Facing our history

How Chautauqua did — and did not — engage with race in its earliest days

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At left is a photo of Oliver Toussaint Jackson, who was manager at Boulder’s Chautauqua Dining Hall in 1898. He later operated a popular seafood restaurant at 55th and Arapahoe in Boulder. Below is a photo of Jackson’s wait staff setting up the Dining Hall.
Courtesy of Dan Corson / History Colorado

The second season of the Colorado Chautauqua was a success. Good thing, too, as a reporter from the Daily Camera wrote after the six-week assembly wrapped up in 1899, because two years straight with lost profits would have surely shut the educational program down. 

But people were talking about building cottages along the foot of the mountains to better enjoy the Colorado Chautauqua the next summer — some had already leased lots. They’d been inspired and edified by presentations about the newest concepts in pedagogy and archeology, delighted in Shakespearean theater, and had their souls stirred by sermons from renowned ministers.

And there was a bit of whitewashing history in there as well.

George N. Aldredge, a judge from Texas (born in Georgia), gave a lecture called “Plantation Life in the South” on the final Saturday of the assembly.

“[Aldredge] declared it to be a mistake that the slaves were brutally treated,” reported the Camera, “that while there were brutal masters and overseers they were the exception, not the rule, and that the masters and slaves loved each other and he doubted if the blacks had been much improved by their emancipation, though he believed it wrong for one man to own another and the whole South is glad that slavery has been destroyed.”

Historian Sarah Bell came across this article when she was doing research for her dissertation about how the women’s suffrage movement used Chautauqua assemblies around the country to advance the cause; she would go on to find more examples of racism at the summer educational gatherings. On July 20, Bell will give a virtual presentation for the Colorado Chautauqua’s annual meeting exploring how the assemblies — at Boulder and elsewhere — did and did not engage with race during their heyday at the turn of the century.

“This was happening at the same time you see this push of Jim Crow laws and the rise of the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan,” Bell says of the advent of the Colorado Chautauqua and speeches like the one given by Aldredge. “And a lot of this kind of ‘re-training’ begins, themes like ‘the lost cause’ [emerge as a way] to remember the Confederate South. And so even though there maybe wasn’t exactly that language at the Chautauqua, I saw enough of it [in my research]. It felt like this coded language, this understanding that these white people in the audience, listening to these speakers, … knew what they were referring to. That’s where I think it’s important to show how Chautauqua participated in these discussions and even promoted these ideas that were occurring elsewhere in society.”

The first Chautauqua assembly was founded in New York by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller in 1874 as an outgrowth of a popular outdoor Sunday school class Vincent was already teaching. Vincent and Miller believed the model could help ideas, generally of the progressive variety, grow and spread as people listened to and engaged with lectures and discussions. The concept took off and by 1900 there were around 150 “daughter” Chautauquas modeled off the “mother” program. Lectures were the bread and butter of Chautauquas, focusing on either topics of reform (the push to develop kindergarten in the United States began at Chautauqua assemblies, for example) or inspiration. 

But the Chautauquas focused primarily on educating and uplifting middle class white Protestants, so much so that Bell says black and Jewish Chautauquas eventually popped up in places like Durham, North Carolina, where the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua later became North Carolina Central University, a historically black university still in operation today. 

“If there was a need to start a separate one, is that because they weren’t allowed at the main [assemblies]?” Bell says. “You could draw that question out to the suffrage organizations, temperance organizations and clubs. Black women were almost always not allowed to join the main organization so they began their own.”

Dan Corson, a local historian and board member for the Colorado Chautauqua, says there’s no hard evidence he’s ever found that indicates people of color weren’t allowed to participate in Chautauqua assemblies.

“Whether African American citizens came to lectures and musical concerts, whether they participated in the Chautauqua, I don’t know,” Corson says. “And I don’t think anyone knows and I don’t know if there’s a record.”

It’s been a common refrain in Corson’s historical research on early black residents of Boulder. His search began in 1986 after an architectural survey of the Goss-Grove Neighborhood revealed that a portion of the area, from 19th to 23rd streets on the east, contained homes built by former slaves. The area, known as “The Little Rectangle,” was undesirable as it was prone to flooding, and thus it became “the other side of the tracks” in Boulder — the black neighborhood.

“While researching other efforts to record in a comprehensive fashion a history of the black community in Boulder, I found that none existed,” Corson wrote in a paper in 1996. 

“There never was a large African American population in Boulder,” Corson says over the phone recently, “but in the olden days, the first settlers lived anywhere in the community. But it became increasingly segregated,” as the years passed. 

Bell suggests that it would be hard for a black participant to feel welcome at a Chautauqua assembly with speakers like Benjamin Tillman making regular rounds on the Chautauqua circuit. Tillman, a senator from South Carolina who went on to become governor, defended lynching and frequently mocked black Americans in his speeches on the Senate floor, even bragging about having helped kill black citizens. 

A program for a Colorado Chautauqua assembly encouraged people not to miss a lecture by Tillman, “an enemy of shames, a ventilator of frauds, a friend of reform, and a defender of honesty.”

“… he calls a spade a spade and handles his subject without gloves,” the brochure proclaimed. “He should be seen and heard to be appreciated.” 

Native Americans were also the subject of relegation at Chautauquas (ironic, at best, since Chautauqua is an Iroquois word), even if it wasn’t explicit, according to Bell, who found a report on a turn-of-the-century lecture at the Colorado Chautauqua “labeling Native Americans as savages and the white soldiers as these heroic victors.” 

All this despite the fact that people of color were sometimes brought to Chautauquas as entertainment. Silvia Pettem researched programs from the Colorado Chautauqua for her book Chautauqua Centennial, and found that, in the language of the day, Chautauqua programs noted that audiences were enthusiastic about “Gospel or Negro,” choral groups, including the Carolinian Jubilee Troupe that performed in 1905 and sang “jubilee and plantation melodies.” 

“In another reference,” Pettem writes in an email, “one of the Chautauqua Bulletins stated, ‘The selections that Chautauquans liked best were old favorites, Negro spirituals, familiar operatic arias and Sousa marches.’”

Native American entertainment included Canadian poet E. Pauline Johnson, whose father was a Mohawk chief, her mother an English immigrant. Johnson wrote about her mixed-race heritage and became an iconic figure in Canadian literature, and spoke at an early Colorado Chautauqua. 

“Civilization has touched her with its finer qualities,” a pamphlet for her Colorado lecture paternalistically complimented. “She is cultivated and brilliant. Her figure is imposing and sets off the Indian trappings of her rich buckskin garments.”

“Facing our history and ensuring Chautauqua is a diverse and welcoming place for all, are ongoing preoccupations,” Liza Purvis, director of marketing and communication for Colorado Chautauqua, wrote in an email. In May, Colorado Chautauqua faced a deadly piece of its history by hosting a moving memorial stone installation and ceremony for family, friends and supporters of Los Seis de Boulder, six Chicano activists who were killed in two car bombings in 1974, one of which occurred on Chautauqua property.

The intention of Bell’s talk, Purvis says, is to continue the conversation on race relations in the U.S., not to single out the Colorado Chautauqua.

“Boulder was by no means unique with how it engaged with race or didn’t engage with race,” Bell says. “I want people to understand how these systems, these organizations, including Chautauqua, started and who [had] the platform and how these ideas kept getting perpetuated over time.”  

ON THE BILL: Race and Chautauqua — featuring Sarah Bell, historian at the Watkins History Museum in Lawrence, Kansas. 6 p.m. Monday, July 20 via Zoom. The event is free.