An Analysis of Discourse about the Colored Department at the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884: Elucidating Understandings of Progress 

By Julia Creson

Many Black newspapers writing about the New Orleans World’s Fair echoed white Americans’ claims, such as those from The Sun and the National Republican (jump link to my first section/essay), that Black Americans should exhibit at the Fair because the exhibition would be the first time Black Americans could prove the progress of their race since emancipation. For example, the Louisiana governor stated, “[To white Americans] interested in the progress morally and intellectually of the colored people, an opportunity will be afforded to ascertain their attainments in the arts, sciences and industries’” (qtr. in Pfeffer).

The governor suggests that Black Americans will show the progress of their race for the benefit of white people. This suggestion seems to indicate that white Americans defined Blackness through comparisons to whiteness rather than understanding Black Americans through their own humanity. Similarly, published in the Cleveland Gazette, an article titled “The Worlds’s Fair: The Colored People’s Exhibit.: Register Bruce and Colonel Lewis and Major Burke Untiring in their Efforts to Make It a Grand Success” asserts, “The Colored Department has been fortunate in the allotment of position, and the great and earnest interest of Major E.A. Burke the Director General, in the success of this exposition of industry of the colored race, will go far towards removing from the minds of many the idea that his people are incapable of that development which their most ardent friends have claimed for them.”

This article suggests that Black Americans should be thankful for the allowance of a Colored Department because such a department would enable Black Americans to resist constructs of Black Americans as incapable of progress. To understand the racial tensions present, I will interrogate what ‘progress’ meant to white Americans in contrast to what progress meant to Black Americans. 

The general Black American response to the inclusion of the Colored Department was critical about the separation of departments while positive about Black Americans’ participation in the Fair. Through participation, Black people could resist constructs of Black Americans as inferior intellectually, a construct which the separation of departments perpetuated. While Black Americans seemed to participate to resist racist constructs, white Americans seemed to include Black Americans in the Fair to benefit the Southern economy, which would inherently benefit white Americans more than Black Americans due to the hierarchical structure of American capitalism. For example, in “Opening the Door to the World: International Expositions in the South, 1881-1907,” John E. Findling writes, “Southern newspapers and the fair’s publicity committee emphasized the need for sectional reconciliation and saw the fair as an excellent opportunity to draw northern capital to the South” (31). Post-Civil War and emancipation, the Southern economy suffered because its previous wealth had been made through forced slave labor. Moreover, the North and the South were still at odds, which kept Northern industries from investing in Southern economy; thus, Southern commissioners like New Orleans Fair Director General Edmund A. Burke felt reconciliation needed to be one of the Fair’s objectives. Furthermore, Shepherd writes, “…by the 1880s Southern journalists had already begun to promote the idea of a ‘New South,’ a vision of industrial birth and commercial revival” (273). This New South would boast an economy no longer built on enslavement but supported by the newly freed Black Americans’ ability to work. Writing on the Atlanta Exposition, Theda Perdue explains, “white southern leaders were determined to convince the nation that their policies had enabled freedpeople to progress and would ensure African American advancement” (14). If we continue to understand ‘progress’ as a move towards capitalism, then perhaps if the South could prove that Black Americans could produce for the American capitalist economy, Northerners would be more likely to bring industry and commerce to the South. If this were the case, then Black Americans were used by white Southerners as an advertisement of a larger labor source for Northern industries. Black Americans, Pfeffer writes, “presumed that with their fine display of industry and accomplishment, they were writing themselves into the history of World’s Fairs and into a New South that promised prosperity for all. But Jim Crow lurked just beyond this brief moment in late-nineteenth-century New Orleans” (Pfeffer 460). However, Jim Crow laws did not lurk just beyond this moment. Jim Crow laws were already being put into effect in 1883 when the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, “which had guaranteed ‘the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement . . . to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude’” (Perdue 12). For white people, the ‘glimmer of hope for the future’ Shepherd claims (jump link to first section/essay) the New Orleans Fair offers was hope for a segregated country in which Black people are still inferior. However, rather than being the product themselves as enslaved people, free Black people could now produce goods. As such, white American objectives for the Fair may have been to initiate Black people into the capitalist economy. If successful, then white Americans could advertise the Southern economy as stable and prosperous in attempts to reconcile Northern and Southern economies. Thus, white American motives were steeped in capitalist goals, which one Black writer criticizes covertly in the New York Freeman.

In “The Colored Exhibits,” published anonymously in the New York Freeman on December 13, 1884, the writer subverts his own praise of Black people’s successful exhibition through a quasi-socialist critique. After his praise of the “great industrious progress” made by Black Americans, the author writes, “It is safe to say that what will be shown at New Orleans as the result of our labors will but very inadequately shadow forth the progress we have made–the most telling exhibitions of our industry and exfoliating genius will not be shown at New Orleans, for obvious reasons. Our people have not yet learned the great advantage of showing to the world the productions of their genius; they are yet a producing, not a commercial class,–industrious bees, not parasites–and what they produce is largely disposed of in their immediate neighborhood. . .Hence they do not adequately estimate the importance of such displays as will be made at New Orleans” (New York Freeman, “The Colored Exhibits”). First, this Black writer suggests Black ‘industry and exfoliating genius’ is synonymous with ‘progress.’ The word ‘exfoliating,’ defined by Oxford Languages as, “[to] cause (a surface) to shed material in scales or layers,” seems to signify the shedding of the chains of enslavement and layers of discrimination which otherwise inhibited Black Americans from displaying their talents. 

When the writer explicates ‘obvious reasons’ as to why Black Americans would not exhibit the entirety of their products, he suggests Black Americans produce goods and work for their immediate community, a production practice organized around collective need rather than profit.

Bees pollinate and produce honey for their own hive, while a parasite is “an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense” (Oxford Languages). Similarly to industrious bees, a collective-oriented economic system promotes an economy supported by products made by and for the community. And similarly to parasites, capitalism promotes an economy in which the laborer produces goods for the nation or globe rather than their own community; thus, the laborer produces goods for others at the expense of the laborer, themself.

If progress is depicted by labor, then the white American understanding of ‘progress’ can be synonymous with ‘capitalist success.’ This writer flips that understanding of progress through the nearly invisible em dash, “—industrious bees, not parasites—,” in a covert use of language similar to Harriet Jacobs’ in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Jacobs writes her novel to elicit sympathy from Northern Christian white women with the aim to convince them to join the fight for Black liberation. Jacobs addresses, “O, you happy free women,” throughout the novel, asking them to compare their own lives with her story of enslaved womanhood and motherhood (Jacobs 13). Within her addresses to white women, Jacobs covertly criticizes the racist system of enslavement which treats Black women like objects without agency. Jacobs writes, “[The enslaved woman] may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies” (Jacobs 13). Although Jacobs may not believe enslaved women to be ignorant, she means to appease white women who would likely believe enslaved women to be uneducated due to enslavement. While also criticizing enslavement, Jacobs discusses Black mothers’ pain at the loss of their children to create sympathy for Black mothers. She uses sentimentalism to motivate Northern white women to fight with enslaved women for Black and women’s liberation. The writer of this quasi-socialist article similarly writes a covert criticism of the capitalist American system through language which would appease white readership. When the writer refers to the ‘importance of such displays,’ he implies that importance is the capitalist advantage of exhibiting at the Fair. Through his critique of capitalism as parasitic, the writer also suggests Black Americans’ exhibition at the Fair will require their participation in American capitalism, a hierarchical structure which places Black Americans as inferior. The writer hides this critique of capitalism through the suggestion that Black Americans do not understand the benefits of presenting at the Fair, similarly to Jacobs’ discussion of enslaved women as ignorant. Seemingly, the writer uses such covert language to keep the structural critique hidden from white Americans who would be more willing to accept Black Americans’ choice to not exhibit due to ignorance rather than a choice meant to resist American capitalism. This article emphasizes the white American objective to bolster the Southern economy at the expense of Black Americans while also supporting Black Americans resisting constructs of Blackness by exhibiting at the Fair. While this writer offers a covert critique, “Though Black, A Man” overtly criticizes Black Americans’ participation at the Fair in a letter republished across newspapers, originally written to the editor of the Globe

The critique of the separation of departments in “Shall We Be Manly?: The Colored People and the Proposed World’s Fair at New Orleans,” written by “Though Black, A Man,” offers avenues to discuss the racial and gendered separation of the New Orleans World’s Fair. On the Colored Department, Though Black, A Man writes, “I inquire, Why should the National Government…make invidious distinctions among its subjects; discriminated among them on account of color; make appropriations from the common fund to put one class of citizens apart from all the rest; to single them out…stall them; brand them…put a mark upon them that an invidious comparison may be made with the disadvantages all against the branded and prescribed party? (Globe, “Shall We Be Manly?”). The critique is clear: why did the National Government choose to separate white American exhibits from those by Black Americans?

Though Black, A Man suggests the separation enraged Black Americans because it perpetuated Black Americans as inferior albeit in a different way than enslavement. As his letter continues, Though Black a Man argues participation in the Fair is ‘unmanly’ because of the separation of departments. In his understanding of manliness versus unmanliness, he excludes Black women from racial discourse. He writes, “If his presence is to be tolerated other than as an absolute inferior, a menial, a servant, he and the world must know the conditions; the arrangement says so–that it is not to be as a compeer, an equal fellow with the white man; that he is to be pointed to as a semi-pariah; a partial leper, a scorned party; a party merely tolerated” (Globe, “Shall We Be Manly?”). Though Black, A Man contends that Black men who exhibit at the Fair are marked as inferior by the separate Colored Department in which they were forced to exhibit. Moreover, his exclusion of Black women from his critique establishes Black women as subordinate to Black men in the very hierarchy he criticizes, reiterating patriarchal logic. In the first sentence of his article, Though Black, A Man writes, “I would arouse true manliness on every fitting occasion; there is too much lack of it.” Thus, Though Black, A Man equates a lack of manliness to exhibiting with the Colored Department; he equates a lack of manliness with acceptance of a label he deems a mark of inferiority. On the other hand, he equates manliness with fighting for Black liberation. Though Black, A Man seems to see racism as a man’s issue, excluding Black women from his discourse entirely. Thus, he perpetuates Black women as subordinate to not only white people, but also Black men. While Though Black, A Man elucidates the racist undertones of the separation of departments, he also establishes Black women as inferior within the same hierarchy he criticizes. [this seems repeated from above?] In my second paper (jump link to second paper), I discuss how Black women exhibitors used the Fair to establish themselves in both the fight for Black liberation from which newspaper discourse excluded them, and for women’s liberation, from which the Women’s Department attempted to exclude them. 

The New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884 certainly provided a scene of hope for all Americans. Perhaps Black women saw a future free from the systemic oppression of the white supremacist patriarchy, free from the constructs that system has forced upon them. Perhaps Black men saw the same future, along with a future in which ‘Blackness’ was never again compared to whiteness. For white Americans who created this exposition, the Fair was a chance for themselves to exhibit their progress as a capitalist society and to advertise Black Americans as a supporter of their capitalist aims. Newspapers advertised the Fair as the first time Black Americans would be able to exhibit alongside their fellow Americans in an international fair, which at the time, aligned with the forward momentum of Black liberation only twenty years post-emancipation and post-Civil War. In hindsight, the advertisements read sinisterly, pushing rhetoric for Black Americans to support the capitalist economy which is controlled by white Americans who would be the first to benefit from most of the profits from such an event as a World’s Fair. By linking Black Americans’ first chance to exhibit alongside their country to the growth of the American capitalist economy, white Americans confirmed that capitalism is inextricably linked to the racial oppression of Black Americans. However, Black Americans who criticized the separation of departments chose to write their own narrative. Black women who exhibited at the Fair deconstructed white American constructs of Black women as lascivious and thus inherently inferior intellectually. They deconstructed white women’s perpetuation of femininity as white, and patriarchal constructs of women as commodifiable objects limited by their relation to the domestic sphere. In their resistance to intersectional oppressions, Black women at the World’s Fair of 1884 adhered to Black Feminism. Thus, this paper intends to recover these Black women to both historicize the tradition of Black women organizing for both Black liberation and women’s liberation, and to recover the exclusion of Black women from the Women’s Department at the World’s Fair of 1884.  

Other Essays by Julia Creson:

The New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884: Constructs of Progress

Black Women, the Women’s Department, and Constructs of Racial and Gendered Identity at the World’s Fair of 1884