World's Fairs at the Turn of the 19th Century

Since Du Bois's photographic Negro Exhibition was presented at the Exposition Universelle 1900, one of the most successful of the international fairs, I thought this might be a good time to point out that there are several significant intersections of world's fairs around the turn of the century and African American Cultural History.

Composer Scott Joplin introduced ragtime at the Columbian Exhibition. His most popular piece, Maple Leaf Rag, is included on the cd of music which comes with the Norton Anthology. There are two versions of it, including the latter one played by the great jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, with a variation that helps to explain the transition from ragtime to jazz.  

At the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago there was a Pavillion devoted to the Republic of Haiti.  Frederick Douglass, who was then ambassador to Haiti from the United States, maintained his headquarters there with Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the young poet, acting as his assistant.  Douglass was by then an enormous celebrity, highly regarded and respected universally in Chicago despite the spread of Jim Crow practices throughout the country.  Also featured at this fair was an exhibition of Aunt Jemima (played by Nancy Green) and her pancakes, as well as something called the Dahomey Village featuring a collection of people from Nigeria living in a rustic setting and presumably engaged in their normal village life.  The Dahomey Village was just one of many exhibits demonstrating various primitive cultures from around the world, some of them directly resulting from the imperial exploits of the United States.

African Americans were given a special day at the fair which was the focus of much negative stereotyping in the Chicago Press.  Also, although Douglass visited the Dahomey Village and was well treated by the occupants, he did make statements in the press saying that their exhibit was designed to humiliate African Americans.  There is also a story that Bert Williams and David Walker and other African American entertainers stood in for African performers until they could arrive.  Once they arrived, African American performers were fascinated by the music and dance of the Africans.  The result was a Broadway musical called In Dahomey written by Williams and Walker, which was a major success in 1901.  

Ida B. Wells, together with her husband and Frederick Douglass, wrote and circulated a pamphlet on racism, including lynchings, in the United States.*

Wells, Ida B. "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature." Originally published 1893. Reprint ed., edited by Robert W. Rydell. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999. ISBN 0-252-06784-3.
More later.

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