Sunday, June 20, 2004
A century ago, a city the size of Lawrence would never have been included on the chautauqua circuit.
The gatherings of scholars and entertainers were a strictly small-town phenomenon, designed to funnel the newest ideas of the day to the tiniest towns in the country.
But with a name like "Bleeding Kansas: Where the Civil War Began," this year's modern revival of the tradition could hardly end its four-city tour anywhere else.
"It was the place the Missouri border ruffians seemed to be obsessed with. They would periodically come in and threaten the destruction and sometimes did destroy it," said David Matheny, the scholar who portrays abolitionist John Brown.
"In Bleeding Kansas, Lawrence is the star."
Indeed, during the turbulent seven years leading up to the Civil War, two opposing visions of America -- one free, one slave -- battled for supremacy on the Kansas prairie. Abolitionists adopted Lawrence as their headquarters, and pro-slavery forces made it their target.
So in the 150th anniversary year of the city's founding, Lawrence seems the perfect place to set up a tent where 500 people at a time can hear and argue with the key figures and learn about events that shaped their free-state heritage.
The Kansas Humanities Council and a handful of Lawrence organizations have planned old-fashioned tent programs, historical tours and family-friendly activities during the chautauqua's Lawrence stop, Friday through June 29.
The tent goes up Thursday in the northwest corner of South Park. The event visited Junction City, Colby and Fort Scott this month.
Each evening, one or two of six historical figures will perform first-person views of history on the chautauqua tent stage. The characters, portrayed by scholars who have spent months or years researching their roles, are David Rice Atchison, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and Clarina Nichols.
Events during the days include breakfasts with the scholars, tours to area Bleeding Kansas sites, workshops for adults and a special "Kid-Tauqua" tent for children.
"It'll be a family festival of learning," said Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's for everybody. Everybody has something to learn about this history."
If your first reaction to all this is "chautauq-what?" you're not alone. Just think of chautauquas as rural America's Public Broadcasting System.
They originated in 1874 in tiny Chautauqua, N.Y., as a training program for Sunday School teachers but quickly evolved into a touring program of lectures, education and entertainment.
Author Mark Twain, politicians William Jennings Bryan and presidents from Ulysses Grant to William McKinley visited or headlined the event.
Chautauquas died off during the Great Depression but recently have been revived. The humanities council has taken tours to 40 communities in the past 20 years, says Marion Cott, the agency's executive director.
"What we've done is taken that idea of continuing learning and civic dialogue that was so central to the original chautauquas and have made it into an opportunity to look back at a historical period," she said.
"What is also encouraged ... is to hear the voices speaking in the past and ask how do those issues resonate in our lives today."
Playing the role
Invariably -- and the re-enactors expect this tendency to intensify in history-savvy Lawrence -- a few audience members joy in trying to stump, or at least challenge, the scholars who portray the historic figures.
Be assured, however, that the scholars are prepared for tough questions.
People often ask pro-slavery Missouri legislator David Rice Atchison, played by David Dickerson, how he could promote such an abhorrent practice.
"Liberty, although it is one of our greatest blessings, there is a time when you extend liberty to a people or a race who are not ready for it, and liberty becomes a curse rather than a blessing," Dickerson said. "This is kind of the position that Atchison came from."
That's not to say Dickerson doesn't get squeamish portraying a man who believed it was acceptable to own another man.
"How could I look out into the audience and see a black person and look them in the eye and talk about how I promoted slavery?" he said. "I had to grapple with it a lot.
"I think you have to believe your character, so I have tried to bring out that he had some good qualities and try to knit them together and let it fly."
Similarly, David Matheny as John Brown, undeniably the most controversial character in the chautauqua, tries to present an informed, balanced view of the man forever memorialized carrying a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other.
Brown grew up in a rigid, Calvinistic household with a father who preached abolition to his son from an early age. He witnessed a slave boy beaten with an iron shovel, and his religious beliefs held that he was put on earth to destroy slavery, Matheny said.
Brown is said to have killed five men or to have supervised their murders, depending on who you talk to, at Pottawatomie Creek.
"I think if you know some of (his upbringing), then that explains some of his actions, at least in Kansas," Matheny said. "He considered slavery against the law of God, and anything was justifiable to try to get rid of it."
Those who have seen the chautauqua say watching the presentations is time well-spent.
"It was really neat," said Gaylynn Childs, director of the Geary County Historical Society in Junction City. "It gave us a sense of really being a community."