When old memories lead to new discoveries

Published 4:59 pm Monday, January 8, 2024

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I have been enjoying the holidays travelling and visiting with friends and family, so I am sharing a repost of one of my most requested columns. After the column appeared in January 2022, there has been much interest in Washington doing a Chautauqua series again. I would love to see this come to fruition and I would be willing to help in any way I could.

From 1915 through 1944, my grandparents, William and Olivia Cozzens, owned the Tuxedo Restaurant at 326 Gladden Street in Washington. Located in the heart of the Black community, the restaurant did very well financially even through the Great Depression.

When I was about seven years old, I heard my grandmother talking about how her restaurant and other ones in the Black community got ready to prepare for Chautauqua (pronounced shuh-talk-wa.) The preparations started at the end of January as plans for making homemade pickles, fried pork rinds, chocolate and pound cakes and fried chicken to sell to large crowds who would attend Chautauqua.
Hearing of those plans, I thought Chautauqua was a location like Griffin’s Beach, a Black-owned beach where summer weekend trips included all of the foods named above.
Recently I started thinking about Chautauqua.
Imagine my surprise when I was searching for old local Black communities and found Chautauqua was not a place but an impressive, nationally known and celebrated event held here in Washington from 1914 to 1922.

Chautauqua was an adult education and social movement in the United States from 1874 until the mid 1920’s. Founded in 1874 by Methodist Church leaders for the instruction of Sunday School teachers in Chautauqua NY, it grew to promote intelligence and culture in all things.

President Theodore Roosevelt said “Chautauqua was the most American thing about America.”

In Washington it was held annually for a week during the summer. Most of the events were held under many large tents near Main and Bonner Street.
It was promoted as a week of fun and interspersed with lectures and music of the best kind and drew enormous crowds.

There were many events scheduled each day. Washington’s first Chautuaqua in June 1914 featured an automobile parade, marching bands, and motion pictures shown at the Gaiety, New and Gem Theaters on Main Street. There were lectures from nationally known speakers and preachers. Shakespearian plays were performed as well as the comic opera ‘The Mikado.’ A Black string band, and an Italian string band were on hand to delight the crowds. Oratorical artists from Boston, and Spirituals performed by Black churches also provided entertainment, learning and culture for all Washington residents and attendees from all over eastern NC.
A ‘Season Pass’ for the week cost 2.00. A Day Pass cost 35 cents.

Downtown businesses were decorated with banners. Some stores held big sales that week and smaller businesses profited from the crowds that attended Chautauqua.
The event was a huge success and economic boost for Washington that year. The following years did well but interest in Chautauqua waned and the last one was held in 1922.

The name Chautauqua (meaning ‘two moccasins tied together’ or ‘unity’ actually originated in North Carolina. It was the name of a Tuscarora Indian Village located where the town of New Bern is today. When the Tuscarora migrated to upstate New York, they named their new home Chautauqua. It is here where the Chautauqua Assembly Movement started.
I’m revisiting childhood memories to learn what hidden history they might reveal. I have been blessed to find a treasure trove that I look forward to sharing with you.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.