Black Women and the 1884 World’s Fair

[R]epresentatives of the Colored Ladies Exposition Association. . . . told Howe that they were “very unwilling to have their work put in promiscuously with that of the colored men.” They wanted to be in the Woman’s Department and to appoint their own attendants for their exhibits. . . . Although Howe promised to “make an effort for them,” there were stumbling blocks beyond her ken. . . . [T]he southern white ladies of the Woman’s Department would have called this proposal social mixing, which they would not have endured. Because Howe made no further entry in her journal about her promise to make an effort, all that is known is that women of color showed with the men of their states in the first-ever Colored Department.

Miki Pfeffer. Southern Ladies and Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Women’s Rights at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair (2014)

How does one recover an exclusion? 

Recovery is not an additive process. We can’t merely expand the list of exhibitors, restore the missing parts, and call it done. How many and which Black women writers would we need to add to fill the original absence? How many to repair the generations of injury it caused? How many Black women could we add before the Woman’s Department’s definition of “womanhood” – identified with whiteness and against blackness – no longer applied? 

An ethical approach to recovery must reckon with the exclusion of Black women from the Beautiful Sisterhood of Books, not reify it.

For us it has meant focusing on women like Fannie Barrier William who we know exhibited their writing, art, and inventions as part of the Exposition’s Colored Department. But it has also called for a process similar to Saidiya Hartman’s “speculative recovery”: informed conjecture that has led us to include women like Harriet Jacobs and Ida B. Wells whose influence within Black literary and activist communities would have made them likely participants. 

It has meant collecting and interpreting materials from diverse sources and in diverse forms: literary works and political speeches by Black women; Exposition coverage from Black newspapers; racialized rhetoric from Julia Ward Howe and other white Woman’s Department organizers; timelines, maps, and network analyses of Black women’s lives and careers.

It has meant denaturalizing the very concept of “Womanhood.” The New Orleans Woman’s Department reflected and reinforced an historically specific gender script – one based on whiteness and wealth, one made to seem more “true” and natural by its ability to accommodate a wide range of differences other than racial difference. Our analyses show how white women required the exclusion of Black women for their own self-coherence. They also approach Howe’s account of her meeting with the Colored Ladies Exposition Association – and especially of their request – with skepticism. How much should we trust her recollection of their “unwilling[ness]” to join forces with Black men? What other motivations should be considered? What effects of what José Esteban Muñoz calls “disidentification” emerge from Black women’s performances of true or new womanhood at this time?

Finally, reckoning with the exclusion has meant acknowledging our own limits – by reflecting along the way on how our motivations, assumptions, choices, and privilege shape our work; by trying to acknowledge those limits and effects in what follows; and by understanding this project as permanently incomplete, and creating spaces throughout our exhibits that invite responses and new contributions from you.