World's Fairs

There were several significant intersections of world's fairs and issues of race around the turn of the century.

At the Columbian Exposition in 1893, African American composer Scott Joplin introduced ragtime. His most popular piece, Maple Leaf Rag, is included on the cd of music which comes with the Second Edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. There are two versions of the Maple Leaf Rag on the cd, including a version played by Jelly Roll Morton, with a variation that helps to explain the musical connection between 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, others vestiges of imperial exploits of other countries. These exhibits however were confined to the Midway Plaisance where the more entertaining exhibits were made available to the public. Often these exhibits were more popular with fairgoers than the great so-called white cities composed of majestic architectural structures that were supposed to be the main events of the fair.

African Americans were given a special day at the fair, as a consequence of the protest of the lack of an African American presence at the Fair. Unfortunately Puck Magazine used this occasion as an opportunity to circulate one of the most famous of images associated with the black presence at the fair with black people gathering the free watermelons that were supposedly distributed.

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, primarily because of the relative nudity of the Africans.

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.

My main source for materials on African Americans and the Columbian Exposition has been "All the World is Here! The Black Presence at the White Cityby Christopher Robert Reed, Indiana University Press 2000.

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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