ALL THE WORLD'S A FAIR: THE COTTON STATES AND INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION, 1895
It was where Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone, the Ferris wheel made its debut, the diesel engine stole the show, Welch’s Grape Juice became a national hit, and Aunt Jemima could be seen in the flesh. But aside from its introduction to modern day novelties and technological innovations, by the mid 19th century, world fairs and expositions became instrumental in helping to shape the nation’s political image. As a large-scale medium, millions of people had the opportunity to recognize just how America was carrying on its quest for global imperialism. In an era where electronic media of was still limited, world fairs were the most effective advertising strategy for government and businesses. These events also shaped the racial, social and gender climate of American’s “century of progress,” enabling the recognition and support of the country’s expansion westward and abroad.
Partly inspired by the fairs already taking place throughout 19th century Europe, over a dozen U.S world fairs and expositions took place in various cities across the nation between 1876-1916. The nation’s first real fair, the 1976 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, brought more than eight million people to the city that summer. It ended with a deficit of $2 million, but successfully celebrated the 100th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and introduced the world to new inventions such as the telephone and typewriter. Black presence at America’s first world’s fair was almost invisible. The exposition directors only allowed a handful of black artists to showcase their work. Most African Americans were relegated to positions as waiters or janitors. In just about every way, the Philadelphia fair helped set forth ideas for next expositions, which was to relegate minorities to subservient, if not nonexistent roles. Atlanta’s first trial run of a fair was the small scale 1887 Piedmont Exposition. While mostly regional, 20,000 people attended and its promotion of the industrial and agricultural field increased interest in Atlanta’s bid for hosting the later international fair. But and African-American presence was close to none.
The first U.S fair to allocate space for African-Americans was at the New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884. This six-month event commemorated the 100-year anniversary of New Orleans’ cotton exportation, a city that was responsible for nearly one third of the nation’s production. The fair’s Colored People’s Department housed more than 16,000 exhibits by African-Americans, with displays ranging from agricultural machinery, education, mathematics and literature. Other exhibits were in the Department of Education exhibit inside the same building. Black groups such as the Freedman’s Aid Society, hosted exhibits from area schools such as Clark University and Meharry Medical College. Other schools involved were Haptin Institute and Atlanta University, both of which participated in the Atlanta exposition.
While African-Americans were welcomed to the New Orleans fair, even able to walk the grounds and listen to black speakers stand before mixed race audiences, later fairs would operate as lessons in racial and cultural hierarchy. Every opportunity for the white leadership to expound on racial tropes, they did. Even entertainment venues were for racial amusement, meant to spread ideas about the supposed backward state of people of color. However, New Orleans was unique in that the city historically operated outside the realms of Southern notions of race. The city had a large population of free people of color, almost 11,000 by 1860. And while other Southern cities were adamantly divided between black and white, many New Orleans residents integrated in public and private, at sporting events, bars, and sometimes in hotels and restaurants, with ease till at least 1890, when Jim Crow laws began to pass. Thus, racial friction at the fair was minimal, compared to subsequent fairs.
The nation’s largest fair was the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, where the first Woman’s Building existed but it excluded African-American women. Racism was so apparent especially along the first ever-Midway Plaisance. A fair’s Midway, which still exists today, is a mile-long stretch of road that serves as the central location for entertainment acts ranging from live dancers to animal and musical shows, and other circus-like performances. It was also the heart of racial consumption. Many of the fair’s designers took cultural artifacts and materials from nations around the globe, and used them for pseudoscience research that supported their claims of racial inferiority amongst people of color. The Midway took people of various racial and ethnic groups- Japanese, Native Americans, and Filipinos, for example, and rather than allow them to showcase their culture for educational purposes, they were paraded in controlled environments for spectators to gawk and awe at their “primitive,” and “barbaric,” state of livelihood. Whether it was the plight to spread Christianity abroad or make room for U.S navy bases overseas, fairs helped trump the image of the “helpless black brute,” or “dumb Chinaman,” in order to illicit support for U.S expansion and colonization. This carefully constructed agenda only helped uphold specific American ideologies, which played out in every fair.
Black participation in the Chicago fair was so restricted that activists including Fredrick Douglass and Ida B. Wells published a scathing report called, The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, where blacks were encouraged to boycott the fair. But the Chicago Fair, like the other previous ones, was more interested in economic growth relations, and didn’t see how race fit in the equation. A huge mistake since the blacklash shed the event in a bad light but did give subsequent fairs a lesson to learn. One positive result of the Chicago Fair was that it helped attract new interest to the city following the Great Fire of 1871, which destroyed a large portion of the business district. The fair helped attract some 27 million visitors
For Atlanta to trump Chicago, it had to make the city a viable contender by first tackling its race problem. The Negro Building was born out of political necessity for New South leaders, Commercial and civic leaders were interested in reimagining a new region that would erase its ugly past for the sake of its economic pursuits and interests. Nobody wanted to do business with a city with a bad racial climate. So in order for the Cotton States Exposition to be a success, organizers had to brand the region as racially unified. With the help of Booker T. Washington’s famous Atlanta Compromise speech, which was delivered on opening day of the Exposition, and the subsequent Negro Building, the South made a crucial first step in rebranding itself, even if its campaign was not entirely truthful. Thus, the Negro Building is an important part of the South’s New South history. Without it, the Cotton States Exposition would not have become an international success and Atlanta may have not been touted as “Capital of the South.”