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Chautauqua recalls World War I era in Delaware

History and culture festival marks 19th year
Keith Henley with American Historical Theatre of Philadelphia portrays Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson in a passionate monologue. WILL WILLARD PHOTOS
July 17, 2017

Large white tents popped up all over downtown Lewes to host events for the annual Chautauqua tent show June 18-22.

It is the arts and history festival's 19th year, and this time the theme was Service, Suffrage, and Swing: World War I Era in Delaware. This topic was chosen to honor the 100-year anniversary of America's entry into the war to end all wars.

Chautauqua offers a variety of events, so there was sure to be something to interest everyone in the family. Many of the programs were held at Zwaanendael Park, Lewes Public Library and the Lewes Historical Society complex.

There were musical performances by the Dixieland ensemble of the Newark Community Band as well as the Delmarva Big Band, which played at Stango Park as part of the Lewes Summer Concert Series.

On Thursday, the Possum Point Players Radio Theater Co. put on an old-time radio show, Burns and Allen.

Historians, writers and curators were abounding at Chautauqua. Among the topics touched upon were Prohibition, DuPont and the first world war, the 59th pioneer infantry, defending the Delaware Bay during WWI, and ebony doughboys.

Vietnam veteran Richard Claypoole, a trustee of the Lewes Historical Society, led a discussion on the experiences of returning veterans in context with Ernest Hemingway's story "Soldier's Home." The Delaware Humanities Forum showed a short film which focused on the reception some Delaware Vietnam veterans received and how that experience of returning home from war has changed in the last 100 years.

Chautauqua also provides the unique opportunity to interact with celebrated historical figures. Audience members are encouraged to ask re-enactors from American Historical Theatre questions about their life. President Woodrow Wilson, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt and African-American Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson were among those represented.

Keith Henley, who portrayed Sgt. Henry Johnson, said, "I love the Chautauqua opportunity because it gives you the chance to really hear the stories of the people of the past."

The Sgt. Johnson story is that of a young African-American soldier who was able to fend off 20-some Nazis with only a Bowie knife. Johnson returned home from the war to experience vicious racial discrimination. It wasn't until President Clinton's term that Johnson posthumously received the Purple Heart, and then the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Obama.

Henley said that as a black man he tries to understand the struggle of Sgt. Johnson and other African-Americans of the past, but he said, "It's to the point where you can't get mad ... it's beyond anger now."

He added, "The American dream should be a dream where everyone is equal, and we can live in harmony and peace."

Henley said, "If you really want to get an understanding of why there is so much hatred within this country amongst the races, read the books from yesterday and you will be surprised, especially when you read about World War I ... it's an eye-opener."