The Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

Approaching the turn-of-the-century, there were many world's fairs taking place throughout Europe and the United States.  There were also fairs in the Pacific, Asia and even Africa.  Worlds fairs or expositions were a major form of popular culture dominated by the interests of the wealthy and the bourgeosie, and conceived as family entertainment.  

Much of these fairs were officially devoted to exhibitions of architecture, art, film and photography, as well as industrial and technological advances.  They included sometimes massive displays of commodities and/or raw materials gathered from successful often imperialist or colonialist military campaigns leading to the opening of new markets combined with various technological breakthroughs.  What makes these events difficult to imagine or recollect today is because we really don't have anything like them.  Probably the most similar would be the formation of a successful mall on the weekend or a car or technology fair.  

The issue of the fairs for our study relates to photography and visual art in which people of color often appeared.  Artists and photographers made images of peoples of color that was sometimes included in the exhibitions.  Frances Benjamin Johnston took pictures of black students and faculty at Hampton Institute, Tuskegee and public schools in Washington D.C. some of which were included in Du Bois's Negro Exhibit featured at the Paris Exposition.  Some of the photographers Du Bois included were black.  There was at least one black photo historian and photographer Deborah Willis has been able to identify in her book on the subject and in her remarks concerning the collection of the exhibited photographs and documents deposited at the Library of Congress.  

The fairs continue in interest throughout the turn-of-the-century beginning with the Columbian Exposition in 1893 where Frederick Douglass, who was then ambassador to Haiti was permanently stationed in the Haitian Pavillion.  Paul Lawrence Dunbar served as his young assistant.  George Walker and Bert Williams were among the American performers who substituted for the Africans who had not yet arrived to populate the Dahomey Village.  Once the members of this incorporated village had arrived, Walker and Williams stayed around to observe the music and the dance, prompting them to construct the highly successful show In Dahomey, which toured Europe and had a successful run on Broadway. 

Human exhibitions were also a major part of what took place at these fairs.  These were exhibitions in which people were presented engaged in typical activities usually from someplace recently the object of military conquest. For instance there were displays of Native American villages, Asian cities and a "Dahomey Village."  In St. Louis there was a display of a group of Pygmies.  Sometimes these displays were incorporated as regular traveling units and they would go from fair to fair for hire.  

Two years after the Columbian Exposition in 1895 at the much more racially segregated Atlanta Cotton Exposition, a "Negro Department" with its own building was featured. Booker T. Washington made his famous Address compromising the political and intellectual aspirations of African Americans at this very same fair. 

Du Bois's Negro Exhibition--1900 Paris Exposition

This link will take you to a selection of photographs from the Negro Exhibition as composed by W.E.B. Du Bois (the author of Souls of Black Folk) and installed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris of 1900. The entire collection of photographs are publicly available online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

These photographs are composed of a variety of image types. They include portraits of graduating classes at black colleges, individual three-quarter portraits, images of run-down black communities, successful black businesses, buildings of black colleges, black businesses and black churches. Not much is known about most of the photographers who took the pictures or the people in the photographs but Deborah Willis has related that which is known at the website at the Library of Congress. And I am sure there will be more information forthcoming as people learn of these images from 1900.  For instance, there is one photograph of the offices of Pauline Hopkin's The Colored American.

These photographs were composed and exhibited just three years before DuBois published Souls of Black Folk.  Part of the response of some of the leading citizens of the black community to Jim Crow segregation and genocide was to build a separate set of resources and communities in which every effort was made to provide equal facilities especially for the young people of these communities, particularly given the obvious implications of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court Decisions, known to many as "the separate but equal" decision. 

The photographs gathered by Du Bois and exhibited in Paris document that effort.   Nonetheless, the tragedy of this period is that the "separate but equal" approach only resulted in more inequality at every conceivable level.  Du Bois suggests in The Souls of Black Folk, citizens protect their rights through the use of the ballot. Without the ballot any minority population is defenseless and will incur outright hostility rather than support.  Or at least this seems to be the way it went. 

Another aspect of interest from a racial standpoint were the many entertainment features of the fairs, often located in their own section called the Midway at the Columbian Exposition and the Pike at the St. Louis Fair of 1904.  Also, President McKinley was murdered at the 1901 Buffalo Fair.

1904 St. Louis World's Fair.  Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.  The Midway was called the Pike in St. Louis.

Native American Rider at Pan-American Exhibition, Buffalo 1901.  
The Crowd at the St. Louis Fair.  Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

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