audiences throughout the 19th century. After the Civil War, blackface minstrel shows no longer required theater houses, professional actors, or popular touring companies to be staged. Chautauquans — like many other amateur showrunners — took advantage in the rapid commercialization of the performance.

In lieu of a theatrical staging, 20th-century minstrel shows propagated as street or circus acts for quick monetary gain. Due to these varying forms, the act of putting on “blackface” was now deemed a less-acclaimed artistic practice. Chautauquans could have been reluctant to act in the show for a variety of reasons: one, they were aware that it reproduced harmful, derogatory stereotypes; two, it was simply a class issue. The attitude surrounding minstrel shows changed over time, and darkening one’s skin for the performance could ostensibly devalue one’s social or financial position rather than excel it.

The evolution of the blackface minstrel performance in Chautauqua started in 1882, and the forces of racism and anti-racism clashed often in the community’s early years, with racism often winning. After Chautauquans held their very first Recognition Day in honor of the newly graduated class members of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, there was a need for entertainment to lighten up the formalities of the day. Professor Frank Beard, iconically known during this time for his “chalk-talks” — comedic illustrations artistically performed as Bible lessons — had the idea to organize a “mock commencement” of the Recognition Day.

Historian Jesse L. Hurlbut notes in The Story of Chautauqua that the celebration surrounding the annual Recognition Day “finally grew into a ‘mock-commencement’ ceremony organized to make fun of the prominent figures and features of the graduating class.” By the early 1900s, Chautauqua public figure Otto F. Monahan spearheaded the event and it was changed to the “Chautauqua Circus,” an annual gathering organized by what was then the Athletic Club. The circus included acts such as minstrel shows, animal exhibits and vaudeville performances attempting to showcase the “history” and “cultural customs” of Indigenous tribes.

As posted in the Chautauqua Assembly Herald in 1902, figures like Beard even consented to “make an appearance with the minstrels” as the mock commencement evolved. Typically the Chautauqua minstrel performance included an “interlocutor,” and a chorus of “endmen” choreographed in a semi-circle performing a collection of songs and slapstick that made fun of community officials and participants who were willing to wear the “burnt cork.” Black people were the visible punch lines of the parody. Songs like “Mr. Monahan Song’’ emphasized the “tongue-and-cheek” element of the community roast, while the demeaning incorporation of blackface enabled affluent Chautauquans to further distinguish themselves from African Americans and perpetuate derogatory stereotypes about Black people as “loud,” “uneducated,” “poor” and “uncivilized.”

Minstrel shows were indeed violent tactics used to thwart Black progress, and it leaves room for one to ponder on the issue of accountability. Frankly, how might we observe or give voice to issues historically circumvented? These Chautauqua minstrel shows were never listed as official summer events in the Institution’s printed material, and one can speculate as to why that was the case. Perhaps they viewed the annual circus festivities as insignificant? Perhaps there was an understanding that these events were inconsistent with Chautauqua’s image or purpose?

More archival research may shed light on these answers. Either way, I leave you with an irremissible question, and that is: how were Black or even Indigenous community members affected by these annual affairs? What ramifications do these minstrel performances have on our contemporary society and the issues of diversity on the grounds today?

— Iyanna Hamby

Administrative Coordinator, African American Heritage House

The African American Heritage Corner Week Three

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The intellectual and cultural impact of Chautauqua Institution reverberates through every inch of America. While much has been said about the social progress of the original Chautauqua Institution at the time of its 1874 creation, fewer words have been spoken about its spin-off counterparts, also known as “daughter” Chautauquas, which were founded all across the country.

Existing archival records indicate that the earliest courses at Chautauqua Institution were not segregated. In fact, prominent Black leaders, such as orator and educator Booker T. Washington, was among its first lecturers and African Americans employed on the grounds could earn season tickets for their work.

However, the mere presence of Black Chautauquans did not stop other lecturers who occupied the Institution’s lecterns from espousing harmful and discriminatory racial rhetoric about African Americans. Minstrel shows, a popular genre of performance which featured mostly white actors in blackface acting out harmful stereotypes about African Americans through the use of racist caricature, were a regular occurrence.

Given their unenthusiastic reception in general Chautauqua spaces, some Black scholars who wished to partake in the intellectual movement took it upon themselves to create their own Chautauqua communities.

The African American Chautauqua Circle was founded in September 1913 by Henrietta Curtis Porter in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward at the behest of her colleague Ariel Serena Hedges Bowen, providing an invaluable community for Black thinkers. Bowen was a graduate of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Her husband, Dr. John W.E. Bowen Sr., also lectured at the Institution in 1899.

Although much of the Chautauqua Circle’s programming and goals aligned with that of the larger national Chautauqua movement, the Atlanta club also had its own distinct goals and agenda. For example, while the original Chautauqua Institution campus was co-ed, all of the Chautauqua Circle’s members were African American women. Among the club’s most notable alumni is Shirley Franklin who, in 2002, became the first woman to be elected mayor of Atlanta and the first African American woman to serve as mayor of a major Southern city. The club is still in operation today.

Each month, the women of the Chautauqua Circle would prepare research on issues that transcended geographic borders. Members would meet to discuss a variety of topics, ranging from the Mexican Revolution, to Bolshevism in Russia, the creation of the Panama Canal and the women’s suffrage movement.

There were many challenges that came with operating a Black women’s social club in the segregated South. Since Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination made it difficult to find venues from which to conduct monthly meetings, members would host the sessions out of their homes. This did not stop these women from cultivating an ornate experience each month, complete with expensive silver, fine china and linen tablecloths. At every meeting from 1918 onward, members would also gather to sing a song that is now known as the Black National Anthem: “Lift Every Voice And Sing.”

Social clubs like the Chautauqua Circle were composed of middle- and upper-class African Americans. These clubs served as the backbone of the Black elite. Even today, membership remains exclusive, with no more than 30 members at a time. One article published in a spring 1959 issue of the Journal of Negro Education indicates that the Chautauqua Circle was so exclusive that membership was typically inherited from one’s mother, or was contingent upon one’s proximity to men of wealth and status. This made the club inaccessible to those who were not firmly embedded within the Black elite.

And as for the club’s motto? “Keep moving, a standing pool becomes stagnant.”

Regardless of their class limitations, social clubs like the Chautauqua Circle provided upper-class Southern Black women with a sense of purpose and community at a time when Jim Crow laws made it difficult to navigate life as a Black person. In adapting the Chautauqua curriculum to fit the social club model, the women of Atlanta’s Chautauqua Circle were able to construct an innovative intellectual community beyond the confines of the Jim Crow South.

—Mariam Keita

  AAHH Program Coordinator

The African American Heritage Corner Week Two

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Close your eyes and imagine it is the summer of 1880 in Chautauqua, and excited visitors and community members flock to the daily lecture series which features the soon-to-be inaugurated President James A. Garfield. People are teeming with excitement about the arrival of a world-renowned music troupe composed of eight African American singers: Maggie Porter, Patti Malone, Mabel Lewis, Ella Sheppard, Jennie Jackson, Frederick J. Loudin, George Barrett and Richard A. Hall.

 Known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, their Civil Rights Tours (1879-1882) were assembled just after the completion of the original troupe’s esteemed travels in Europe. These tours sought to continue an important march toward Black suffrage, self-determination and equality. The Chautauqua community became immersed within Black history as the public support of their tours aided in a much longer fight against injustice that was not isolated merely in the South, but operated on a social and systemic level throughout the United States.

 The formation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their eventual arrival to Chautauqua was more than a decades-long ordeal. While it did not come easily, eventually the singers secured monumental praise from their sundry audience members, and shortly thereafter, international debuts with regarded acclaim from those like Queen Victoria. The original singers, as well as their subsequent and affiliate formation, made many sacrifices during their touring expeditions. Oftentimes the members would sleep on trains, because they were refused lodging, and go hungry because they were refused dining and had little funds to support their travels.

 Throughout August 1880, the Fisk Jubilee Singers drew a diverse crowd. Public intellectuals, politicians and civil rights orators, such as the Rev. Joseph Cook and President Garfield, supported and were inspired by their efforts. As contextualized in a historical survey by scholar Doug Seroff, the New York Tribune highlighted these momentous scenes.

Cook took to the pulpit the day of their performance on Aug. 12, 1880, to condemn the South for their escalation of the Civil War and their “monstrous crime of slavery.” Political figures, such as President Garfield, would recite lyrics of the spirituals, such as the song “March On” to allude to the ongoing political struggles of the singers who must continue and “march… to gain the victory” of equality. In the midst of such support, others were adamantly against their cause. 

 In the Grand Concert Hall on Aug. 18, 1880, an anonymous party who referred to themselves as a “Georgian” interrupted the Jubilee Singers’ final performance to rebuke Cook’s progressive claims and question the singers’ decision to live in the South. The singers wrote a response in the Chautauqua Assembly Herald the following day to address such sentiments. 

Their final point reads:

“Our homes continue in the South simply because we believe that the unexceptional advantages we have enjoyed can be better employed for the elevation or less fortunate people in the South by living among them.” 

 As evident in their response, the Jubilee Singers knew the impact of these performances and what they might yield in terms of national progress, especially for those Black people who were more socially and politically disregarded. The Jubilee Singers offer contemporary Chautauqua community members and visitors a story of Black resilience. In the face of adversity and scrutiny from both the North and the South, the Jubilee Singers were given an incredibly hard task. I ask, how do we continue this legacy here and now? Can our current mobilizations in Chautauqua elevate the voices of those silenced? What victories are still to be gained?

— Iyanna Hamby

AAHH Administrative Coordinator

The African American Heritage Corner Week One

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Welcome to The African American Heritage Corner. Chautauqua Institution has been described as an American utopia. In Jeffrey Simpson’s 1999 book, Chautauqua: An American Utopia, he writes “Chautauqua could be the perfect small town. It reflected that wonderful American curiosity. It is contained in this picture-perfect place.” Despite this idyllic description, for the majority of its almost 150-year existence, the Institution has had no consistent community of Black visitors. However, African Americans have impacted the very fabric of the Chautauqua experience — from arriving on the grounds as performers, musicians, scholars and religious speakers, to providing vital services through labor as drivers, housekeepers and nannies, to the benefit of the overwhelmingly white community. The names of African American luminaries, such as Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson and Thurgood Marshall, as well as more recent leaders, including Wes Moore and Imani Perry, loom large.

The African American Heritage House was founded 10 years ago for the purpose of making the grounds resemble the diversity of our world while centering African American voices and experiences. Originally founded as the African American Denominational House, it would take on several different forms until becoming AAHH. Currently, we host a weekly speaker series throughout the summer that explores how the weekly theme intersects with the experiences of People of Color. Additionally, we engage the community through candid Porch Chats, where thinking is challenged and vulnerability is cherished. The AAHH is dedicated to enriching the Chautauqua community through the inclusion of African American history and culture, and the contributions of African American intellectuals. In support of AAHH’s mission, every Wednesday this column will explore different elements of Black history at Chautauqua, drawing on resources from the Institution’s archives — often notices buried in the Daily, or ads, or the minutiae of  lines in building reports. This history is complex, multifaceted and, at some points, painful. The Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction caused the colliding of tectonic plates, ultimately creating new boundaries and fault lines. In this moment of transformation, Chautauqua was established, only 11 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Originally formed as a Methodist summer school, it quickly transformed into an intellectual and cultural hub. African Americans have been vital to the growth of Chautauqua since its beginning. Since the start, the grounds have been open to African Americans; however, de facto segregation was rampant. Importantly, throughout various moments in history, the Institution reflected the racism and prejudice of the time. For example, in the 1930s and ’40s, visitors enjoyed minstrel shows which included blackface and the popular racist caricatures of Amos & Andy. During this time, the all-Black boarding house named the Phillis Wheatley Cottage was built and in use, though there is no evidence that Wheatley ever spoke at or attended a summer season. Though there was no official administrative policy on segregation, the cultural and societal environment was not conducive to racial equity. Currently, the AAHH House, at 40 Scott, has historical storyboards, written and developed by Emálee Sanfilippo, which tell the story of the African American experience during the first 25 years of the Institution. This period was marked by racial inclusion, though paternalistic, which would change at the turn of the century.

 As a 15-year-old Black girl, I visited the Institution for the first time in 2013. I was excited by the vibrant intellectual community and plethora of mental stimulation. I attended the Chautauqua Opera, talks in the Amphitheater, and an Interfaith Lecture. I vividly remember visiting the Wes Moore lecture in the Amp and feeling inspired by his vulnerability and passion. Five years later, I would become a Rhodes Scholar, joining Mr. Moore in the honor. I firmly believe in the power of stories, history and vulnerability to transform our world. I welcome you to join me.  

— Camille “Mimi” Borders

African American Heritage House Program Director