Few college students give talks at Chautauqua Institution, but that’s what Catherine Oag did as part of a summer internship when she introduced Albion Tourgee, lead counsel in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case, in the revered Hall of Philosophy.
A History major at the State University of New York at Fredonia with a minor in Museum Studies probably couldn’t pick a more enticing location to spend a summer than the institution’s Oliver Archives Center.
The 2016 Cassadaga Valley High School graduate from Gerry delivered her presentation in the archives’ Heritage Lecture Series, setting the stage for the principal address by Robert H. Jackson Center Co-founder Greg Peterson, who reflected on the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case and Chautauqua County’s connections to Mr. Tourgee.
Plessy v. Ferguson, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, advanced the controversial “separate but equal” doctrine that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation. The precedent that the court ruling set was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.
In opening remarks, archivist Jonathan Schmitz identified Tourgee as “one of those very famous people that a lot of people have never heard about, and yet it’s quite well worth taking time to learn about him because it is an amazingly interesting life.”
Oag, who previously counted herself among those not familiar with Tourgee, promptly fulfilled that expectation.
Tourgee was a Civil War veteran, lawyer, judge, best-selling author and advocate of racial equality, Oag explained, as well as a distinguished figure at Chautauqua and former Mayville resident who became involved in national politics. He also had a strong reputation of dealing as fairly with African Americans as he did with whites, she said.
Much of Oag’s research was done on the Internet, but she also mined intriguing information about Tourgee in his books, including “Color Blind Justice,” and back issues of the Chautauquan Daily newspaper. She read entire speeches he gave at Chautauqua, including remarks at a memorial service held on the grounds for President Ulysses S. Grant.
“I enjoy doing research, am kind of a nerd like that. I was perfectly content to be on a scavenger hunt digging for information about him,” said Oag, now considered an authority on Tourgee.
Oag praised Tourgee for his wide range of accomplishments, but believes Plessy v. Ferguson and his opinions on racial equality are what stand out most. “For that time, it wasn’t very common for a white man to be outspoken on racial issues. A lot of his books touched upon those issues as well,” she said. His views on racial equality led to Tourgee’s home being raided by the Ku Klux Klan on multiple occasions, Oag noted in her remarks.
So passionate was Tourgee about racial equality, Oag added, that he founded Bennett College in 1873 on his strong belief in educational opportunities for disadvantaged freed and former slaves. The college was created to prepare students to become teachers.
While the first several weeks of her internship were devoted to Tourgee research, Oag and another intern were kept busy throughout the season assisting visitors with their own research. “It was a lot of fun doing mystery solving, helping them with computer scanning of photos,” she recalled. “I looked forward to going there every day; it wasn’t just a job.”
Oag was in the enviable position to interview a 97-year-old woman who was related to Thomas Edison through marriage and has been coming to Chautauqua since the 1920s. That interview was transcribed and added to the archives collection.
The internship was part of the Fredonia Department of History’s efforts to provide “real world” experience for all history majors. Recently, the department adopted an Applied History requirement that can be fulfilled with an internship, like Oag’s, or specially designed classes that enable students to apply historical research to reach broader audiences.
Oag is serving an internship in the archives at Fredonia’s Reed Library and plans to pursue a master’s degree in the fields of special collections librarianship or academic librarianship after graduation.
Her talk can be viewed at online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rF9Q9X3zuuw