Last weekend the Log Cabin Democrat was invited to the Conway Shakespeare Club’s 120th anniversary celebration — a garden party with tea, light refreshments and a theatrical vignette.
The Shakespeare Club has been having these sorts of meetings since 1894, and has kept regular minutes and notes from their meetings. A series of ledgers made by the club from the 1920s onward are held at the UCA Archives, and they offer a snapshot of life and culture in Conway during those times.
Particularly of interest, according to UCA archivist Jimmy Bryant, are the club’s records of its meetings from the 1920s through the Second World War.
"What we see in these recordings of their meetings is a group of women who were very forward-thinking for their time," Bryant said on Friday. "They were genuinely interested in learning about a broad range of topics, and took stances on issues of religion and race that were very progressive for that era."
The notes of meetings also illustrate how the pace of technology during the early 20th Century brought with it some of the same basic concerns as the pace of technology in the early 21st Century.
One case in point is a meeting in 1935 where the a guest speaker, an E.E. Cordrey of the State Teacher’s College (now UCA), "spoke simply, briefly and to the point, on ‘The Machine Age,’" the notes of the meeting read.
"‘The trouble is not in the engineering or technical field but in the economic and sociological world,’" Cordrey is quoted as telling the club. "‘Economics has not kept pace with technology. … Machines have brought wealth leisure and health, also poverty, slavery and sickness. … A solution will not be achieved by holding technology back, but by studying seriously and progressing in our social environment. We must learn to adapt ourselves to our environment.’"
The gulf between the rich and poor is often a political topic of discussion today, as it was during a club meeting in 1934. At this meeting, guest speaker J.D. Coppock, a History and Economics professor at Hendrix College, told the club that "23,000,000 millionaires were made during the [First World War], thus accentuating inequality of [wealth] distribution," and also said that "the 25% to 35% of our population, that we have called our great middle class, has become a fiction since the war. 17% of our population own about 96% of our property."
The club also heard lectures on the Spanish Civil War and Japan’s aggression against China — both precursors to World War II. But notes kept from 1941 through 1945 contain only occasional and incidental references to the War.
In one, the group decides to "dispense with the luncheon this year and have instead a simple party, each member paying the regular cost of the luncheon plate (50 cents) in order that we have money to increase our gift to the Red Cross — a motion was made and carried to give at least $20."
Another note from a meeting mentions, but does not detail, the reading of a letter by a witness to the Pearl Harbor attack.
In other notes from meetings, the social and cultural differences between Conway in the 1930s and Conway in the 21st Century are painfully clear. The club seems to have made a special effort to celebrate black artists, and though the use of the term "negro" is jarring to modern sensibilities, as are a number of outdated notions on race that would cause justified offense if uttered today, the club had what Bryant described as a very progressive attitude toward race for what was then still a legally segregated society decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the start of serious efforts toward racial equality.
"It is a noteworthy point that the music, dances and folk stories that are considered typically American all come from [black artists]," guest speaker Constance Mitchell of State Teacher’s College told the group in one 1930s-era meeting that ended with a reading of poems by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
It wasn’t all intellectual heavy lifting and wading into the murky problems of the day, though. In the early 1940s club member Vivian Hill suggested that she should resign "lest she disturb club programs through tardiness made necessary by her present schedule of classes." Another member, a Mrs. Peay, moved that "Miss Hill be allowed to come when she can, to be late, and make as much noise as she wants to." The motion carried.