The spectacle of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was unrivaled in its time. But it hardly represented the "world" of Women and Negroes.
Between May and October of 1893, the nation and the world flocked to the exposition, often called the Chicago World's Fair or the "White City," for the white stucco that gave the whole exposition a marmoreal gleam. More than 27 million people attended during a worldwide financial depression named the 'Panic of 1893' — which was nearly one-half the population of the United States at that time. This was no private Coachella or Aspen Institute—Congress appropriated the initial funding, and the fair's governing board was appointed by the president.
The Lady Managers were as powerless as their name suggests and couldn't get women's accomplishments included in any exhibits outside of the Woman's Building.
But neither women nor Negroes were part of the project's planning stages, nor were they allowed to play any prominent roles in the substance of the exposition, write Elliott Rudwick and August Meier. White women, Negro men and women all lobbied the president for seats on the governing board, jobs, and more than token representation in the fair, to no avail. They didn't have much leverage: In 1893, white men held almost all political power everywhere. No women served in Congress, and only in Wyoming (population 62,555) could women vote in federal elections. Reconstruction was long over; Negro men in the South could barely vote, and only one Negro man served in Congress.
But the World's Fair was too big to ignore.
Rather than include the full range of women's ingenuity, creativity, and hard work throughout the fair, the all-male Board of Governors approved "The Woman's Building" as a substitute and a "Board of Lady Managers" as a consolation prize for denying women even one seat on the board. As Gail Bederman explains, the Lady Managers were as powerless as their name suggests and couldn't get women's accomplishments included outside the Woman's Building.
Unfortunately, white women's limited role in the fair didn't make them sympathetic to the near-total exclusion of Negro women and men. Historian Ann Massa writes that when Negro women requested a seat among the 115 Lady Managers, the white women refused them. The white women complained that they couldn't pick from several groups of Negro women activists and thus would seat no one. They ultimately offered an unpaid secretarial role to Fannie Barrier Williams—a college graduate and accomplished educator. She was disgusted but took it because it was literally the only professional role a Negro woman would fill at the exposition. (The enterprise employed tens of thousands of people.)
In fact, Negro accomplishments weren't featured in the White City at all. Thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the remarkable postbellum achievements of slavery's survivors were all but erased from the story of America. Among 65,000 exhibits, only a few tokens of Negro art and invention were grudgingly included, among them sculptor Edmonia Lewis's busts of Phillis Wheatley and Hiawatha. Even Frederick Douglass—the most famous Negro man in America—spoke publicly only on "Negro Day," a one-time marketing gimmick on August 25th targeting Negro fairgoers and anybody interested.
Amid more than 300 women speakers at the fair, only six Negro women—including the veteran activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and scholar Anna Julia Cooper—were given speaking spots throughout the summer, including during a week-long World Congress of Representative Women.
Muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells had no platform at the fair, so she made her own. She had just returned from a successful British-speaking tour that helped her launch her anti-lynching crusade. She was furious about the exclusion of Negro accomplishments from a fair meant to showcase American exceptionalism. What better demonstration of America's uniqueness, Wells asked, than to exhibit "the progress made by the race in 25 years of freedom as against 250 years of slavery?"
"Reasons Why the Colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition." by Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, Published 1893.Negro Day, August 25, 1893, at the World's Fair (aka Colored Peoples' Day).
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.