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Negro Building Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums

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Chapter 1

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 ante