The Club Atenas (Athens Club), founded in Havana in 1917, was the most influential civic and cultural organization among peoples of African descent in Cuba during the Republican period (1902–1958). Despite its elitist tendencies, the club provided a space for congregation and recreation and an important political advocacy group for Afro-Cubans in an era when racial discrimination governed many aspects of Cuban social life.
The Club Atenas was part of a long tradition of Afro-Cuban institution-building since the colonial period. In the era of slavery, African-based fraternal societies called cabildos de nación served mutual aid and recreational functions for slaves and free persons of color. After Emancipation, Afro-Cubans created new organizations called "colored societies" to cater to their social and educational needs during the transition from slavery to freedom. The colored societies expanded during the opening decades of the Cuban Republic, many of them led by upwardly mobile Afro-Cubans who saw their chances for equality and citizenship limited by racial discrimination. In 1917 an emerging class of Afro-Cuban professionals founded the Club Atenas as an institution that would further their interests and provide recreational opportunities in a society where most leisure activities were racially segregated. By naming the group after the mecca of ancient Greek civilization, the club's founders sought to lay claim to a Western cultural image.
The Club Atenas became the most influential of these Afro-Cuban societies because of the social and political stature of its members. Lawyers, doctors, dentists, professors, students, politicians, journalists, and other distinguished Afro-Cubans were the backbone of the organization. While full-fledged membership was reserved for males only, women participated in the group's activities through "women's sections." The club's class and gendered elitism made it a frequent target of criticism from social activists throughout its history.
The Club Atenas, like many other civic, political, and recreational associations in the African diaspora during this time, was dedicated to the goal of racial "improvement," the project launched by black aspiring classes in order to "uplift" the black masses from the vestiges of slavery. The club's preoccupation with uplift is exemplified in the association's "respectable" recreational activities, which included dances, costume parties, sport contests, concerts, and beach excursions. Club members danced to danzones (as opposed to rumbas ), listened to classical music, and read the works of classical Western authors. Moreover, part of the club's project of racial improvement entailed establishing ties with prominent African Americans. By hosting African-American travelers to Cuba, and by profiling the works of writers such as Langston Hughes, the club sought to ally itself with what it saw as the vanguard of the global "colored race."
A major figure throughout the Club Atenas's history was Miguel Angel Céspedes. Born in the town of Camagüey in 1885, Céspedes's status as a lawyer, intellectual, and politician made him one of the more influential Afro-Cuban public figures during the Republican period. In the first decade of the century he was director of the Instituto Booker T. Washington, a trade school in Havana that was inspired by its namesake's program of industrial education for black youth. Years later he was among the founders of the Club Atenas and served several terms as president of the organization. It was through his position as president of Atenas that Céspedes developed his reputation as an Afro-Cuban leader. During the 1920s he was an outspoken critic and activist against racial discrimination, leading protests to oppose instances of racial violence against Afro-Cubans.
From the time of its inception until the mid-1950s, the Club Atenas was the most powerful Afro-Cuban society. However, the polarization of politics engendered by the revolutionary struggle against the Fulgencio Batista regime during the 1950s crippled the organization. After the revolution took power, an increasing number of Cubans argued that racially defined organizations such as Atenas had no place in a revolutionary society with a commitment to racial equality. Soon thereafter, the club became a casualty of the revolution's program of abolishing societies organized along racial lines. In 1961 the Club Atenas was forced to close its doors by the revolutionary government, seemingly with little protest. The club's old headquarters was converted into a day care center that still exists in Havana today.
Bronfman, Alejandra. Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
de la Fuente, Alejandro. A Nation for All: Race, Politics, and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
frank a. guridy (2005)
"Club Atenas." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/club-atenas
"Club Atenas." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved December 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/club-atenas
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