Focusing on black Americans’ participation in world’s fairs, Emancipation expositions, and early black grassroots museums, Negro Building traces the evolution of black public history from the Civil War through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Mabel O. Wilson gives voice to the figures that conceived the curatorial content—Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Horace Cayton and Margaret Burroughs. As the 2015 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., approaches, the book reveals why the black cities of Chicago and Detroit became the sites of major black historical museums rather than the nation’s capital—until now.
Negro Building Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums
Progress of a Race
The Black Side's Contribution to Atlanta's World's Fair
Gentlemen of the Exposition, as we present to you our humble effort at an exhibition of progress, you must not expect overmuch. Starting thirty years ago with ownership here and there in a few quilts and pumpkins and chickens (gathered from miscellaneous sources), remember the path that has led from these to the inventions and production of agricultural implements, buggies, steam-engines, newspapers, books, statuary, carving, paintings, the management of drugstores and banks has not been without contact with thorns and thistles.
-Booker T. Washington, opening-day speech, Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition
The Paris exposition had its Eiffel tower, the world's fair had its Ferris wheel, but Atlanta had its negro building [sic].
-H.R. Butler, Atlanta Constitution
A successful journalist, editor, educator, and businessman in the small central Virginia town of Lynchburg, Irvine Garland Penn traveled south in mid-January of 1895 to the bustling mercantile crossroads of Atlanta. The young, capable, and determined Penn came for two days of meetings at Clark University. He attended a unique gathering of men who like himself had made great strides in public life during the post-Reconstruction era. Appointed to the positions of "Negro commissioners," this group convened to begin the laborious process of organizing and gathering exhibits to fill the "Negro Building," an exhibition pavilion at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition slated to open in the next nine months. The previous fall, the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition's Committee on the Colored Exhibit-a group of powerful white business and political leaders who also sat on the fair's board of directors-had selected prominent black southerners from several states to organize a landmark exhibit highlighting the progress of the Negro race in the thirty years since their emancipation from enslavement. This would not be the first such effort, as an exhibit of Negro work had been included in the New Orleans World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition ten years earlier. Moreover, industrial expositions in which black citizens displayed their skills in mechanical and agricultural arts had been popular yearly events in several states. And some black leaders had even planned, but failed to fund, a national colored exposition for Atlanta in 1888. No white-run exposition had been willing to provide black Americans with their own exhibition hall in the prominent sphere of a world's fair until the Atlanta exposition. This chapter explores in detail how Atlanta's unusual experiment, the Negro Building, came into being amid the boosterism of a New South and what the building and its contents represented for the future and current circumstances of black Americans in the Jim Crow era of economic and political disenfranchisement.
An Unprecedented Gesture
In their civic role as religious leaders, educators, newspaper publishers, and businessmen, the commissioners would soon adopt the mantle of "New Negroes"-a novel term for individuals whom blacks and whites alike perceived to have advanced their status to respectable, useful positions in a modern industrialized society. They were educated in the expanding network of black colleges and normal schools: Fisk, Howard, and Atlanta Universities and Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. All in the group were men. Mirroring white social norms, black men served as the chosen leaders and agents of public discourse. They represented the patriarchal bourgeois family as the cornerstone of respectability, a position that marginalized women from public prominence except as part of designated women's causes, although many black women would find a public voice in club activities such as in rallying for women's suffrage, supporting the cause of better schools, and pressing for increased aid for the indigent and orphaned. Resolute activists such as Ida B. Wells, however, would assert a public presence on par with their male counterparts in the world of fairs. The New Negroes were committed to self-improvement and promoted solidarity within their class of elites, which they believed were morally charged with advancing the future of the race.
A model of New Negro success, Penn was chosen to represent the State of Virginia. Bishop Wesley J. Gaines, a respected pastor of Atlanta's African Methodist Episcopal Church, and William H. Crogman, professor of Latin and Greek at Clark University, represented Georgia. Booker T. Washington, the head of the Tuskegee Institute and staunch advocate of industrial education, was selected to represent Alabama. Several of the commissioners had been politicians. All were members of the Republican Party who had lost their public offices when white southerners disenfranchised black men from their right to vote by law and intimidation. Most of the commissioners held a moderate view of race relations and chose to work with white Democrats in power. In some instances, even though these men could not run for political office, they sought government appointments as agents and registrars. Commissioner Isaiah T. Montgomery, founder of the all-black town Mound Bayou in Mississippi, for example, believed that black citizens would have to sacrifice, albeit temporarily, political rights in exchange for financial support for education and economic advancement. The fight for social equality would have to be deferred in order to first cultivate better relations between the races.
The influential and widely read Atlanta Constitution covered the meeting's deliberations. Many of the men stood out for their professional successes, but Washington cut the most striking figure. In comments that echoed reigning beliefs in the physical manifestations of racial difference as a determination of character, and hence cultural advancement, the white reporter tallied the college president's attributes: "His color is dark brown, but his face is the shrewd type." He next noted that "this head is not massive, but it is well shaped and on that would create a fine impression on a phrenologist. His features are rather large and his lips are strong and thoughtful." The article allowed white Atlantans who would never have attended such a meeting to closely scrutinize the gathering and the participants' enterprising ambitions.
This extraordinary occasion to present the race's accomplishments in a dedicated pavilion both intrigued and excited the Negro commissioners. A similar opportunity had recently been denied black citizens at the great World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, where the ornate central Court of Honor, known as the White City, had captured the imagination of 27.5 million visitors. The debate about whether to attend or participate in the Chicago fair included many of those now involved in planning the Atlanta event. Penn, for example, had contributed an essay to Wells's pamphlet that protested black exclusion from the exposition, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. Crogman's Atlanta University had sent an exhibit of the school's work for display in the Liberal Arts Building. And Washington had traveled to the fairgrounds to deliver a speech at the exposition's Labor Congress, which had been convened to address unemployment and the national depression. Introduced to the audience by Frederick Douglass, Washington in his speech praised the promise of black labor but also criticized the domineering sharecropping system that had indebted black farmers. He emphasized the need for black farmers through industrial education to transform their attitudes toward work, thrift, and morality.
Yet in spite of the rosy prospects of inclusion in Atlanta, a similar set of reservations about racial discrimination was already brewing among the commissioners. Some in attendance harbored legitimate concerns about the nature of the white organizers' intentions, along with apprehensions about the long-term impact on race relations if they agreed to the terms of participation. On one side of the debate were those who reasoned that, because whites had favored the separate exhibit, it provided blacks with a rare opportunity to present a cohesive, thoughtfully crafted statement about the accomplishments of their race since Emancipation. Those who supported an exclusive pavilion dedicated to agriculture, mechanical and domestic arts, and education wanted to convey a strong sense of racial pride and solidarity. They therefore chose to gloss over the implicit racist intent of the white administrators to keep black displays out of the main pavilions: their effort to show unity among the Negro race would be thwarted, they rationalized, by having displays scattered throughout several buildings on the fairgrounds. On the other side of this thorny question were those who intensely spurned the notion of a completely separate building. This group contended that there was no inherent distinction between what either race produced. Therefore, why separate the exhibits? Would not the building be a debilitating step backward in the fight for social equality? For these commissioners, this unease was a valid concern given the evidence of segregated, second-class accommodations and transportation being offered to black travelers planning to visit the fairgrounds. Black-owned newspapers like the Washington Bee, for example, had already begun to advertise excursion packages offered by the Southern Railway from northern destinations and around the South that connected directly to the fairgrounds. But what the railroads failed to disclose in their advertisements was that once the train journeyed below the Mason-Dixon Line, and depending on various state laws, black passengers seated in first class could be forced to move to segregated second-class cars-an outcome of the patchwork of Jim Crow laws and customs blanketing the southern states. Further confirmation of the pervasiveness of segregation meant that black visitors to the fairgrounds could not stay in the numerous white-owned hotels in downtown Atlanta. Therefore, the committee was also entrusted with the task of arranging separate lodgings.
Unable to fully resolve the issue of separate pavilions, the commissioners did agree that demeaning treatment awaited black patrons planning to visit the fairgrounds. Writing in a report on their deliberations, which was published in a lengthy article titled "Progress of a Race" in the Atlanta Constitution, the commissioners tactfully expressed their dismay to the exposition's governing board, stating, "We earnestly recommend that the management of the exposition use all the influence in their power to obtain improved and more just facilities for colored passengers traveling to and from the exposition. We cannot too strongly urge this for the reason that we know a large portion of the colored race will not travel on the railroads with the present unequal accommodations, except when they are compelled to do so on matters of business." In response, the fair's general governing executive committee (many of whom were influential railroad owners, former mayors, and state legislators) sheepishly claimed they were powerless to intercede in the manner in which states handled the privately owned railroads. Although they intended black southerners to finance the exhibits, the executive committee granted $4,000 to the Negro commissioners for travel expenses in their quest to acquire exhibits to fill the large hall-a gesture perhaps intended to compensate for the unpleasant segregated railcar issue.
The opportunity to present their advances since Emancipation at the forthcoming international forum was an unprecedented one for southern blacks, in particular those living in Atlanta and in Georgia, which had the largest population of black residents in the region. But how would a separate building in the symbolic sphere of the fairgrounds be interpreted by black and white visitors, especially since it would reinscribe the everyday boundaries of segregation that now divided according to racial difference not only the South's railcars and waiting rooms but also its cities and towns? Furthermore, could the organizers ensure that the contents of the Negro Building would be the principal story of the Negro's future prospects in the New South, or were there other equally compelling narratives that charted a different course for black progress and that challenged the degrading depictions of racial inferiority that appeared in all corners of the fairgrounds? Would the "accommodationist" cultural representation of the black citizen as industrious and self-supporting-ideals resonant with the New South's economic liberalism that underwrote the fair's agenda-ultimately signify a retreat from the fight for civil rights and social and economic equality? The fair and its planning process did offer, as we shall see, a temporary public sphere in which black and white southerners negotiated their individual and collective needs and aspirations.
After Emancipation, Atlanta's black residents had established a growing but separate enclave of businesses, religious institutions, voluntary associations, and educational institutions-a black counterpublic sphere that would contribute a rich selection of material on display at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition and other subsequent fairs. But life in an increasingly segregated city, where its black citizens had neither political nor economic clout, posed challenges for not only the elite but also for the emerging ranks of middle- and working-class Atlantans and the majority of poor who labored in unskilled jobs and lived in abject poverty. If the fair, as a social space of spectacle, power, and control, created a pseudourban sphere-a miniature city in which the latest accomplishments in industry, science, and culture were displayed and witnessed-in what ways did the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition cultivate how black and white Americans would see this "New Negro" born of the post-Reconstruction era, and how would this New Negro fit into the future New South's industrial economy and racialized social hierarchy? To capture a panoramic view before we visit the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition's fairgrounds, we begin by examining life in Atlanta.
Atlanta's Black Side
With its hilly terrain sectioned into thirds by the sinewy lines of railroads, Atlanta's downtown in the last decade of the nineteenth century supported a dynamic economy and hosted a populace that made the city a wily down-home little cousin of its thriving kin up north-big daddy Chicago. Atlanta's economic fortunes had been on the rise since Reconstruction, as a Yankee "can-do" ethos translated into what became known as "New South" boosterism. The city's mercantile and growing industrial prosperity eclipsed the older doyens of the plantation economy-Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile. Atlanta's many train routes stretched eastward to seaports, southward to the Gulf cities, westward to new territories, and northward to the major industries and markets of New York and Chicago. These rail lines stitched together a quilt of abutting territories that loosely partitioned the city's segregated neighborhoods. It's urban environs, a hodgepodge of train depots, churches, stores, hotels, saloons, shantytowns, and fine houses, were home to a diverse, sometimes contentious array of social groups characterized by class and racial difference. Longtime white urban elites, who proudly paraded their disdain for the once powerful but now dwindling planter class, allied with an emerging class of ruthless southern entrepreneurs. Together, their greed and ambition controlled Atlanta's political and economic base and their powerful oligarchy lorded over its urban domain. Atlanta was home to the remnants of a community of postbellum northern carpetbaggers and sects of well-intentioned northern social reformers working in poor white and black neighborhoods. The city's oligarchs envied these interlopers' connections to wealthy northern industrialists, which made the northerners quite useful for business and trade. Atlanta's elites also found the northerners' charitable assistance helpful in rebuilding the city but rejected their divergent viewpoints on race relations. Atlanta's burgeoning industrial economy also lured poor whites-many of them former farmers-who sought employment in the cotton factories and mercantile establishments. And into the patchwork of the rapidly expanding urban fabric was woven the area proudly called, by some, the Black Side.
In the period following the bestowal of emancipation and the passage of constitutional amendments guaranteeing equal protection for all blacks and the right to vote for black men, many freed men, women, and children fled the brutal plantation life of toil and oppression to seek better opportunities and greater freedoms in southern cities. Once they migrated to cities like Atlanta, black men and women discovered that racial prejudice severely limited where they could live and work. Comprising nearly half of the Atlanta's population, black residents lived in all of the city's wards, but most were concentrated in undesirable basins prone to flooding and thus outbreaks of disease. "Darktown," "Buttermilk Bottom," "Shermantown," and "Black Bottom" were characteristic racist monikers attached to these neighborhoods, labels that indicated both the area's low position within the city's topographic contours and its low position within social contours demarcated by race and class. On the eastside near Wheat Street, and on higher ground on the westside near the campus of Atlanta University, one could find the houses of the fledgling black elite. Many black neighborhoods had a mix of classes, and therefore one could find stately houses adjacent to the smaller homes of laborers, whose side vegetable gardens denoted their residents' rural roots.
Once settled in postbellum Atlanta, the majority of black residents labored in poorly paid and unskilled, often dangerous jobs. Men worked on street crews as laborers and as rail-yard workers, where they took the jobs that white workers did not want. Women found jobs as laundresses, seamstresses, and domestics. Overall, employment in the region's growing manufacturing sector had been rendered inaccessible by the antiblack racist practices of white factory owners, managers, and workers. However, with invaluable expertise adapted from their plantation occupations, a few black men did secure work in skilled positions as draymen, livery workers, barbers, plasterers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Though not without challenges at work and home, urban life offered prospects not found in rural economies. Initially, enterprising merchants, grocers, clergy, and doctors achieved some financial gain, which they invested in property ownership. Many identified as "colored" and benefited financially and educationally from their often hidden ties to white families. This group formed the beginnings of Atlanta's black elite and intelligentsia.
A few outspoken and successful black men took advantage of rights granted with their freedom by running for political office during the era of Radical Reconstruction. Access to the vote, as black citizens knew all too well, provided access to power. At first, northern legislators sanctioned the right of black men to cast ballots, guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment during Radical Reconstruction and enforced by a military presence in southern cities and towns. In the Compromise of 1877 that resolved a dispute about which candidate won the close 1876 presidential election, the Republican Party regained the presidency by conceding control of the South to the Democratic Party. This compromise prompted the immediate withdrawal of federal troops. Trusted northern white politicians had callously betrayed loyal black Republican voters for their own political gain. Elated by their newly won autonomy and the gain of a solid political block that controlled state and federal offices, southern white Democrats would incrementally strip black citizens of many of their rights and expel them from the mainstream public sphere over the next twenty-five years.
Atlanta's boundaries crept outward into Cobb County as its population grew. As a result of this expansion and as segregation became more pervasive, the city's black residents found themselves confined to an even smaller area of the city. White authorities implemented by custom and legislation more stringent controls over what they perceived as a growing tide of black presence and power. Black Codes, postbellum dictates similar to those laws under enslavement devised to control the mobility and activity of black residents, formed the foundation for Jim Crow legislation in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. In 1871, Georgia was the first state, for example, to pass a statute segregating streetcars, followed by the legal segregation of all public spaces of the city, including schools, transportation, businesses, hotels, and entertainment venues.
Despite losing economic and political ground and living under the harrowing consequences of antiblack racism and Jim Crow segregation, a social and cultural milieu nonetheless prospered. A black counterpublic sphere formed in Atlanta's black community. Rev. E.R. Carter praised Atlanta's Black Side, in a survey of the same name published in 1894, as a flourishing urban enclave. "Atlanta, for the Black Side, is the classic city," wrote Carter, the minister to the large congregation that attended Friendship Baptist Church. In a textual mélange of Judeo-Christian and social Darwinist terminologies, Carter exalted the Black Side's many fine commercial, religious, and institutional buildings as glorious feats of a people progressing toward greatness. The Black Side, an illustrated book of engravings and photographs, catalogued Atlanta's growing black middle class, showcasing its businesses, luminaries, social institutions, schools, churches, and benevolent associations. The picture book also depicted families settled into comfortable middle-class houses and embraced bourgeois cultural values: thrift, respectability, and moral uplift. The adoption of the tropes and trappings of respectability distinguished them from their poorer black neighbors.
The Black Side represented the positive successes of black progress after enslavement, but there was also an urgent need to address the widespread social inequalities. Staking a claim for black self-sufficiency, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner wrote in the introduction of Carter's The Black Side, "The time is right for the Negro to fight his own battles, seek his own fame, achieve his own greatness and immortalize his own name." Along with being a former officer of the Freedman's Bureau and a Republican member of the Georgia state legislature, Turner was also a stalwart Black Nationalist who publicly advocated for the repatriation of black Americans to Africa. Turner positioned the Black Side as a political counterpublic sphere that would "fight [its] own battles" against the rising tide of racial prejudice flooding all regions of the South and drowning hopes of advancement. Turner's passionate nationalistic appeal to rally for rights and autonomy, however, was not necessarily shared by all of his peers, as the later sections of this chapter examine.
With Atlanta's black population just over 40 percent of the city's residents, and as an indication of the growing wealth of the black community, Carter's review of the Black Side's nascent class structure proudly referenced the number of brick and stone buildings being erected by its institutions and businesses. Shut out of political participation, and given the statewide hostility to labor unions, it was the black churches, voluntary associations, and benevolent societies that nurtured the counterpublic sphere of the black community. Atlanta's black newspapers, the Southern Christian Recorder and the Weekly Defiance, along with the widely read Savannah Tribune, passed on to a growing literate population the latest local and national news about recent upsurges in lynchings and new segregation laws. One of the most significant factors contributing to the success of Atlanta's burgeoning black community was the growing number of residents who had been educated in the Negro colleges and in normal and industrial schools now open across the South. In 1870, less than 10 percent of blacks in Georgia could read and write. Twenty years later, that number had grown to a third of the black population. Atlanta, with its numerous institutions of learning, had become the center of black education.
Carter's profile chronicled Atlanta's emergence as a progressive haven and educational center for blacks. Many institutions of Atlanta's Black Side promoted bourgeois ideals of social improvement in their missions and activities. During this period, historian Kevin Gaines observes that "racial uplift ideals were offered as a form of cultural politics, in the hope that unsympathetic whites would relent and recognize the humanity of middle-class African Americans, and their potential for the citizenship rights black men had possessed during Reconstruction." Many in the bourgeois public sphere endorsed the notions of family, patriarchy, and feminine propriety that underwrote racial and national identity. Class advancement could be successfully achieved through an adherence to certain ideals of appropriate behavior. Therefore, notions of uplift were also meant to displace disempowering ideals of racial inferiority. These ideals supplanted biological notions of racial difference by suggesting instead that cultural differences explained the lower social status. But whether the adaptation of the ideologies of class difference-coded by cultural attributes of respectability, uplift, masculinity, self-improvement, and thrift-could boost the status of the entire race would be hotly debated and challenged at expositions over the next fifty years. The larger and more pressing question of whether black citizens could escape the damaging effects that antiblack racism had on everyday life-especially in respect to gaining access to wage labor that could provide food and housing-would weigh heavily upon everyone living within Atlanta's urban limits, regardless of whether he or she dug ditches, ran a barbershop, taught school, or led a congregation.
Post-Emancipation black Americans, especially those moving into the cities, believed that education was key to their advancement. The Freedman's Bureau, which started Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1869, paid white northern missionary societies to come to the region and set up schools; these missionary organizations took over the primary funding of education after the bureau was phased out by 1876. Creating a model for future Negro schools, the American Missionary Association founded Hampton Institute on a bluff in a rural part of Virginia in 1868. General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a northerner who took over as head of Hampton, believed that good Puritan values of hard work and thrift would counteract what he believed was the natural tendency of Negroes to be lackadaisical, shifty, and backward. Raised up from the disparaging depths of illiteracy and poverty through manual labor, newly minted black laborers would be prepared to assist in either the North's manufacturing economy or the South's industrializing agricultural economy.
Fulfilling Carter's portrait of Atlanta as an educational mecca, the city quickly became home to several schools. In tandem with the opening of normal schools around the South, the American Missionary Association, in a radical move, also started several colleges, including Fisk University in Nashville in 1866 and Atlanta University a year later. Soon thereafter, the freedmen's aid associations of other religious groups, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, founded Rust University in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Clark College in Atlanta, which in 1877 became Clark University. As funding from northern philanthropists increased, the city's black schools like Atlanta University built large halls and campuses that became centers of the Black Side's civic pride. By 1895, the year of the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition, numerous schools offered education from primary- to college-level courses.
Although black educational institutions flourished in Atlanta, the most influential school for black students in America was located about 120 miles southwest of the city, in Tuskegee, Alabama. A former slave educated at Hampton Institute, Booker T. Washington would utilize his advocacy of industrial education to become the nation's most powerful Negro leader by the turn of the twentieth century. Born a slave and freed by Emancipation only to be enslaved again into a brutal existence mining for coal in a dreary West Virginia town, Washington's hard-won education afforded him an understanding of "what it meant to live a life of unselfishness, my first knowledge of the fact that the happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." In 1881, General Armstrong dispatched Washington to Tuskegee to head a normal school for blacks in the Black Belt region of Alabama. Washington began his auspicious academic career by holding classes in a dilapidated shack and an old church. Lacking the funds to build a proper campus, he ingeniously mobilized the physical assets of his students, whom he put to work constructing their own classrooms and dormitories. Tuskegee students not only erected the buildings by making the bricks, they learned the art of building furniture, making mattresses, sewing cloth, and fashioning the brooms used around their campus. A didactic exercise in diligence, the students acquired valuable manual skills and in the process made their school both livable and financially viable. Under Armstrong's tutelage, Washington traveled to all parts of country to raise money from wealthy patrons. Deferential but persuasive in address, Washington solicited large donations from the likes of steel baron Andrew Carnegie and railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington. The educator galvanized support from both sides of the color line: from northern white benefactors and southern white political and industrial leaders on one side, to black educators, religious leaders, benevolent societies, and the black press on the other.
Armed with the financial backing of powerful whites from around the country, Washington would fund the construction of an impressive campus outside of the small town of Tuskegee. Toiling against a rough native terrain of ridges and gullies on part of the former acreage of a defunct cotton plantation, whose soil made it barely suitable for cultivation, hardworking students erected the various halls of the campus. The workshops, barns, dormitories, and halls faced away from the main road, thus turning their backs on the town. Scholar Ian Grandison's probing spatial analysis suggests that, while the school's distance from town could be interpreted in one sense as imposed segregation that emphasized the marginal status of the school, in other ways it could be understood as desired autonomy from white scrutiny and control. Far from the urban squalor and dusty commotion of Atlanta's Black Side, Tuskegee's solid edifices and orderly campus-referred to as the Farm, with its cattle grazing and freely roaming the gullies-spatially demonstrated and visually represented the pastoral ideal of Washington's agenda for black progress.
The Black Side emerged as a bustling center of Atlanta's black counterpublic sphere. But now let us examine the white side, the one that ruled the city but depended on the city's black residents to achieve its ambitions of raising a New South. This objective would bring the two spheres together on the fairgrounds of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.
Cotton and Colored Expositions
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Atlanta's segregated social and urban sphere illustrated how the city transitioned from the "Old" South's agricultural economy of slavery to the "New" South's classed (although still racialized) economy of industrial capitalism. After the Civil War, a small vanguard of industrialists and investors championed the formation of new values that became known as New South boosterism. In his important chronicle Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, C. Vann Woodward documented that, contrary to the belief that the postwar South emerged as a continuation of the old plantation culture, the development of a new progressive class of businessmen signaled a break with that way of life-a shift toward principles and practices of industrialization that had been immensely successful in the wealthier North. At its core, Woodward's historical narrative of the South turned on the deeds of brash young white entrepreneurs who proved willing to break with antebellum traditions to implement their bold ideas at any cost. The results created a new but fledgling industrialized economic order that utilized local raw materials of cotton and lumber. This emerging sector of manufacturing and marketing benefited wealthy whites at the top by exploiting the labor of poor whites and blacks at the bottom. While economically innovative, the new social order nevertheless absorbed the racial hierarchies from the plantation economy more or less intact. Studies of the post-Civil War South by historians Barbara J. Fields, Howard Rabinowitz, James M. Russell, and others have challenged Woodward's polemic of a discontinuity between the old and new southern orders. Instead of the war fostering a complete metamorphosis of the region's economic order, they contend, the New South's economy thrived through a mutually supportive relationship between the disappearing planter caste and the emerging class of industrialists. The implementation of a sharecropping system that forced freed slaves into peonage merely redirected what had been coerced labor under enslavement into coerced labor under the guise of industrialized agriculture. Likewise, the highly profitable state-run convict lease system provided a constant stream of able-bodied black workers whose labor was unpaid as it was under slavery. Prisoners (many falsely accused) were ruthlessly exploited to extract raw materials through logging and coal mining, to extract turpentine, to produce bricks, and to build the region's infrastructure of railroads, roads, and bridges.
Renowned white orators such as Atlanta's Henry W. Grady proved invaluable for proselytizing New South ideology-which dovetailed with American liberalism's free-market ethos-around the region and country. But it was the network of white-owned banks and railroads, along with migrating workers between the country and cities, that truly facilitated the region's economic expansion. In his famous speech to northerners about the region's promise and progress, Grady, editor of the influential Atlanta Constitution, captured the unwavering faith his class placed in industrial capitalism as the impetus for creating a new southern society. He noted how "the Old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth." In contrast, "the New South presents a perfect democracy, [with] the oligarchs," like himself, "leading in the popular movement; a social system compact and closely knitted, less splendid on the surface, but stronger at the core; a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace; and a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age." For national figures like Grady, who exercised a commanding influence over the civic and economic climate of their respective cities, one means for initiating a popular movement-a transformation in the social and economic order-was the regional and international exposition. These festive events that drew massive crowds served as ideal venues for elites to propagandize the interests of the New South and Atlanta's economic and social agenda: the subservience of the middle class, the subjugation of the working class, and the suppression of Negro advancement.
In 1881 Grady, whose wealth and power had ensconced him and his family in a comfortable Victorian mansion on Atlanta's fashionable Peachtree Street, seized on a brilliant idea first proposed to him by a Boston gentleman to hold a regional fair showcasing the farming and manufacturing techniques of Georgia's king crop: cotton. Financially backed by a roster of enthusiastic merchants and businessmen, the first International Cotton Exposition opened in the fall of 1881 at Oglethorpe Park located in a wooded area northwest of downtown. The lively fair drew crowds from all parts of the South, joined by a few curious visitors from the northern states to see the Phoenix-once burned to the ground by Union troops-"rise from the ashes." Among the many events, the organizers hosted a Freedman's Day during which black visitors could view the exhibits and hear speeches made by the city's black leaders. The enormous turnout of visitors from the region, along with the collaborative efforts of the planters with the cotton mill owners in contributing to the exhibits, made the fair a great success in its goal of promoting local products and industry.
Six years later, a group of these same Atlantans-socially elevated by their thriving economic prosperity-decided to form a Gentlemen's Driving Park Association, a private club for family entertainment and "gentlemanly pursuits" (a euphemism for horse races). The shrewd Grady, conceiving of a more strategic and financially lucrative use for the extensive acreage the club members had purchased, proposed to his fellow members that they incorporate a fairgrounds as part of their plans-a proposition to which they all heartily agreed. Opening its gates in October 1887 at what was now called Piedmont Park, a second regional fair, the Piedmont Exposition, presented numerous displays of local manufacturers in several expansive exhibition halls laid out over ten verdant acres of the Driving Club. The Piedmont Exposition displayed a myriad of local and regional goods, thereby promoting to an attentive audience of consumers and workers the products and factories through which the club members had amassed their great wealth. In a successful merger of commerce and leisure, the exposition solidified the power base of Atlanta's white oligarchs.
In the midst of the Piedmont Exposition's planning, Philip Joseph of Mobile, Alabama, and William A. Pledger of nearby Athens, Georgia, approached the Driving Club with a proposal for a fair dedicated to Negro progress that they had christened the National Colored Exposition. It was proposed to open in the fall of 1888. Prominent race leaders and staunch supporters the Republican Party, Pledger and Joseph both served as editors of black newspapers. A controversial figure in Georgia after the ascendance of white Democrats to power, Pledger had until recently been a city customs surveyor for Atlanta and the leading black member in the state's Republican Party. Illustrative of his influential status among the state's black population, members of the Driving Club had previously invited the popular Pledger to deliver an address at the fair's Freedman's Day set aside for black visitors at the first International Cotton Exposition. Joseph, who was director general of the proposed exposition, explained to the Driving Club members that despite offers to host the fair from northern cities, from Chicago for instance, Atlanta was centrally located, and the exposition would draw a significant audience of blacks to witness displays gathered from around the region and from as far away as Africa. Joseph sold the fair in educational terms as "an object lesson to the colored people, to show them what their comrades had done in industry, agriculture, and the arts and thereby encourage them to similar efforts and results." Persuaded by the proposal, the club agreed to rent the two-hundred-acre fairgrounds and buildings at no charge.
Neither Pledger nor Joseph was new to the planning of expositions. Each had served as the respective Georgia and Alabama commissioners for the Colored Department at the New Orleans World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in 1884-85, which had celebrated one hundred years since the first exportation of cotton from New Orleans. Since blacks provided the main source of agricultural labor in the cultivation of cotton, the managing board invited blacks to share their accomplishments. White organizers placed former Republican senator Blanche K. Bruce, an influential black landowner and a registrar for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in charge of organizing the Colored Department for the fair. Allocated four thousand square feet in the main exhibition hall, the exhibit presented artifacts from agricultural machinery to manufactured products. As a confirmation of the Negro's excellent artistic capabilities in the fine arts, Bruce had praised the paintings of a young artist, Henry O. Tanner, and the other notable artworks on display. Elevating the event's goodwill, Bruce publicly lauded the perceived lack of discrimination at the New Orleans fairgrounds as a hallmark of cooperative race relations. In his speech at the opening ceremonies of the Colored Department, Bishop Turner commended white organizers for their willingness to welcome the Negro to the fair and fairgrounds, in spite of the recent Supreme Court rulings legitimating segregation. New Orleans's Colored Department signaled a small gesture of recognition, but as Pledger and Joseph were willing to test in Atlanta, would white southerners support a large and autonomous exposition dedicated to the display of Negro progress?
Successful in their bid to gain use of the Atlanta fairgrounds, Pledger and Joseph chartered an exposition company to raise funds and created an executive committee of interested men and women from the city's various wards. They assembled a local management committee composed of well-respected black Atlantans that included Reverend Gaines; Henry A. Rucker, a former barber turned successful businessman and educator, Smith W. Easley, a political activist; and C.C. Wimbush, a customs surveyor. With a site selected and an organizational structure in place, Pledger and Joseph's next major undertaking was to solicit an estimated $400,000 from the U.S. Congress to add to funds already raised. The large amount resulted from the need to construct separate facilities such as new hotels (to accommodate black fairgoers, so as not to "force that issue on the occasion of an exposition which was intended to harmonize the races," Joseph respectfully explained to the Driving Club members). Backed by Grady and other influential members of the Driving Club, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and the majority of Georgia's delegation to Congress, a group consisting of Joseph and two other representatives appeared in March 1888 before the House Committee on Appropriations in Washington, D.C. But as the fall months approached, neither the House nor the Senate had approved funding. For the next two years Joseph continued to rally support for the event. Well-attended meetings in the city's major churches indicated that interest among black Atlantans remained strong. However, in spite of efforts to underscore how the National Colored Exposition would stimulate the productivity of black workers, southern congressmen believed that the fair would have an opposite effect-it would instead demoralize their valuable labor force. Under the emerging class structure of the New South, white leaders wanted to make sure that the "black masses," which from their perspective included the black elites, knew their place-that is, serving the interests of their white bosses and mistresses. Defeated, Joseph abandoned his efforts by 1890.
The National Colored Exposition never convened at the Piedmont fairgrounds. However, the success and popularity of the two white-organized expositions laid the groundwork for a much grander international event and the participation of Atlanta's black leaders and residents in the mainstream fair.
In 1889 Grady suffered a premature death, but the persuasive and powerful editorial voice of the Constitution would continue to be a major advocate for the planning of a world's fair in Atlanta. The Constitution's editorials in the winter of 1893 envisioned an "industrial jubilee" of "magnificent exhibits and thousands of visitors." Prompted by a suggestion from the business manager of the Constitution, former Confederate Major Colonel William A. Hemphill, Atlanta's oligarchs decided to host a third exposition celebrating the city's role as a "gateway" for international trade. Deeply motivated by their faith in the New South doctrine, fair boosters immediately began to organize and fund-raise for a grand world's fair-the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition to open in the fall of 1895.
Billing itself as an international affair, the Atlanta exposition would follow a long roster of such events beginning with London's Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations staged at the magnificent iron and glass Crystal Palace in 1851. Enthusiastically promoted by daily editorials and reports in the pages of the Constitution, Atlanta's fair boosters wanted to accomplish two of the objectives not realized due to the lack of participation by the southern states at the immensely successful World's Columbian Exposition, which had closed three months prior to Hemphill's December editorials. First, the fair organizers wanted to demonstrate how the South's industries situated near abundant local resources of cotton, lumber, tobacco, and coal could be competitive with their prosperous northern counterparts. Second, they wanted to show how the New South was prepared to contribute to the national and international economic fortunes of the United States in the forthcoming new century. A more immediate rationale for staging the fair was to address a recent nationwide economic depression, which had already resulted in the failure of several local banks, the collapse of a handful of railroad companies, and the drop of cotton prices to an all time low. While the region's leaders had heavily promoted the South's industrialization, in reality it had been painfully slow and often derailed by poor planning and lack of support from local municipalities. Stoking excitement among the city's main business establishment about the forthcoming festivities was therefore a tactic to raise confidence in the local markets as well as to increase sales of the region's staple product-cotton.
Circulating a preliminary prospectus issued in 1894 intended to solicit investment in their endeavor, the collective of determined oligarchs touted "Atlanta's position as the great natural gateway of trade between the United States and the Central, South, and Latin American Countries." Exposition board member, Grady protégé, and the Constitution's editor, Clark Howell observed in an essay written for the February 1895 issue of the American Monthly Review of Reviews that, although the United States functioned as Latin America's primary exporter, American businesses had been unsuccessful in gaining market access. Atlanta, the South's most prominent industrialized city, jockeyed into position to lead the nation in conquering the profitable markets of the Southern Hemisphere. Furthermore, considering the possibility of a cultural communion with places like Brazil, Howell imagined that contact between the two regions might prove beneficial. He suggested that if "[racially] mixed populations are to be governed," then, "the statesmen of the Southern Republics must naturally look to the cotton states of America for precedents and suggestions for the solution of this difficult problem." The fair, in the mind of its supporters, would set the stage for a rewarding economic and distinctive cultural exchange. In so doing, Atlanta would shine as an international model for forging harmonious relations between the races.
The carefully crafted prospectus circulated to exhibitors and investors bragged about the modern amenities and welcoming populace of their fair city. Atlanta, the prospectus touted, was well prepared to host a world-class exposition. The prospectus also boasted of Atlanta as a modern city whose population was nearing one hundred thousand, with refined citizens who were of "mainly Anglo Saxon descent ... [with] a large admixture of leading races of Europe." This whitewashed statistic failed to illuminate that black residents comprised close to half of the city and a third of the region's population. As a result of the sustained dependence on their black neighbors, the organizers felt compelled by necessity to consider the request of local black leaders to include their participation and representation at the forthcoming fair.
In January 1894, Bishop Gaines and Rucker, two organizers of the failed National Colored Exposition, approached Samuel Inman, the head of the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition's finance committee and a wealthy cotton merchant, about the prospects of hosting representative examples of the progress of the Negro race in an exhibition hall to be paid for by black southerners. In the editorial pages of the Constitution, Bishop Turner compared the prospect of what was being called the Negro Building to the New Orleans fair's Colored Department. Turner strongly advocated for the pavilion, noting that as "Americans from Africa" blacks deserved the opportunity to showcase their progress as had other Americans in previous fairs. In the early stages of planning, the Constitution supported their effort by noting the financial benefits of inclusion: "our colored friends have good interest in the exposition" (a reference to the wealth of the emerging black middle class). Mindful of other possible financial gains, the editors speculated that black participation would "draw the aid of their wealthy friends in New England and probably other lands." A group of black leaders met with the exposition's board of directors in the spring of 1894. Upon careful consideration, Inman "thought the Exposition offered a favorable opportunity to stimulate the race by an exhibition of its progress, at the same time giving substantial evidence of the good will of the white people." The board of directors reviewed the request for the Negro Building and, as the fair's illustrated history book recounts, it was cordially agreed on by all.
This was a unique and never before seen gesture of inclusion that came with an offer to pay for the building. The majority of southern whites, even those heading up the fair, however, held steadfast to their belief in the social inferiority of their fellow black citizens. For the former plantation class and the ruling oligarchs, the lowliness of the Negro and the natural supremacy of the white race was obvious. Nevertheless they needed black labor to build and maintain their cities and towns, to work their farms and households, and to cater to the daily needs of their families. Economic reliance was clearly one significant reason for the tenor of interracial relations. But there were also the unspoken bonds that had been fostered through centuries of imposed sexual relations between white masters and black female slaves. Unacknowledged, though not invisible, interfamilial ties also proved a factor in continued interdependence. On the eve of Atlanta's great fair, these white power bases had craftily deployed social customs and legal means to isolate many black residents in impoverished living conditions. When these unfair measures proved inadequate, white supremacists used forceful intimidation and violence to keep blacks obediently in their place. The Constitution, through its inflammatory reporting, published on a daily basis lurid stories about Negro thieves, murderers, and rapists plaguing the city and terrorizing the countryside. One editorial published during the exposition's planning heartily endorsed "separate but equal privileges and accommodations in all public places, schools, cars and all buildings and conveyances" in both the South and the North. Based on this division-one that evolved naturally from the superior human nature of the white race-the editors reasoned, "It is impossible to see how any self respecting colored man can be against it. The separate system is just as fair to the one race as it is to the other. Justice is its very essence." Thus, the display of the Negro's laudable but meager accomplishments would symbolize blacks' rightful place in the New South's social order, far behind the rest of the races. And the exposition board of directors echoed these sentiments in their preliminary prospectus. They would accept the offer of Gaines, Turner, and others "for a full display in a building of their own" to display "evidences as they can present of educational and intellectual progress." But the board concluded with these stinging sentiments: that "the few and inadequate presentations they [blacks] have made have fitted them to enter at this time into a larger more complete exposition of their own work." "Inadequate presentations" reaffirmed the perception of Atlanta's white leaders about the lowly status of the Negro as naturally inferior.
For all black residents in Atlanta, urban life in the thirty years since Emancipation had offered an array of opportunities and obstacles from which to imagine and shape their own desires and representations of their future in the New South and in the United States. Contrary to what southern whites may have intended for the Negro at the fair, blacks had their own reasons for desiring and contesting participation in the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.
Exclusion of black Americans from the White City in the World's Columbian Exposition had prompted vehement protest led by activist and journalist Wells. She was atypical of many black middle-class women in that she was willing to transgress the boundaries of the bourgeois household to become an outspoken activist publicly fighting for social justice. She utilized the educational network and the black press to become a formidable voice against the rising wave of white racism oppressing black citizens in the North and South. Incensed by the race leader's growing support in the United States and abroad, cultivated by her muckraking newspaper articles and impassioned speeches, the editors of the Constitution regularly attacked Wells for her aggressive campaigns against lynching. They labeled absurd her allegations of white overzealousness. The paper justified the brutality of lynching as "cruel and speedy vengeance," a natural characteristic of the "Anglo Saxon Race."
In 1893 Wells published and circulated a collection of fiery protest essays in The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. She and other activists, including Frederick Douglass, wrote stinging rebuttals against racist fair propaganda and segregation at the Chicago fairgrounds. They urged potential black visitors to boycott the fair. If they planned to attend the event, Wells advised them to stay away from the offensive displays that exploited racist stereotypes. One of the debates within the black community about the World's Columbian Exposition was whether black citizens deserved their own separate pavilion, like the one planned by white women, or whether they should be included in all pavilions at the fairgrounds. This question reflected the growing unease about the rise of racial segregation, especially since no black workers were employed on the fairgrounds and because many visitors would have to travel to the fair in segregated railcars. In her two contributions to The Reason Why, Wells penned a scathing indictment of state-sanctioned white-supremacist violence. She dissected the unconstitutionality and inhumanity of the convict lease system and she attacked the legal establishment of segregated railcars and growing prevalence of lynchings throughout the South. But not all was protest. Wells also enlisted Penn, a fellow Rust University graduate and journalist who had recently authored The Afro-American Press and Its Editors. To counter the perception of the Negro as lazy and uncivilized, Penn meticulously outlined the various achievements of the Negro race in the categories of education, professional achievement, patents, journalism, religious institutions, art, literature, and music. Penn's thoroughness and encyclopedic knowledge would lead to his selection to head Atlanta's Negro Building. By linking racial violence, economic exploitation, and political disempowerment to the symbolic public sphere of the fair, Wells could argue that the corrosive hatred underlying the recent spate of lynchings and the institutionalization of Jim Crow laws was the "reason why blacks" had been excluded from participating. The fair, she rightly inveighed, celebrated both the founding of the Americas and the nation's continued prosperity-events in which black citizens had been and would continue to be key participants.
Black Americans, as historian Christopher Reed has duly noted, were not fully absent from Chicago's grand exposition. Despite these obstacles, many did choose to participate and visit the fairgrounds. Douglass attended the fair as a representative of Haiti, which as the world's third nation-state erected a pavilion on the fairgrounds. Wells praised the Haitian pavilion as "the only acceptable representation enjoyed by us at the Fair." Washington delivered a speech at a labor conference. A magnificent painting by Tanner, whose work had been praised in the Paris salons, was featured as part of the French exhibit. Feminist activists Fannie Barrier Williams joined Anna Julia Cooper to speak at various congresses. White organizers convened the Congress on Africa that brought together black Americans with representatives from Africa and the Caribbean to discuss interracial cooperation in the future of the North American continent. At the Dahomey Village concession, men, women, and children from a Fon tribe in Africa had been imported to display primitive habits and habitats, but they instead revealed a rich culture of skilled artisans and farmers. Acutely aware of the value of expositions as an international forum for the presentation of progress, black Americans participated in the Chicago fair, even though they were prevented from having their own exhibit on Negro progress. They joined blacks from Africa and the Caribbean to present their own cultural advances in various venues around the fairgrounds.
Keenly aware of the Chicago fair's shortcomings, Rucker, Wimbush, and Easley approached Washington in February 1894 to enlist his participation as a commissioner from Alabama for the proposed Negro Building at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. At the meeting of black leaders with the board of directors of the exposition in March 1894, Bishop Gaines and Reverend Carter spoke on behalf of the Negro Building. And it had been a letter from Washington extolling how wise the board would be in "setting apart a separate building for the exhibits of the colored people" that persuaded Inman to endorse the proposal. Respectful of the board's influence, Washington also suggested that the board consider hiring a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained black architect currently teaching at Tuskegee, Robert Robinson Taylor, to design what Washington called the "Colored People's Building."
Later in the spring of 1894, a contingent of white leaders from around the South invited Washington to join them to testify before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations in a bid to request federal monies for staging the fair. Gathering in the District of Columbia, Washington joined Bishop Gaines and Bishop Abraham Grant of Texas as the spokesmen for Negro participation. Following speeches by exposition president Charles Collier, Howell, and Inman, Washington was the last to address the congressional committee. In a thoughtful, courteous presentation, the educator conveyed to Congress that "the Atlanta Exposition would present an opportunity for both races to show what advance they had made since freedom, and would at the same time afford encouragement to them to make still greater progress." Representative George W. Murray, a black congressman from South Carolina, was in favor of granting their request, stating to his fellow legislators that the American Negro had progressed far more on the American continent than anywhere else in the world. Murray assured them that supporting this unique joint effort between white and black citizens would foster better race relations in the South and around the nation. Once put to a vote after several months in committee deliberation, Congress passed the bill to fund $200,000 for government exhibits. Credited in part to the success of Washington's eloquent entreaty, the Atlantans received their funding. In return for solid black support, the exposition board of directors restated their commitment that a freestanding building would showcase the accomplishments of the Negro race-a new benchmark for representation at a world's fair.
It would take two years after Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition for black groups to successfully have an exhibition of their own at a world's fair. Southern black elites, some quite reluctantly, accepted the board of directors' offer of a separate pavilion at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. They utilized what was to be called the Negro Building to publicize their own (at times controversial) portrayals of industriousness, moral uplift, bourgeois respectability, patriotism, and racial progress.
The Negro Exhibit or the Exhibit of the Negro
Claiming his demanding duties at Tuskegee as a pretext for refusal, Washington declined the offer from exposition president Collier to head the Negro Building. In his place, Washington recommended the highly competent Negro commissioner from Virginia, Penn, to undertake the immense task of gathering and organizing the pavilion's content. At the January 1895 meeting of the Negro commissioners at Clark University, the group enthusiastically approved Penn's selection. Despite having protested participation in the Chicago fair, Penn did not view the separate Negro Building as a compromise to his earlier stance that building racial solidarity could be a practical bulwark against antiblack racism in America. Eager to get to work, he moved his family from Lynchburg to Atlanta in early March.
Penn immediately solicited participation from all areas of the South. He tasked each commissioner with gathering specimens from their respective states. They were to assemble as much evidence as possible of the progress of the Negro race to fill every corner of the immense exhibition hall by the time the fair opened in September. The commissioners enlisted the assistance of county representatives, who contacted local colleges, schools, benevolent associations, churches, and newspapers to publicize the event and solicit contributions. The Savannah Tribune, in a gesture to promote competition between states, reported on the extensive activities of the Florida commissioner, M.M. Lewey, writing that "the best element of our race in the state [Florida] is wide awake to the importance of making a good display in the Negro Building." As commissioner for the state of Alabama, Washington wanted to illustrate the "progress of the colored people of this country" and proposed that exhibits come from various schools from around the state. To drum up enthusiasm among Atlantans, Crogman, Georgia's commissioner, wrote in his alma mater's newspaper, the Atlanta University Bulletin, that the Negro Building afforded black southerners the chance to see "a creditable collection of their own hand-work and brain-work, the divinity within them may be stirred, and they may go away thinking." For Crogman, a member of the emerging black intelligentsia, progress would be measured by acumen and aptitude in addition to industriousness. In his role as chief booster, Penn reported in the same issue of the Atlanta University Bulletin on the progress of assembling exhibition materials. The U.S. Patent Office had agreed to send models of patents submitted by black inventors. In addition, black-owned banks would be on-site to offer financial advice to interested business owners and farmers. Penn announced that several days of congresses had been organized around the themes of education, religion, agriculture and mechanics, the colored militia, and business. The influential Josephine Bruce, wife of former senator Bruce, was busily arranging a women's congress to discuss issues of suffrage, temperance, education, and religion. Several local women, among them the spouses of Bishop Turner and Crogman, took on the task of assembling a photographic display of residences and churches to showcase black women's success at maintaining respectable households and leading upstanding civic lives.
Despite Penn's prodigious efforts to rally support for a magnificent showing at the forthcoming fair, the head of the Negro Building still encountered resistance from those keenly aware of what accepting a separate pavilion at the fairgrounds would signal to whites. In spring of 1895 during one of the weekly meetings at Bethel African Methodist Church (Big Bethel) on Auburn Avenue, disgruntled attendees posed objections to the "lack of space for the colored exhibit, jim crow [sic] cars and of convict labor at the ground." Reporting on this meeting, the white reporter from the Constitution characterized the civil atmosphere and attendance as a meeting of "the most intelligent class of citizens. Speeches, not of a wild, rabid kind, but conservative clear, forceful arguments were made." Clearly one faction of this "most intelligent class of citizens" was perceptive enough to recognize that participation in the Negro Building could be a viable means to address larger concerns about racial injustices. To quell protest, those eager to have an exhibition, regardless of compromises, argued for the practical need and long-term promise of making a statement on Negro progress. One advocate for participation dismissed the objections to grievous treatment, suggesting instead that those who were critical of the Jim Crow railcars should have stated their displeasure prior to the commissioners' trip to Washington, D.C., a year ago. He also countered that there was little relation between the segregated railroads and the exposition. Others in attendance offered a different rationale, stating "we should take advantage of this opportunity and go into this work with our whole souls. We should show them what a separate people can do." Anxious to move forward with his plans, Penn launched into a stirring speech that made a case for patience and accommodation concerning the current conditions at the fair and by extension the region as a whole. According to the newspaper, Penn reminded all in attendance that "the time, place and everything else showed that this was the greatest chance the colored man had ever had to show just what was in him." In all parts of the South over the course of the steamy summer months of 1895, associations and schools assembled and crated exhibits and then shipped the cargo via rail and road to be installed in the twenty-five thousand square feet of exhibition space in the Cotton States' fairgrounds splendid new Negro Building.
The white ruling-class Atlantans financing the city's Cotton States Exposition yearned to rival the grandeur of Chicago's White City in the layout and design of the pavilions. This ambition was soon dampened by the immense cost of staging such a grand event. After much debate, fair organizers selected the Driving Club's Piedmont Exposition fairgrounds to host another fair. Hemphill consulted Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect of Manhattan's Central Park and of the World's Columbian Exposition's 630 magnificent acres of Jackson Park, as a possible designer for the Atlanta fairgrounds. Visiting the city in the spring of 1894, Olmsted met with Hemphill to consult on the board of director's intentions. Perhaps as a cost-saving measure, the board eventually selected a local builder, Grant Wilkins, to plan the layout of the grounds. Next, to design ten of the fifteen main pavilions, the board hired Bradford L. Gilbert, a white New York architect of train stations, hotels, and purportedly the first steel-frame skyscraper in the United States, the Tower Building in lower Manhattan. Gilbert had erected Atlanta's first modern office building, completed in 1891, and therefore he was familiar with the region. A competent architect, Gilbert never achieved the stature of his peers Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan, William LeBaron Jenney, or Daniel Burnham, the latter of whose firm, along with Olmsted, led the design, planning, and construction of the grounds of the White City. In numerous commissions, including the design of the New York Central Railroad Exhibition Building at the Chicago world's fair, Gilbert had demonstrated his facility at adapting new technologies of construction to build monumental edifices to satisfy the ambitions and needs of his industrialist and robber baron patrons such as the Vanderbilt family.
The fair buildings Gilbert envisioned for the Cotton States Exposition possessed a uniform aesthetic. The sketches of the proposed pavilions were rendered in a spare neo-Romanesque style, which Gilbert described as "a truly American type of architecture-broad, natural, generous, and appropriate, free from the usual restraints of fixed rules and regulations, all based on actual requirements and the necessity of location and consideration of available material and labor." To express the regional character of the Atlanta exposition and highlight one of the state's prime natural resources, Gilbert proposed that all of the buildings be erected of Georgia pine. This was an ingenious cost-saving measure, given that most of the buildings would be demolished at the close of the fair or shortly thereafter. The expense of building Chicago's neoclassical White City had been enormously high due to the use of staff, an off-white plasterlike material that could be sculpted to look like stone or any masonry material-very expensive even though only one-tenth the cost of stone. Staff had liberally draped the World's Columbian Exposition's ostentatious neoclassical facades, conferring on the fairgrounds its signature radiant "whiteness." For Atlanta, however, Gilbert rejected staff as excessive and deceptive; he the preferred neo-Romanesque's "graceful outlines" and "bold construction."
The use of wood-frame construction also meant that local workers could expeditiously erect the fair's pavilions. By November 1894, work crews had completed much of the extensive grading of the site. This involved leveling several hills into gentle terraces and digging out a large basin for a lake. Fulton County provided the laborers from the highly exploitive convict lease system: 250 black and 50 white inmates, many of whom ranged in age from ten to seventeen years of age. This was one unacceptable aspect of the fair that naysayers of the Negro Building pointed out as indicative of the mistreatment of black workers.
[Figure 4 about here]
Completed by the summer, the pavilions had large airy interiors with wide structural spans that maximized the area for exhibitions. All of the buildings sat on sturdy masonry foundations. Work crews stained the facades with creosote to produce a gray sheen, and they stained the roofs moss green. This subdued color palette gave the whole ensemble, as the architect boasted, the appearance of solid masonry reinforcing the massive volume that is the signature of the neo-Romanesque style. The final aesthetic of the pavilions reflected the dual nature of the New South's ideological agenda. In some respects the large clapboard halls with spare classical detailing of columns and trim echoed the vernacular architecture of plantation homes that had long defined the economic and cultural character the region. But in other ways, the great spans of the interiors, capable of housing entire train engines, captured the immense scale of the factory spaces that New South boosters hoped would symbolize the region's future prosperity.
When people visited the opening-day festivities on September 18, they entered a dramatic transformation of the Piedmont fairgrounds. Wilkins laid out the pavilions and amenities to take advantage of a natural depression in the site. The center of the gracefully terraced site had been hollowed out to accommodate an artificial lake fed by water drained from the nearby Chattahoochee River. The Clara Meer, as the lake was christened, had been fitted with an electric fountain-a feat meant to rival the magnificent water displays at the White City-and gondolas and electric launches ferried visitors across its clear waters. The main pavilions were situated on higher ground encircling the Clara Meer. Wide avenues planted with lush local flora-trees, shrubs, and flowers, including blossoming cotton bushes-linked various areas of the grounds. Granite stone stairways from the upper circuit of walkways cascaded down to a main pedestrian pathway skirting the lake. Incandescent and arc lights were erected, sponsored by their respective manufacturers, to illuminate all of the buildings and to lend a magical luminosity to the finely manicured grounds at night.
[Figure 5 about here.]
Visitors came to the fair from all parts of the South. Upon arrival they entered on the western edge of the Piedmont Park fairgrounds through an elaborate Tudor gateway near the original Driving Club clubhouse; fairgoers could also come into the park on the southern edge by a secondary entrance or by an on-site train station that linked to the Richmond and Danville Railroad. The great halls dedicated to manufactures and raw materials of the southern economy-Agricultural, Mineral and Forestry, Machinery, Electricity, Transportation, and Manufactures-towered around the Clara Meer. Sandwiched between the main halls stood smaller state and federal pavilions. In the center of the ensemble, near the Japanese village, nestled the "diamond among jewels," the Women's Building, a special feature of the exposition modeled on a similar building at the World's Columbian Exposition. The organizers were proud of their effort to highlight the achievements of southern women in art and industry; the building was "a monument to woman's genius and ability," they proclaimed. The neoclassical pavilion layered with staff ornamentation and designed by architect Elise Mercur of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, proved to be a popular destination. Its furnished rooms and exhibits provided white women a comfortable haven from the hot teeming fairgrounds. The central position of the finely ornamented women's building was indicative of the exaltation of white feminine virtue.
Designed by a federal architect and placed at a high point on the northern edge of the fairground's green hills, the turreted U.S. Government Building housed in its gigantic fifty-eight-thousand-square-foot hall offerings from the federal Departments of the Treasury, Agriculture, Fish and Fisheries, War, Navy, Interior, Post Office, Justice, and State and from the Smithsonian Institution. Located in a corner of the U.S. Government Building, the Smithsonian's exhibit vividly illustrated for its viewers "the methods by which Science controls, classifies, and studies great accumulations of material objects, and uses these as a means for the discovery of truth." A statue of Osceola, the great Seminole chief born near the local Chattahoochee River in 1804, greeted visitors entering into the "Types of Mankind" exhibit. Here, fully costumed plaster-cast figures of various racial types stood arranged in an ascending cultural hierarchy, beginning with "black types," "brown-red types," "yellow types," and finally ending with "white types." Competitive on an international level, exhibits like "Types of Mankind" and the fair in general advanced powerful concepts of American civilization, whereby those at the vanguard of the nation's future would be the learned and hence progressive races.
Fairgrounds like Atlanta visually and spatially orchestrated ideologies that would center the symbolic heteropatriarchal family as the juncture of national identity, racial purity, economic superiority, and cultural advancement. White Western nations, based on the evidence of their accomplishments that filled the exhibition halls, would leave behind the culturally impoverished, typically darker races who were often the subject of scientific displays like the Smithsonian's. These hierarchies of race, class, and nation were neatly displayed in row upon row of vitrines and impressively spatialized in the layout of the Piedmont Park fairgrounds. Rydell notes in his assessment of the southern fairs that "these hierarchical displays of race and culture furnished a scientific scaffolding for the emerging ideology of the New South. Seemingly backward 'types' of humanity, including blacks, could legitimately be treated as the wards of the factory and field until an indeterminate evolutionary period rendered them civilized or extinct." The degree of progress shown by the representative inferior types, in particular those who symbolized the South's ever-present "Negro problem," appeared in an exhibition hall just inside the Jackson Street entrance. Here in the southeast corner of the grounds, sandwiched between the bawdy Midway Heights and the raucous grandstand of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, stood the other special feature of Atlanta's Cotton States and International Exposition-the Negro Building.In celebration of the auspicious occasion of fair, the Constitution applauded one of the event's most unique symbols by proclaiming that "the Paris exposition had its Eiffel tower, the world's fair had its Ferris wheel, but Atlanta had its negro building [sic]." Amusement to some and monument to others, the Negro Building blended with the neo-Romanesque style of the other buildings. Gilbert employed the same general palette as he did on the other buildings, but the details, the articulation of the facades, and the lines of the overall form were more spare, making this aesthetic gesture a nod to the humbler status of black southerners. The footprint of the building measured 112 feet wide by 260 feet long, making it one of the smaller pavilions of the fair. It cost approximately $10,000 to build. One notable success of the construction process, often mentioned in the press, was that the Negro Building had been built solely by black labor under the management of white supervisors. Two black builders, John Thomas King of LaGrange, Georgia, and J.W. Smith of Atlanta, served as the primary contractors for construction. The Negro Building's construction, as well as its content, would demonstrate to white capitalists the immense potential of black wage labor. This display of the viability of the New South's burgeoning industrial and agricultural economy was undermined by the highly profitable use of convict labor to build much of the fairgrounds (although it is not clear if these crews were used to erect the Negro Building) and by the presence of goods like cotton, which in reality was being cultivated by underpaid and exploited sharecroppers.
When it opened its doors to the public in mid-September, the only building ever dedicated "to the first national panorama of negro [sic] progress," as Penn declared, had a large, impressive central tower rising seventy feet in the middle of the space, with smaller towers on each of the four corners and two more flanking the entrance. Inside the pavilion's central tower, visitors could climb the stairwell to partake of the expansive views of the rolling fairgrounds. The interior was laid out in a symmetrical fashion, with exhibits flanking either side of the two aisles to form a continuous circuit through the displays. Along with the extensive exhibits and booths, various amenities catered to visitors, such as a black-owned restaurant that demonstrated culinary skills and business aptitude. Similar to the other pavilions, clerestory windows provided ample natural light and cross-ventilation to relieve the scorching heat of the early fall. During the day these open transoms must have also allowed the clamor of the nearby Midway and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show to resonate through the hall.
When fairgoers strolled by the pavilion or entered through the large doorway, they were welcomed by a large, stately pediment carved out of staff positioned high above the front entrance. The ornate pediment featured a tableau narrating the progress of the Negro. On one side of the pediment appeared symbols indicating the lowly status of the race in 1865: a "slave mammie" adjacent to a log cabin, a basket, and rake. Upon close inspection, the figure of the rotund maternal mammy represented the reproduction of the plantation owner's livelihood; the farm implements stood for the production of the plantation class's livelihood; and the humble cabin signified the meager condition of slave life along with the natural closeness of the Negro to the land. Carved on the other side of the pediment were symbols auguring the future of the race in the form of a likeness of Douglass, a church, and the emblems of literature, art, and science. The noble profile of the famous patriarch Douglass, a former slave and courageous spokesman of the race who had died in 1895, invoked the theme of racial uplift in all of its masculinist and patriarchal glory. The sturdy stone church, in comparison to the decrepit wooden cabin, symbolized both the influence of European cultural practices as well as the use of Christianity as a means of moral improvement and discipline. "Representative of the new negro [sic] in 1895," said Penn of the pediment, this side of the scene also hinted that this level of cultural advancement had yet to be attained by the so-called black masses. Visitors gazing at the pediment's storied figures saw between these two depictions a plow and a mule. The center emblems of agriculture and manual labor suggested contemporary self-sustaining black industriousness. This underscored the value of the products of industrial training on display behind the pavilion's facade. The placement of this symbolic allegory at the threshold of the Negro Building represented Penn's statement of the evolution of Negro progress: "for the colored man to-day plows his field, while thirty years ago he, without almost an exception, plowed for another." The building's pediment visualized a persuasive commentary, aligned with then-current beliefs in social Darwinism, that blacks had surely advanced beyond enslavement but had not yet through their own wherewithal elevated their status above a life of physical labor. Excluding black elites and intelligentsia, who had surely advanced culturally, the black masses, the lumpenproletariat, remained first and foremost handworkers, farmers, and craftsmen, who had yet to ascend into the ranks of mindworkers. And as a result of these blacks location at the bottom of the social hierarchy, full political participation and the achievement of equal rights and social parity would have to wait until some unspecified date in the future: a time that, if social Darwinists and displays like the "Types of Mankind" were correct about natural aptitude, would never arrive.
Adopting in his curatorial ethic the tone of a "Bookerite" (the moniker for a follower of Washington's advocacy of industrial training), Penn chose to focus the key message of the exhibition on the establishment and successful outcome of industrial education programs, stating in the Constitution shortly after the fair opened that "the exhibit in the building is very extensively educational from a literary point of view, manufacturing and industrial as it relates to carpentry work, cabinet and furniture making of every description, brick work, carriage and wagon building, every phase of wheelwrighting, harness making, tin work, tailoring, millinery, dressmaking, printing, etc." The sum total of the exhibits strongly emphasized facility in handwork-a skill most practical for working in an agricultural economy. Overall, Penn's position reflected a common set of views held by many white Americans. In her review of the fair, The Negro and the Atlanta Exposition, Alice Bacon (a white teacher at the Hampton Institute) enthusiastically promoted the success and promise of industrial training to raise the status of blacks. Bacon observed that after Emancipation the Negro race was naïve to seek immediate equality with whites through the vehicle of political enfranchisement. Advancement, she argued, was predicated on cultural inheritance underwritten by biological aptitude, not achieved through acquisition.Her assessment corroborated Washington's plan. She commented that Tuskegee's industrial school program established the solid foundations upon which the Negro civilization must build. It is "the common school, the farm, and the skilled hand" that "must be the widest influences in the development of his [the Negro] race." Taken together, Penn's summary, Bacon's commentary, and the Negro Building's pediment reinforced the notion that the appropriate home for the Negro was on the farm, away from urban life, and with no intellectual aspirations whatsoever. A small contingent of exhibits also showcased accomplishments in the arts, commerce, law, and other areas not related to rural life, even though the majority of the displays boasted of a capable black worker highly trained for jobs in the field and workshop. But despite these dissonant voices in the Negro Building, the resounding tale told to the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition's white and black visitors was one in which the manual trades of the dutiful maid, seamstress, mason, and wheelwright best suited the current abilities, and possibly the future ones, of blacks in America.
Inside the vast hall of the Negro Building, fairgoers were greeted by a large portrait of Penn, flanked by two American flags and patriotically draped with bunting. The building's generous aisles allowed groups and individuals to comfortably move from one exhibit to the next. The displays, in part due to the stipulation of a separate exhibit, represented a microcosm of the fair's pavilions, showing work in agriculture, manufactures, machinery, transportation, women's affairs, fine arts, and foreign lands. Loosely organized by state, material from the Negro schools dominated the hall. Toward the right of the entrance, visitors viewed a presentation of the Presbyterian Board of Missions describing their schools for the training of colored youth. Adjacent to this display appeared various exhibits contributed by citizen groups from various Florida towns. The next area featured an array of exhibits from Penn's home state of Virginia. Most notable in the Virginian presentation was an extensive display of the Hampton Institute's bounty of craft and agricultural products. The school spared no expense in shipping furniture and ironwork from their workshops, along with mechanical drawings of houses built by apprentices and writings and other literary work penned by students. Hampton arranged its exhibition, as captured in a souvenir stereoscope card from the fair, in an orderly fashion, with well-dressed hosts milling about awaiting the inquiries of visitors. Next to Hampton's inspirational showing was an exhibit by the state's first colored savings bank located in Richmond. Placed among the other items on display in the twelve hundred square feet allotted to Virginia were a large wooden boat handcrafted by W.H. Grant, the head cook in a Lynchburg hotel, and a handmade bicycle assembled by a hard-working young farm boy, who had set up a workshop in an out building on a Virginia farm.
Like the other states, the North Carolina State exhibit showcased submissions from numerous schools, among them the Agricultural and Mechanical School in Greensboro. Some of the displays featured articles for sale, including reading materials on various subject matter related to black residents of the state. From the Alamance County exhibit, for instance, interested parties could purchase a small pamphlet that told about the character of this region of North Carolina and its people-a county of 15,000 white and 5,000 black residents. George Mabry, a school principal and commissioner from the area wrote A Sketch of Alamance County, a prospectus for interested investors and transplants. As Mabry narrated, many white residents in Alamance County had abandoned their farms to work in the county's twenty steam and cotton mills. Because antiblack racism excluded most black residents from "technical work in the factories" except as woodcutters, laborers, or stevedores, they instead chose to farm. Overtime, blacks bought the land put up for sale by white farmers and saw this as an opportunity to "get the right foothold so as to wield a beneficial and appreciative influence in the New Southland." Outlining the various educational opportunities, boosters portrayed Alamance County as a prosperous region, free from the "personal violence," lynchings and intimidation found elsewhere in the South. This rosy picture Alamance County was not without its challenges, as its economy still relied on the sharecropper system: even if black farmers owned their own parcels, they were still forced into buying seed and selling their crop to markets controlled by greedy white businessmen.
In the southeastern corner of the Negro Building, visitors found exhibits from Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas industrial schools. Also in this section people could see the displays sent from Tennessee. Nashville's Meharry Medical College, the first college dedicated to training black physicians, put on an informative display of medical tools and equipment. And an enormous twenty-foot-long painting of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, "who sung into existence the great Jubilee Hall of Fisk University by the ever-popular and melodious plantation melodies," graced the Tennessee exhibit.
Rounding the corner, fairgoers encountered Georgia's sprawling state exhibit that occupied two sides of the aisle in the north corner of the pavilion. A large, fully operative engine built by young men in Athens demonstrated the technical skills of local youth. In his review, Penn boastfully commented that the "students in the Atlanta institutions are making buggies, wagons, etc., which are as good as those in large manufactures in the land." The local schools Morris Brown College, Spelman Seminary, Atlanta Baptist Seminary, Clark University, Georgia State Industrial College, and Gammon Theological Seminary placed on view examples of their industrial training curriculum. Highlighting its normal school's industrial training program, Atlanta University, for example, displayed samples of woodworking and iron forging. A workbook of sewing techniques demonstrated an array of stitching methods, and a nearby dressmaking display featured a child's outfit and baseball uniform. There were also samples showing the productivity and aptitude of the school's printing studio. The industrial program was well represented, but Atlanta University, as Crogman had announced, also wanted to promote its extensive college curriculum. On bookshelves in the center of the university's impressive exhibit visitors could leaf through several volumes of philosophical methods, Greek, Latin, physics, trigonometry, and political economy. The inclusion of the university's college curriculum-with its emphasis on intellectual enlightenment-in a pavilion whose emphasis was on manual training suggested that not everyone believed that fieldwork and handwork would be the sole vocations to elevate the fortunes of southern blacks. This debate would take on greater dimensions at other fairs in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Following the Georgia effort, fairgoers could visit exhibits from Texas and Mississippi that displayed farming implements and various artifacts of mechanical training, including a large two-horse wagon. Visitors to the nearby Alabama exhibit witnessed a sizeable display assembled by Washington and his dedicated assistants. Naturally, Tuskegee's effort as the model of all industrial schools proved nothing less than astounding, as one visitor remarked. Illustrating the school's immense success at training woodworkers, a large filigreed wooden archway crafted in the school's woodshop welcomed visitors as they entered. Inside, every facet of the nation's leading industrial training program was on display. In wooden cases hung samples of dressmaking, sewing, tailoring, and millinery crafted by dexterous women students. The furniture department placed examples of tables, chairs, and desks on view to highlight the skills of Tuskegee trained craftsmen. On loan from the school's carriage shop, vehicles ranging from a phaeton to a farm wagon sat side by side on the exhibition floor. A fully operable steam engine manufactured by inventive students of the school's iron department filled the center of the space. Displays of tools, farm products, vegetables, and fruits showcased the range of trades that Tuskegee's students learned. Tangible material examples educated visitors about what black labor-when given the training and the opportunity-was capable of producing. This was the New South's future workforce.
Walking back toward the entrance and completing the full circuit of the exhibits, visitors saw the presentation from the District of Columbia. Attached to a crossbeam just behind Penn's portrait hung a large sign that depicted the capital building along with various symbols of the arts-a painting palette, camera, musical score, and drafting triangle. Departing from Penn's theme of manual labor, artistic and intellectual accomplishment stood at the forefront of the district's submissions. Portraits by the Amateur Art Club of leaders Douglass, Senator Bruce, and Commissioner Jesse Lawson hung in a prominent location along with other paintings depicting popular nineteenth-century genres of still life, portraiture, and landscape. Sculptures by artist W.C. Hill, a bust of Frederick Douglass, an allegorical painting titled The Obstinate Shoe, and a life-size statue, The Negro with Chains Broken but Not Off, dominated the district's exhibition space. From the U.S. Patent Office, visitors could study the patents of colored inventors that included a truss design and a ventilator used in Pullman railroad cars. Howard University's handsome exhibit showed educational advances being made in the city. The district's exhibit put forth the message that its black residents engaged in a diverse range of intellectual and aesthetic pursuits in their work and home lives, posing a counterpoint to the larger theme of industrial education. Seemingly disappointed at the absence of schoolwork, Penn in his Constitution commentary remarked that a district school superintendent had deliberately withheld exhibits from colored schools. But in total, the overarching message conveyed in the Negro Building was as Penn had conceived and implemented, emphasizing the manual skills and not the artistic and scholarly accomplishments of his fellow black Americans.
Undeterred by the offensive and unjust racist policies of the railroads, black citizens intrigued by the presence of the Negro Building and the concurrent congresses attended the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition in large numbers. Since the common practice of not renting rooms to black tourists in downtown's white-run hotels had limited access to decent accommodations, Penn and Atlanta's black community built a new hotel and organized homes where visitors could stay while touring the fair and attending its many events. The Negro Building hosted its opening celebrations on Monday, October 21. Black luminaries throughout the South, including Penn, Washington, Bishop Gaines, Pledger, and Reverend Carter, participated in the auspicious day of songs, beginning with the patriotic anthem "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," followed by speeches and prayers. The opening festivities for the Negro Building attracted an audience of about 1,500 black and 500 white visitors. Other popular events included Negro Day. Held on a windy December 26 at the end of the fair's run, it was obviously convened when white visitorship was waning. Events that day included a parade from downtown Atlanta to the fairgrounds as well as an afternoon of uplifting speeches and stirring music at the fairgrounds' Auditorium Building. The esteemed Major R.R. Wright Sr., the head of the Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah, spoke on the history of education in Georgia, suggesting that through education black citizens would eventually stand on equal ground with others of the American union but that the South must continue along its patient march toward that desired end. The Negro Building hosted many events, but it was Washington who presented the pavilion to the world.