Marcelite Jordan Harris studies the lists of names, trying to arrange a seating chart that will please 200 guests. As the first African American woman to become a two-star general, she once managed a $260 billion budget and oversaw maintenance of every single U.S. Air Force aircraft. But configuring tables for the Chautauqua Circle’s 100th-anniversary luncheon, now that’s a logistical challenge.
She and cochair Edith Hammond, who owns an advertising business, are relative newcomers to this organization, which claims two four-generation legacies. The duo figure they were handed the task because rookies can’t be blamed for mistakes. Still, they’ve been around long enough to know inside information, like matriarch Blanche Dobbs might invite her good friend Andrew Young, filling her table of twelve. “If Andy’s wife comes, that’s thirteen,” says Hammond. “Let’s just tell him not to bring his wife,” quips Harris.
The likelihood of Ambassador Young dropping by is the least of their concerns. Although the Chautauqua Circle has only about thirty members at a time, the current roster includes two judges, a former Fulton County commissioner, former staffers for presidents Clinton and Carter, a newspaper publisher, and former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin. Second-generation member Ernestine Brazeal’s parents introduced Maynard Jackson’s mother and father. Three past and current members have been wives of Atlanta University Center college presidents. Circle president Marilyn Holmes’s husband, Hamilton, integrated the University of Georgia in 1961 and the Emory School of Medicine two years later. Clearly, this is a group of women accustomed to being in charge.
Yet when the members gather, it’s more girls’ night out than networking event. You won’t find Chautauqua Circle listed on members’ resumes. This is where they come to put down the public burdens they carry, to support each other, and to be inspired. Annual dues: $20.
Founded on September 8, 1913, the Circle was an offshoot of the national Chautauqua movement, started in 1874 in southwestern New York. It was the Victorian era’s equivalent of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Launched to train Methodist Sunday School teachers during summer vacation, the assemblies quickly evolved to address a wide array of academic and cultural subjects, presented by prominent speakers such as William Jennings Bryan and Carl Sandburg. “Daughter Chautauquas”—including the Piedmont Chautauqua, started by famed Atlanta journalist Henry Grady in Lithia Springs—were formed around the country. A four-year correspondence course was added, with participants encouraged to form local circles. Graduates were invited to an annual ceremony in New York.
From existing records, the courses at Chautauqua Lake did not appear to be segregated. Black employees could earn season tickets, and Booker T. Washington spoke often and stayed on campus. However, lecturers and minstrels making the “circuit” tended to perpetuate racial stereotypes. One notable exception was an 1899 lecture by Dr. John W.E. Bowen, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and professor at Atlanta’s Gammon Theological Seminary. Born a slave, he condemned Jim Crow laws and voter discrimination and argued that ancestry was irrelevant to “great civic and social questions.” He contended that every man “should stand upon his own feet” and suggested that Chautauqua encourage racial dialogue in the South. His vision may not have been realized, but his wife, Ariel, was directly instrumental in the founding of Atlanta’s contingent.
Ariel, a professor at Clark College and a Chautauqua graduate, enlisted her friend Henrietta Curtis Porter, wife of an Atlanta dentist, who completed three years’ worth of home study but lost her books in the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 before she could finish. Porter also formed a Circle among her friends in the Fourth Ward, with similar goals to the national program but with its own curriculum. Notably, all members were African American, many with ties to Atlanta University Center institutions.
Originally, members prepared and presented monthly research papers. From the beginning, they tackled world issues: women’s suffrage, the Mexican Revolution, the Panama Canal, Russian Bolshevism. Then, as now, members made their mark on the wider world. Clara Maxwell Cater Pitts helped establish the historic Carrie Steele-Pitts foster home, Selena Sloan Butler founded the national black PTA, and others worked to provide free kindergarten for African American children and to integrate the YWCA.
Of course, in the segregated South, few event facilities welcomed African Americans, so the Circle met in private homes. The ladies set elegant tables with fine linens, china, and silver. Under headlines like “Mrs. H.R. Butler Proves Most Delightful Hostess to Aristocratic Chautauqua Club,” society editors at the Atlanta Daily World gushed over their hospitality.
“What was so astounding to me was that many of the women worked full-time jobs and had children,” says Brazeal, who grew up helping her mom prepare for Circle meetings. “Mom was the alumnae secretary at Spelman. She would go to work and still make all the food. It was phenomenal that these women would do all of this. It just rolled off their backs. The tables would be all set with beautiful linen tablecloths from France. We’d use the silver service and fine china. The women got all dressed up. It was very fancy.”
Now no one has time to do research, let alone iron linen or polish silver, so meetings have become less formal. Most take place in restaurants, with invited speakers ranging from civil rights legend and broadcaster Xernona Clayton to Will Packer, cofounder of Rainforest Films.
Yet the old guard has been slow to relinquish some traditions. Evonne Yancey remembers how Julia Bond, mother of former NAACP chair Julian Bond and grandmother of Atlanta councilman Michael Bond, insisted on listing members by their husbands’ names. “But we persevered. I think it was the next year that we started using our first names,” says Yancey. “We became more ourselves. We were who we were, not because we were the wife of someone.”
Indeed, among their close Circle, these women are most themselves. When the centennial luncheon arrived on September 14—at Villa Christina’s ballroom, with crystal chandeliers; chairs slipcovered in white and tied with green organza sashes; tables decorated with white carnations, the group’s official flower—the members rose to sing the words they have sung at every meeting since 1918, now widely recognized as the Black National Anthem: “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring . . . / Facing the rising sun, of our new day begun / Let us march on till victory is won.” And together, the ladies of the club entered their second hundred years.
Next page: Meet the ladies of Chautauqua Circle