“Keep Moving” A Standing Pool Becomes Stagnant:” The Chautauqua Circle Collection

75th Anniversary of Chautauqua Circle

Members celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Chautauqua Circle, 1988

In 1913, the Chautauqua Circle, one of the oldest clubs for Black women in Atlanta, Georgia, adapted the model of the Chautauqua Institution to their uniquely Black middle-class, Southern-lived experience. Lewis Miller, a white American industrialist, educator and inventor, and John Heyl Vincent, a white American and former bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, co-founded the Chautauqua Institution on August 4, 1874.  They established an organization that provided the modern-day equivalent of an adult continuing education studies program for Americans in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  

The importance of the Chautauqua Institution was that it “offer[ed] the only opportunity for literacy to many of [its] attendees." Miller, Vincent, and others believed that if citizens were offered the opportunity to educate themselves in a rigorous, religious-based curriculum, society would change for the better:  “The more education an individual had, the better that person could serve God and society.” Thus, participants traveled by steamboat, electric trolley, and train from all over the country, and often with their families, to participate in the Chautauqua Institution in Fair Point, New York.  The Chautauqua Institution still operates today in Chautauqua, NY.

Mrs. Henrietta Curtis Porter, a founding member of the Chautauqua Circle, was the guiding force behind the Chautauqua Circle’s strict adherence to the philosophies of the National Chautauqua Movement.  However, the Chautauqua Circle operated in the spirit of the movement by modifying the subject matter of the lessons and the nature of the organization to fit the needs and interests of Black, middle-class Southern women of the time.  While the northern model’s participants travelled across the country in the first few decades of its operation to participate in the Institution in a New York amphitheater while lodging in tents on camping grounds, women in the Chautauqua Circle held monthly meetings locally in members’ homes in Atlanta. The northern organization was comprised of men and women, while, the southern circle boasted a female-only membership.  

Still active today, the Chautauqua Circle serves the Atlanta community through its social programs and activism. Members hosts meetings at restaurants rather than their homes. The group invites guests to speak such as ambassadors, civic leaders, and authors. Examples include civil rights legend and broadcaster, Xerona Clayton, and cofounder of Rainforest Films, Will Packer. For past and present members, Chautauqua Circle is about personal growth as well as awareness about what’s going on in the community and the world (Atlanta Magazine, 2013).

For more information about the Chautauqua Circle collection, click here to see the finding aid.

“Keep Moving” A Standing Pool Becomes Stagnant:” The Chautauqua Circle Collection