African American Historical Highlights and Future Possibilities
The Chautauqua Institution is a not-for-profit, 750-acre educational center beside Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State (90 minutes south of Buffalo). Resembling a small college campus, Chautauqua comes alive every summer for nine weeks of lectures, concerts, worship, discussions with book authors, and recreation on and around the lake. Founded in 1874, just nine years after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction era, it was a visionary effort to provide leadership development experiences for current and future community and church leaders.
During those early years, Chautauqua’s national lecture platform welcomed U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and African American thought leaders like Booker T. Washington, who spoke at Chautauqua several times, and J.W.E. Bowen from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Chautauqua evolved into a movement for life long learning and established the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (1878). This four-year correspondence course was one of the first attempts at distance learning that resembled a college curriculum and sought to challenge adult Americans to use their growing leisure time for personal growth and development.
The Rise of the Chautauqua Movement
With the success of the CLSC, many new Chautauquas were created, known as “Daughter
Chautauquas,” giving rise to what was called the “Chautauqua Movement.” Some years later,
the talent agencies that provided speakers and entertainers for these platforms, put together shows of their own, which traveled to small towns across the United States and Canada. These were known as the “circuit chautauquas” or “tent chautauquas.”Although small numbers of African Americans were present at the “Mother Chautauqua” during this early period, many more gravitated to the mission and values of learning, community and service that Chautauqua symbolized. In Atlanta, a small group of Black women created a Chautauqua Literary Circle in 1913, a few years after the founding of the NAACP and Urban League. Today, that organization includes some of Atlanta’s most prominent women who are also members of historically Black sororities, the Links and other voluntary professional societies.
Music at Chautauqua
Music was always an essential part of Chautauqua, and some of the nation’s leading African American voices were featured including the Fisk Jubilee Singers (in 1875), Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson. A symphony orchestra season became part of the regular program in 1920. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1929, now performs thrice weekly with leading soloists in the 4,000-seat Amphitheater, Chautauqua’s program center. Popular entertainers from Motown to jazz legends like Wynton Marsalis perform other evenings. Chautauqua Dance also appears in the Amphitheater, sometimes with guest artists, while the Chautauqua Theater Company presents its season in Bratton Theater. Ossie Davis was celebrated on the Chautauqua stage and recent seasons have featured all African American casts performing classics like A Raisin in the Sun. The Chautauqua Opera Company, also founded in 1929, performs in English in Norton Hall.
Chautauqua's evolution during the Civil Rights Movement
As Chautauqua evolved during the difficult years of the Civil Rights Movement, it welcomed voices like Thurgood Marshall and Benjamin Elijah Mays. Although Chautauqua was comprised largely of an older, predominantly White population, the internal call for increasing ethnic-racial and socio-economic diversity grew slowly. Chautauqua’s grounds reflected the racial status quo of the times and included a lodging house for African Americans known as the Phyllis Wheatley House that was abolished with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s. But, some Chautauquans sought to be part of progressive movements and forward looking energies that were driving change in America.
More recently, leaders like Ambassador Andrew Young, Marian Wright Edelman and The Rev. Calvin Butts conferred with Chautauqua leadership to explore and encourage more aggressive outreach to key African American leaders who might appreciate the unique mission, venue and opportunities for leadership convening and development. That is a reason why we are making a special appeal to introduce Chautauqua to leaders in Rochester, Erie, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and beyond.
From its origins, Religion was a central element of Chautauqua’s culture and today one sees numerous denominational houses that are gathering spaces for leaders from numerous Christian and Jewish traditions. Denominational houses also provide affordable housing in a comfortable community-building atmosphere.
The African American Heritage House (AAHH)
Now, a new initiative is underway as an African American Heritage House (AAHH) is being developed with encouragement of the Chautauqua Institution board and senior leadership, and growing numbers of African American leaders from around the country gather here each summer. The AAHH will be part of that network of denominational houses that also welcomes and fosters interfaith, secular, cultural and civic interaction in an inclusive manner.
The AAHH Board President is Erroll Davis of Atlanta ( former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, Chancellor of the University System of Georgia and Chairman and CEO of Alliant Energy Corporation) and Vice President Dr. Helene Gayle (a lifelong Chautauquan from Buffalo, current CEO of Chicago Community Trust and former CEO of CARE). They are now inviting African American leaders and citizens from around the world to come and discover its potential for convening leaders for discussions and strategic planning for community uplift in an atmosphere of rich intellectual and cultural stimulation.
Chautauqua plays a unique educational role today, offering studies on a vacation level, a more serious level and a professional level. In addition, there are enhanced learning opportunities within Chautauqua’s other programming. Music, the arts, religion, recreation and the pursuit of knowledge are all available. Younger and older students often share learning experiences in an open, congenial atmosphere. Children and young people are also provided with their own special programs.
Chautauqua Institution is governed by a 24-member board of trustees, four of whom are elected by property owners. The board establishes the policies and direction of the Institution, electing the officers who are responsible for the operation of the Institution. Smith Memorial Library and the Chautauqua Institution Archives are open year-round. Between-season conferences are held at Bellinger Hall, the Athenaeum Hotel and other facilities on the grounds.