The Columbian World’s Fair and the State of Black America, 1893

The Columbian World’s Fair and the State of Black America, 1893

If you had asked A. G. Gaston when his birthday was he would have told you, with pride, that it was the Fourth of July, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If you’d asked him to prove it, he couldn’t have: Formal records of rural black births were rarely kept before the middle of the twentieth century. But the date, whether by true accident of birth or by choice, reflected Gaston’s lifelong identification as a proud American. He was simply unshakable on the subject. And while many other blacks had adopted the Fourth as their own date of birth for its reverberations on the themes of liberty and freedom, few would buy so fully into those ideals as A. G. Gaston did.

At the time of Gaston’s birth in 1892, the United States had just witnessed an unprecedented industrial expansion, a true revolution. Machines had been invented that changed the idea of work; transcontinental railroads shrank distances and the time it took to cross them. Partly as a result, great fortunes had been tallied. The American corporation, only recently invented, had been accorded almost human rights by the government, with “robber barons” Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan amassing unprecedented concentrations of wealth and indulging in conspicuous displays of it. Indeed, the country at large seemed to approve of-even glorify as heroic-the self-made man, with “the love of money and success permeat[ing] all ranks of society, not just the top.” By 1892 the idea of competition was firmly embedded in the American psyche: social Darwinism, it was called; survival of the fittest.

Survival was indeed in question for many in America. The year of A. G. Gaston’s birth saw 165 black men, women, and children lynched in America-the most recorded in a single year. One year later, the country would suffer a serious financial panic, an economic downturn that would last for five years and put three million of the country’s fifteen million workers out of jobs. Thousands, known as “the armies of despair,” would descend on Washington to protest the state of the nation’s economy; six hundred banks, fifty-six railroads, and fifteen thousand companies would eventually go bankrupt.

That same year, a world’s fair took place in Chicago that revealed much about the status of blacks in this newly revolutionized America. Organized to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the continent, the fair turned out to be so lavish an undertaking that it was forced to open a year later than originally planned. Forty thousand laborers and twenty-eight million dollars later, the crowds poured in to examine more than sixty-five thousand exhibits, each representing one or another of America’s great contributions to the world since 1492. It was here that Scott Joplin first played his ragtime; Thomas Edison was on hand to demonstrate the wonders of electricity. In total, more than twenty-seven million people-nearly a quarter of the country’s total population at the time-attended the event.

Of the sixty-five thousand exhibits on view, not one had anything to do with black America. Not that ideas hadn’t been presented: Anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, along with many other blacks, had appealed-unsuccessfully-to the boards assembling the fair, arguing that at least one exhibit celebrating black contributions should be allowed in the showcase. Event organizers were, however, unmoved. Their one concession was to set aside one day, August 25, 1893, as Colored American Day: Blacks would be allowed free admission to the fair and a slice of watermelon each. In protest, Wells organized and distributed hundreds of pamphlets detailing the plethora of black accomplishments that had been left out of the fair’s version of American history, including Elijah “the real” McCoy’s steam engine lubricators, Norbert Rillieux’s sugar refining process, Jan Matzeliger’s shoe lasting machine (which enabled soles to be attached to shoes in less than a minute), Granville Woods’s steam boiler, electric railway, and telephone transmitter, and Louis Latimer’s improvements on both the telephone and the lightbulb. Blacks, Wells proclaimed, had greatly contributed to the very revolution in American life the fair purported to celebrate: transportation, communication, light. Meanwhile, the most enduring black image to surface from the fair itself was a rendering of a woman named Nancy Green-better known to most Americans as Aunt Jemima.

Whatever had changed in America’s conception of itself as a capitalist entity, what had not changed was where it figured its black citizens belonged in that equation. Black achievement, the Columbian World’s Fair announced, not only didn’t matter-it didn’t exist.

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