By Julia Creson
Black Women at the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884
While Black women were excluded from the Women’s Department of the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884, they did exhibit with the Colored Department. To contribute to the recovery of Black women who were excluded from the Women’s Department, I researched Black newspapers written about and at the time of the Fair from 1884 through 1885. In all, I found forty-nine articles discussing the Fair, only eight of which name Black women who exhibited. For further reading on methodology, see James DeMaio’s paper on recovery. Below, I have created an exhibit of the Black women who were at the Fair based on the accounts of these newspapers. While I attempted to find biographical information about each woman along with discussions of their exhibits, there are very few records about each woman except for Mrs. Sarah A. Shimm, who is not only thoroughly discussed in historical newspapers, but also contemporary scholarship about the Fair. Another well-studied Black woman who exhibited is Fannie Barrier Williams, who’s exhibit was curated by Carol Asher. For each woman in my exhibit, I have either provided a photo of a newspaper detailing her biography and work, and/or a photo example of the craft each figure utilized in the creation of her work. In the meantime, I present these exhibits as an early act of resistance in accordance with the aims of contemporary Black Feminism. Below my listing of a few of the Black women who exhibited at the Fair, I have included three essays which can be read out of order or chronologically. I have included a short description of their content before all three essays. Both below this paragraph and at the bottom of this page, you will find all of the Black newspapers I found while researching. I aim to continue my research over the summer, and invite whoever is interested to join in our research, interpretation, and recovery of Black women at the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884.
The December 6, 1884 issue of the Cleveland Gazette provided a list of exhibits sent to the New Orleans Fair from Forest City, Cleveland, Ohio. Below I have included excerpts listing each of the six Black women who exhibited at the Fair and an accompanying transcription. Additionally, Carroll provided me with a photo of Ohio’s Colored Department which has been digitally enlarged .
“Three oil paintings, by Miss E. E. Wilson”
Although the paper did not describe what Miss Wilson painted, any of these framed art pieces could be one of her oil paintings.
“One patchwork-quilt, by Mrs. M. L. Tucker”
As there are only two patchwork quilts on display, one of these two must be by Mrs. M. L. Tucker. Patchwork quilts are made by sewing different pieces of fabrics together to create a design. This would have been the top layer of the quilt. Applique is the process of creating two layers of fabric and sewing the edges down over the second layer, forming the curved edges of a quilt like the one pictured above.
“Looking glass, fancy worked plush frame, by Miss Ida C. Henderson”
“Felt piano cover, by Miss Ida C. Henderson”
Many different items could be the plush frame or felt piano cover, and the looking glass seems to be too small to see. Although I have not included a zoomed in photo, check out the overall department photo above at your liberty to see if you can spot one of her exhibits. A looking glass is a mirror. The ‘fancy worked plush frame’ seems to be a frame made of yarn, thread, or some type of fabric on a three-dimensional frame. A felt piano cover would be placed only over the keys to protect them from dust and other dirt or damage.
“One basket of artificial flowers, by Mrs. James Thompson”
“One fire rug, hand made, American eagle name of ‘Garfield’ worked upon it, by Mrs. James Thompson”
Again, I could not see any pieces that resembled the descriptions provided by this newspaper of Mrs. James Thompson’s exhibit. However, it is possible the fire rug, a rug which is fire retardant so as to be placed in front of a hearth or fireplace, is in the display case next to the quilt in the photo I have provided below.
“Silk crochet and satin lambrequin, by Mrs. Louisa Barnes”
The pieces which look white in this sepia toned image could be Mrs. Louisa Barnes’ silk crochet or satin lambrequin. Oxford Languages defines a North American lambrequin as, “a short piece of decorative drapery hung over the top of a door or window or draped from a shelf or mantelpiece.”
“Infant sacque, worsted by Mrs. J. E. Edwards”
Merriam-Webster defines an infant sacque as, “an infant’s usually short jacket that fastens at the neck.” Although an assumption, Mrs. J. E. Edwards’ infant sacque may have been exhibited in the same display case in which I speculate Mrs. Louisa Barnes’ creations were displayed.
Miss Kiger’s Crazy Quilt and Screen
Except for the above six words from the Washington Bee, there is limited information available about Miss Kiger, who exhibited a Crazy Quilt and Screen. Although I do not have a photo of Miss Kiger’s crazy quilt, I have included a photo of a crazy quilt below.
Here is a definition of a Crazy quilt:
“Crazy quilt, coverlet made by stitching irregular fabric patches together, either by applique or patchwork (piecing). Usually the patches are stitched to a fabric or paper foundation. Fabrics vary from cottons and wools to silks, brocades, and velvets, the latter known as ‘fancies.’ The finished top is often enhanced with embroidery, beading, and other embellishments. Crazies are usually tied instead of quilted to stabilize the layers”
And, interestingly enough, here is the supposed reason for the popularity of crazy quilts:
“At Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, American needleworkers were intrigued by the designs and techniques of handicrafts from Japan, Russia, and England. The Japanese fashion of deliberately ‘crazing,’ or crackling, porcelain glazes was particularly influential. By 1884, thousands of lavishly embroidered silk and velvet crazy quilts had appeared, encouraged by popular magazines marketing everything from patterns to fabric scraps.”
Mrs. Sarah A. Shimm’s ‘Wonderful Sofa’
Another Black woman who exhibited at the Fair is Mrs. Sarah A. Shimm. Although not extensively, scholars and newspapers about the Fair discuss Mrs. Shimm quite a bit more than the women I have exhibited above. In addition to her exhibition, Shimm wrote newspaper articles concerning Black politics under the pen name Faith Lichen. Moreover, Mrs. Shimm is a teacher from Washington D.C.
At the Fair, Mrs. Shimm exhibited a sofa on which she depicted the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a Haitian revolutionary, through images and words she embroidered onto the sofa.
Centered on the back of the sofa is a portrait of L’Ouverture based on an engraving from 1805 by Marcus Rainsford. Above the portrait, Mrs. Shimm embroidered, “First of the Blacks,” followed by an original poem by Shimm, which I have included in my paper on Black women at the Fair. Black newspapers like the Cleveland Gazette detail the scenes embroidered on the sofa as the revolution enacted by L’Ouverture, who then became governor of Haiti. The excerpts I have placed throughout this piece detail those scenes.
Mrs. Shimm chose L’Ouverture as the subject of her piece because, as Kate Adams writes, “Toussaint L’Ouverture was the nineteenth-century exemplar of radical Black global becoming” (35). He represented a possible future for Black Americans. As such, Shimm uses “the love seat [to] strategically reconfigure[s] the scene of its reception, framing New Orleans within a geography and history that privilege Black consciousness” (36). Mrs. Shimm centers Black history and presents an example of a once enslaved Black man winning a battle of resistance, perhaps in hopes that Black Americans can achieve a similar goal.
I have split the following essay into three sections which can be read as their own essays or used as reference points for each other. In these essays, I discuss motivations behind white Americans’ wish to include Black Americans at the fair in contrast to Black Americans’ critiques of the Fair’s segregated departments. I also include clippings of the newspapers I quote and analyze. Moreover, I discuss the Black women who presented at the Fair as early Black Feminists. I present Black Feminism as an anachronistic category and Black women exhibitors as Black Feminists to historicize and recover the tradition of Black women organizing and fighting for both Black and women’s liberation.