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
"My mom was known for her Chicken Supreme, which was like a casserole with chicken and celery. She loved to add water chestnuts, which were sort of unfamiliar at the time. She would have French-cut string beans with almonds and a black cherry Jell-O mold with a mayonnaise garnish. For dessert she’d have lemon icebox cake, which was layers of custard and sponge cake. She’d decorate it with whipped cream and put cherries on top.”
Age seventy-three, Brazeal is a retired social worker, trainer, and counselor. She grew up helping her mother prepare for Circle meetings. Brazeal herself joined in 1978.
"I joined CC in the 1970s after learning about them from Mrs. McCoy, my former husband’s grandmother. It was her theory that a married woman was obligated to stay abreast of current issues as a means of encouraging her children to be lifelong learners. I learned something new at every meeting."
Franklin, age sixty-eight, served as mayor of Atlanta from 2002 to 2010. She is currently the chairman of the board and CEO of Purpose Built Communities, and the Barbara Jordan Visiting Professor of Ethics and Political Values in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She joined in 1976.
"Many people have said what they love about the organization is that there are not a lot of formalities. We have a ceremony, but it is very brief. And we do follow Robert’s Rules of Order, but they are relaxed. As a former librarian, I thought every now and then we ought to read books. But our main focus has been inviting in civic leaders or authors or others who have something unique to contribute and expand our horizons."
Cole, age seventy, is a retired Fulton County State Court judge. Her husband, Thomas Winston Cole Jr., is president emeritus of Clark Atlanta University. She joined in 1980.
"People confuse the Chautauqua Circle with a book club. We don’t read and discuss books. It’s much broader than that. It’s about personal growth and awareness of what’s going on in your community and the world."
Yancey, age sixty-seven, recently retired as Kaiser Permanente’s director of community benefit and community relations. She joined in 1980.
"I enjoyed the bus ride around the BeltLine. I hadn’t ever focused on the role of the railroads in Atlanta. I also like it when Pearl Cleage comes. I’m sure she doesn’t know my name, but she knows I’m a fellow Detroiter."
Tate, age seventy-four, is a retired administrator and faculty member of Georgia Perimeter College. She joined in 1999.
"These are fine and noble women. All of them are involved in significant things. They have their fingers in other types of institutions, from industries to education. I’m really a political bug. I write President Obama often, though he evidently doesn’t get my letters, since he doesn’t answer them."
Harris, age seventy, retired from the Air Force in 1997. She joined in 2012.
“From the beginning, the women involved themselves in the issues of the times. A lot of people traveled often who would then give reports on their travels. They were very conscious of what was going on in government and society. They weren’t just wearing hats and white gloves and eating tea sandwiches.”
Holmes was initiated as president this year. Age seventy, she is a retired Atlanta Public Schools elementary teacher. She joined in 1998.
"As we prepared to celebrate our 100th anniversary, I was especially fascinated by our very rich and detailed history. As we move into the next 100 years, it is my sincere hope that the contributions of past members will continue to inspire Chautauqua members to 'Keep moving: A standing pool becomes stagnant,' as stated in our motto."
Age sixty-one, Saxon is a retired educator. She joined in 1998.
"One time, Ambassador Theodore Britton spoke to our group. A former U.S. ambassador to Barbados, he was one of the Montford Point recruits who played a critical role in desegregating the Marine Corps. He gave us great insight into what was going on at the time. He’s eighty-seven years old now, but he still speaks all over the world."
Founder and president of HE Hammond Enterprises, a promotional products and advertising company, Hammond joined in 2008.
“I found the secret to Chautauqua in Galatians 5:22. [“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.”] Those virtues, shown to me through more than twenty years, have sustained Chautauqua for the last hundred years.”
Last year’s president, Suitt, age seventy, was responsible for much of the centennial planning. A retired human resources executive for the Coca-Cola Company, she joined in 1998.
"We had to pick up some of the older women who couldn’t drive. I called myself Mrs. Eloise Milton’s designated driver. Now I’m where they were. Mrs. Milton and I had the same Wedgwood pattern, so we’d loan each other dishes. I also had pieces I’d inherited from my mother Patricia that I called ‘Early Patty.’ This was long before Party City."
Washington, age ninety-four, was a pioneering Atlanta high school counselor. She and all three of her daughters have been Circle presidents. She joined in 1969.
"Women usually join in their thirties. They’re not necessarily married or settled, but they have to be comfortable with the mixed age group. The ages go from the early thirties up to the nineties. My mother is a member, and my older sisters were members. I hope my daughter joins one day. I remember one Christmas luncheon at a hotel across from Lenox Square. When we left, there was a furrier in another room. My sister and I went in there, and we came out with two fur coats. We put them on a payment plan. One day my coat came in the mail with my initials all embroidered on the inside. It was leather with a black fur collar. That was one of the few things we’ve done on impulse."
Scott, age sixty-one, is a retired high school media specialist for Atlanta Public Schools. She joined in 1987.
This story originally appeared in our December 2013 issue. All photographs by Jason Maris.