The Black Presence at "White City":
African and African American Participation
at the World's Columbian Exposition,
Chicago, May 1, 1893 - October 31, 1893.
Christopher Robert Reed
The World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago during the summer of 1893 represented an epochal historical event with its myriad statuary complementing its awe-inspiring, neoclassical architecture and highlighting its massive expanse of buildings, waterways and accumulated global humanity. Atlanta University's James Weldon Johnson saw it and described it for his fellow students and the faculty back home: "No one, who has not seen it, can form any idea of the immensity and grandeur of the exposition; nor can I give any adequate description of it. It has been fitly called the "White City," and one standing under the Peristyle and looking down the Court of Honor, surrounded by magnificent buildings with their chaste white columns and gilded domes glittering in the sunlight . . . might easily imagine himself in a fairy city."
At the same time, throughout the nation African Americans dreamed that they could participate fully as citizens at this great event, celebrating true emancipation of body and mind in the twenty-eight years since the end of slavery. This element of race added a special dimension to the event which journalists, novelists and scholars had already analyzed in terms of economics, geopolitics, architecture, religion and gender. Significantly, a legend has grown that African Americans were virtually nonexistent at the world's fair, partially the result of white hostility and exclusion, and partially because of a decision by a segment of black America to accept nothing short of full recognition of their rights to participate as equals. A small, ad hoc protest movement against exclusion gained a life of its own and became, over the course of a century, the sole indicator of the African American response to the fair. Spurred by the publication of a pamphlet during the summer of 1893, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in The World's Columbian Exposition, the voice of protest assumed an importance as the representation of historical reality. As an exceptional statement of the hopes, the fears, the achievements, the disappointments and significantly, the immediate grievances of many African Americans, the pamphlet was and is compelling. This assessment of how things were in times past was, however, limited both in its context and its particulars because assuredly, there was a noticeable black presence as patron, worker, lecturer and entertainer at the fair.
Heterogeneous, the expectations of African Americans in different sections of the nation, of course, varied, reflecting the disparate interests and backgrounds expectantly found among seven and one-half million persons. Occupationally, they were bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, clergy, business persons, farmers, miners, servants and laborers. Their class structure included a top ten, producing a social elite, the "400," along with a middle class, a growing urban working class, a small group of prosperous farmers, and a huge, impoverished, sharecropping component being reduced to peonage. More often than not this social pyramid relied on education and social standing as criteria instead of wealth-producing activities and accumulated wealth. That is not to say that a millionaire or two did not exist, since out in the Far West, the richest black man in America, Montana mine-owner Charles P. Grove, with an estimated wealth of $4 million, sought a wife and planned a vacation for his bride and himself. He chose Chicago so that they could see and experience the wonders of the world at their feet. Also by 1893, Detroit-born Pullman porter, Jesse Binga, an embodiment of African American restlessness in the era of the "New Negro," tired of employment in personal service on the 280-300 mile train route between Ogden, Utah, north to Pocatello, Idaho and Butte, Montana. At age 27, Binga was typical of many African Americans of his generation who were born into freedom and acquired wide ranging, sometimes insatiable, aspirations extending into many fields of endeavors despite formidable racial constraints. He loved money making, and after a profitable sale of 20 lots in Idaho that probably freed him of his latest debt and possibly provided a small treasury, he departed east for Chicago and the opportunities the fair offered.
The fair itself acted a magnet attracting a virtual who's who among African Americans. The venerable abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the "Sage of Anacostia" (Washington, D.C.) who embodied the dream that inclusion within the American mainstream was a possibility like no other Colored American could, moved ubiquitously throughout the fairgrounds, the Midway Plaisance and the city. While he forgave, he could never forget America's moral obligation to publicly profess its past sinfulness and what he considered as World's Fair's snubs rooted in the nation's slave past. Interesting as Douglass' story was, it represented just one among many. His has to be shared with those of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Rev. Alexander Crummell, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Scott Joplin, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert S. Abbott, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Robert S. Abbott, George Washington Carver, Nancy Green, better known by her commercial persona of "Aunt Jemima," and many others. Theirs is a set of stories of pathos and joy, along with disappointment and hope, demanding to be told.
Well-educated, professionally-trained African Americans sought not just representation, but membership, at the highest level of planning and decision-making. They confidently envisioned themselves as planners of the event for which their administrative skills as college-trained Americans were to be finally utilized. Further, they carefully prepared themselves to participate in major intellectual and cultural events, such as the myriad parliaments and congresses which included dialogues on disparate topics such as religion, women, dentistry, education, labor and Africa. Initially seeking representation on the National Board of Commissioners, the men were rejected. Their efforts failed to discourage the women, who immediately sought representation on the Lady Board of Managers, headed by Chicago socialite, Bertha Honore Palmer. Their attempts also ultimately led to disappointment. The success that was won, proved limited. One alternate, attorney and educator Hale G. Parker, was selected from Missouri for the National Board, while one New York City school teacher, J. Imogene Howard, served a state delegate from New York's contingent to the fair. Fannie Barrier Williams of Chicago, served briefly in an unappreciated and underfunded clerical position on Bertha Palmer's staff.
To the educated elite of the southern states and central Ohio's Wilberforce University, the exposition presented a golden opportunity to display to the western world the intellectual and craft accomplishments of their race. Praiseworthy, highly creditable educational exhibits from Hampton Institute in Virginia, Atlanta University and Wilberforce were assembled at the fair. One Atlantan observed: "The friends of the Colored people and those interested in Southern education often remark, `This (Atlanta University) exhibit and that of Hampton are enough to convince even the most skeptical, that the Colored people of the South are capable of learning just as other people are." Moreover, African Americans seemed to place education as an indispensable element in its own right as part of the struggle to attain full citizenship rights. Significantly, the exposition featured among its hundreds of conferences a special session on education for African American youth. It convened in the Art Palace (now the Art Institute) in downtown Chicago on August 2, 1893. The American Educational Association for the Advancement of Colored Youth met as the formal sponsor as principals, teachers, students and college presidents discussed the best methods of improving academic conditions for African American youngsters. A virtual who's who of education attended the conference so the Indianapolis Freeman's headline, "Art Palace Crowded With the Intellectual Elite of The Race," rung with the sound of truth.
The expectations of ordinary folk, who comprised the bulk of the African American population, differed greatly from the nation's black middling and upper classes. They supported the comments of their spokespersons at the Congress of Labor, where Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells excoriated the exploitation of African American labor in the South. They also applauded the organizing efforts and agenda of the nationally-focused Colored Men's Protective Association which denounced racism and discrimination and prepared to meet those evils head-on. They basically enjoyed the sights and sounds of the world's fair - the electric lights, massive structures such as the Ferris Wheel which accommodated more than one thousand riders, the music of Sousa and of the day, the enormous crowds and the swelling excitement of a nation on the cusp of economic greatness.
Just as important, a world's fair meant work opportunities. These they earnestly sought from the first announcement of the fair, so they worked as laborers in clearing the marshlands of the debris that was to become Jackson Park. They worked as waiters off the fairgrounds in restaurants that experienced an upturn in business because of the millions of visitors who visited White City and host city Chicago. They benefitted as Pullman porters on train runs heading to and from the Chicago. Excluded by race from the entirety of the industrial sector, job expectations though, had to be tempered to fit the reality of the times.
On the fairgrounds they experienced the bitterness of racism as they were denied work as members of the Columbian Guard, the elite police force protecting visitors and property at the fairgrounds. Exclusion of African Americans became the rule as two thousand openings were filled. When William J. Crawford, a seven-year resident in the city, applied for a position, the staff physician deliberately misread a chest measurement to make Crawford fall one inch short of a required expanded chest size of 36 inches. Even Crawford's immediate reexamination by another white doctor failed to satisfy the Guard leadership. Two subsequent letters of reconsideration fell on closed eyes. The Guard remained lily-white for the duration of the fair. Ferdinand L. Barnett was especially vociferous in denouncing this practice which saw able-bodied, educated, capable African Americans exempted from this group purportedly because of weight, height and other deficiencies. Dressed similarly to the Guard, but with duties and responsibilities totally dissimilar, more than one hundred did secure employment as janitors in daytime custodial service and as chair men rolling visitors around the ample fairgrounds.
Racism aside, participation was not to be denied. African American women assumed a role transcending gender that was derived from the strong sentiment for racial orientation in interpreting the vicissitudes of life for African Americans. Black feminism/womanism placed an emphasis on an inter gender struggle exacerbated by race, class and other influences. Between May 15 and May 22, 1893, the World's Congress of Representative Women met. Along with the white world's female luminaries of Addams, Lott, Anthony, Palmer, Stanton, Couzins, Hooker and scores of others of European renown and of little celebrity, the voices of six black women shone also. Two, thirty-eight-year-old Chicago journalist Fannie Barrier Williams, and sixty-eight-year-old teacher, abolitionist and author of Iola Leroy, Frances Watkins Harper, presented major addresses.
Fannie Barrier Williams's lecture on May 18, 1893 perfectly fit the times, the place and the audience. Williams lectured eruditely on "The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation." In her carefully crafted address, Williams analyzed the exploited status of African American women within the American political economy, their victimization by white leadership, the cruel and enduring legacy of slavery, the indifference of conservatives to rising injustices in the South, the hypocrisy of white liberals on the issue of social equality, and most important for blacks ears to hear, their achievements despite seemingly insurmountable odds along with recognition of the indomitability of black women as they protected and enhanced their virtue and sense of womanhood. She also declared: "The most important thing to be noted is the fact that the Negro people of America have reached a distinctly new era in their career so quickly that the American mind has scarcely had time to recognize the fact, and adjust itself to the new requirements of the people in all things that pertain to citizenship."
Frances Watkins Harper's lecture and certain words on May 20, 1893, fresh on the heels of her publication of Iola Leroy, have provided some black feminist theorists with an ideal for their intellectual tradition. When Harper spoke, she informed her audience that change was in the air and that they should envision themselves as being "on the threshold of [a new] women's era." Anti-lynching advocate Ida. B. Wells did not speak at the conference,[#13] probably because of her scheduled anti slavery campaign in Great Britain which kept her out of the country until after the opening of the fair.
From August 14, 1893, to August 21, 1893 probably the largest number of African American participants in a world's fair event assembled as part of the Congress on Africa, or as it was sometimes referred to, the Congress on African Ethnology, or the Congress on the Negro. Its eight-day length included a citywide Sunday session that entered the sanctuaries and pulpits of scores of churches, so thousands of interested church congregants listened to information on the status of the global African population. Identified fully for what it was, the Congress on Africa combined the intellectual with the ideological, religious, philosophical and scientific to formulate an agenda facilitating, in effect, a dualistic American African public policy on the status of continental and diasporan Africans.
Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, John Mercer Langston, T. Thomas Fortune and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner discussed the future of Africa with a smattering of continental Africans in attendance. For the American nation, this congress brought about a re-creation of the liberal arrangement between the races that originated in the abolitionist era. And, in its aftermath it represented a first dialogue in substantive interracial cooperation. Accordingly, well-educated blacks as well as the elite and middle class whites presented invited papers. Africans from the continent and from the Diaspora filled the black ranks, many being the most notable persons in their fields of endeavor - intellectually-endowed, well-known and respected by members of both races. So, with enthusiasm, Caucasians from Europe, Africa and America collaborated in problem-solving based on African strengths rather than hand-wringing over African deficiencies.
Significantly, what originated as an endeavor conceived by white American humanitarians, intellectuals, and foreign policy advocates to examine, validate, and perpetuate the most humane features of Great Power hegemony over the African continent, along with finding ways of eliminating the worse features of American racism was to a great extent and to their amazement, dominated rhetorically by the diasporan and continental Africans themselves. This marvel occurred partially because of the dynamism inherent in the invited African American participants. One unusual highlight occurred when Bishop Turner, a leading proponent of emigration to Africa and black pride, launched into a peroration on the African origin of humankind, the subsequent debt owed Africa, and the need for a new understanding between the races based on the two previous gifts. The bishop even stated that "Revolting as the theory may appear to some present, I believe that all humanity started black--that black was the original color of mankind. That all of these white people present descended from black ancestors, however remotely in antiquity they may have existed."
Of all of the congresses held, and with deference to the highly successful Parliament of Religions, The Independent called the Congress on Africa "the most interesting and attractive of all the congresses," while Professor William Scarborough in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, which kept an intense focus on the fair during its duration, declared that "among the many auxiliary congresses . . . none, perhaps, save one, has awakened such general interest and attracted such wide attention, as well as large attendance." The Chicago press seemed to concur in these assessments, with the Chicago Tribune being especially complimentary. Moreover, all papers recognized this conference as a highly significant gathering, with some devoting daily coverage to this conclave, and unanimously reporting high attendance.
When the controversial Colored American Day was held one week later, it attracted both the attention and approval of the white liberal media, thereby catapulting it into celebrity as the most important event in which African Americans participated. Yet, a scrupulous overview of the disparate activities of the fair in which African American Africans participated indicated that Colored American Day was perhaps of tertiary importance in the midst of all the hustle and bustle on and off the fairgrounds. Ranking ahead of this solitary day's limited activities was the eight-day Congress on Africa that concluded triumphantly several days immediately preceding Colored American Day. Further, Haytian Day and the daily activities at the Haytian Pavilion ranked higher in importance. Yet Colored American Day, purely cultural event, earned unwarranted recognition because of the controversy surrounding it contemporarily and the interest it garnered subsequently through a misreading of the past. The Inter Ocean, filled with pride because of the conduct of its African American friends in holding substantive discussions during the Congress on Africa, chided the group that it had a racial obligation to insure that Colored American Day maintained a comparable level of decorum, and to "make it a day that will give other visitors as good as impression of the colored race as did the discussion and the attendance at the African congress last week."
Frederick Douglass' involvement in planning the celebration added to its luster. At the moment he assumed the presidency of the committee planning the event, he began to envision it as a springboard from which to expose a standing criticism of the nation's betrayal of African Americans and to present a living exhibition of black accomplishment before an international audience. Douglass knew his acceptance of the position and association with the event opened him to criticism of accepting the half loaf when ideological consistency required rejection of such a dubious honor. Nonetheless, the opportunity to demonstrate race achievement proved too attractive to dismiss this chance.
Perhaps expectantly, formidable opposition appeared. Ida B. Wells, who described herself retrospectively as a "hothead" on the issue, and Chicago school teacher Lettie Trent, who locally urged a boycott of activities associated with the fair, personified how intense the thought, rhetoric and actions of young assertive African Americans could become. Wells refused to treat the special day as anything other than an insult. She assessed the event as an attempt to relegate African Americans to a separate and inferior status that accentuated subordination. To her chagrin, her mind filled with the racial stereotypes of minstrelsy, cakewalking and watermelon contests whenever she imagined what the day would bring.
However, Friday, August 25, 1893 turned out to be a historic day for African Americans as they gained the positive recognition they so eagerly sought. Important whites attended, pleasing Douglass and others since their presence confirmed the arrival of blacks as equals in American society, if only for several hours on a solitary afternoon. Isabella Beecher Hooker, sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Rev. Henry Beecher accompanied Frederick Douglass to the stage to the thunderous applause of the twenty five-hundred persons who filled Festival Hall.
Nonetheless, some prominent African Americans declined to appear, such as the renowned coloratura soprano, Sissieretta Jones, known as the Black Patti. Whether it was a matter of contractual misunderstanding or support for the boycott, she nonetheless canceled her appearance. Ida B. Wells stayed away from the celebration but retroactively reversed her assessment both of the propriety of staging the event and of its value to racial progress. Originally motivated by a whimsical impulse, it appeared she responded to favorable white newspaper accounts to the event, especially in the Inter Ocean, by later seeking out Douglass at the Haytian Pavilion. There, she apologized to the "grand old man" for placing her youthful exuberance before the qualities of racial leadership he had displayed in deciding to participate. African Methodist Episcopal Bishops Benjamin Arnett and Henry McNeal Turner absented themselves from the event while two of the organizing committee's vice presidents also avoided the event. Former U. S. Representative John Mercer Langston skipped the event after having urged Chicago audiences previously that they should follow his lead.
As to the event itself, it consisted of four parts: the oratory of Frederick Douglass; short addresses by whites; musical selections of a classical nature; and, musical selections and recitations from established and rising African American entertainers. Douglass' speech evoked great emotion and mesmerized the audience. He denounced the existence of a "Negro problem" and identified it thus: "There is, in fact, no such problem. The real problem has been given a false name. It is called Negro for a purpose. It has substituted Negro for nation, because the one is despised and hated, and the other is loved and honored. The true problem is a National problem." Further, "the problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution. . . . We intend that the American people shall learn of the brotherhood of man and the fellowship of God from our presence among them." Then, in the climax of his speech, he demanded that the measuring rod of African American progress be one that was rooted on the American continent, rather than the African. "Measure the Negro. But not by the standard of the splendid civilization of the Caucasian. Bend down and measure him - measure him - from the depths out of which he has risen." Significantly, the speech sounded the same themes that Douglass had enunciated during the fair's inaugural ceremonies and in the pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in The World's Columbian Exposition.
The musical fare delighted the classically appreciative ear, and that would have included persons without elite status who were accustomed to the classics after being exposed to many performances within the sanctuaries of the African American churches along the Dearborn Street Corridor south of Twenty-second Street. The concert and literary portion also featured the Fisk Jubilee Singers who sang their specialty, the songs of slavery. Renowned elocutionist Hallie Q. Brown from Tuskegee Institute and Wilberforce College recited "The Black Regiment, " a paean to black valor under fire in the Civil War. Paul Lawrence Dunbar read his original poem, "The Colored American" as well as his soon to be famous, "Oak and Ivy." Overall, the success of Colored American Day rested primarily with effective presentation of the audible word - read, spoken and sung, along with the musical chord.
While the event was pleasing to white eyes and ears, the black press, which had demonstrated earlier opposition, had to be considered. The Cleveland Gazette labeled the festivity "a farce." In the same vein, the Indianapolis Freeman assessed the event, with the exception of the oratorical and musical portions, as a great failure. Relying on a misinformation before the event, the Freeman incorrectly reported that there would be no event at all. Once the event took place, the paper clumsily reported on it with some enthusiasm, emphasizing the program portion which featured Douglass' memorable, resounding oratory.
While the African Diaspora brought nearly half a million Africans to American shores, twenty times that many were landed to become slave laborers throughout the Caribbean and South America. So, the exhibits of Cuba, Curacao, Hayti and Brazil carried either an African influence or showed its presence. Africans from the continent arrived to work on the Midway as representations of the world's diversity as well as curiosities for the narrow-minded. The arrival of the African contingents represented various peoples from throughout the continent. From Egypt and Nubia in the northeast, the Boushareens came and occupied their place on the Midway. From the southernmost end of the continent the Zulu came to guard and produce diamonds at the British colonial exhibit in the Mining Building. From along the North African littoral where the Berber influence was dominant, representatives arrived in Chicago and provided entertainment for fair goers through camel rides, dancing, sword fighting and other cultural activities.
The victims of a massive, deliberate propaganda effort in the worst spirit of Social Darwinian racism unfortunately arrived to confirm or deny negative perceptions of their humanity. The Fon from Dahomey in West Africa arrived one hundred strong and set about constructing a replica of their village. They danced, played their music that aroused scholarly and popular attention, marched in the international parades throughout the fairgrounds, and generally grew to personify to journalists and novelists alike the true exotic nature of Africa. In the press during the fair, and in novels and photograph books after the event, the Fon immediately became a media sensation, evolving to represent quintessentially both the primary, contemporary image of continental sub-Saharan Africa at the fair and the basis of a propagandistic myth which has endured for a century.
Subsequent myth and reality surrounding the Fon people of Dahomey unfolded as part of a multifaceted saga of an enduring and successful propaganda effort aimed at reenforcing a racial hierarchy of white supremacy counterpoised against the self-actualization of a proud, foreign people who had a mixed influence on white and black Americans. Yet a lack of understanding by members of one society did not prove a lack of substance in the attitudes, views, and behavior of those in another. As these West Africans settled in, two countervailing influences developed that shaped the public's image of just whom the Fon were, what they represented and their place in contemporary life and for posterity. First, of course, the Fon people as a portion of global humanity imposed an undeniable humane presence at the fair and represented a reality that could never totally be denied. Journalistic references confirmed this view of human acceptance despite the manipulative molding of images, both contemporarily and posthumously, to depict the Fon as savages, barbarians or cannibals. To be sure, the perception white fair goers held of the Fon could be accurately described as convoluted. But the Fon were popular - defined to mean attractive, appealing to, and commanding interest in the eyes of many fair goers -- the latter, no doubt, gaping in curiosity and awkward amusement at a representative group from a nonindustrial, non-Christian society during the Era of Social Darwinism. Nonetheless, these Fon of Dahomey managed to become real, living persons as they were personalized by the very use of their names in the newspapers. All of a sudden, Chicagoans were introduced on a personal level to Butagalon, Sosolangago, lpoke, Umbibi, and Adajemus, rather than the impersonal, the Dahomeans.
Novelists who wrote of them inadvertently portrayed them in a good light when attempting to stand askance. One such person, Teresa Dean, in one of her frequent visits into the world of the Africans found herself and a colleague in the strange position of coddling a frightened Fon child, with all parties enjoying the moment. She was disposed to write, "the babies in this village and the other villages and the world are all alike. When they are not old enough to talk they might as well belong to one race. There's no difference in baby natures." Overall, newspaper accounts, based on impressionistic ignorance of the Fon, coupled with sensationalistic suppositions on what these visitors thought and felt, attempted to feed the insatiable appetite of a news hungry American public willing to experience the world through the imagery conveyed by the printed word, photograph and illustration. Distressingly, the influence of yellow journalism induced a growing readership to accept nonsense over knowledge, and racist prattle over intelligent understanding.
Overall, the proclamation of Harvard University anthropologist, Frederick Ward Putnam, that "All The World Is Here," proved accurate. The White City, Midway Plaisance, indeed, Chicago as a whole, became Rome for a six-month period as all roads converged on the southern tip of Lake Michigan.