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

By Julia Creson

The New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884 provides an opportunity to examine constructs of women and constructs of Blackness as they affected Black women during the turn-of-the-century. In “Seductions and the Ruses of Power,” Sadiya Hartman traces the white construct of Black women as inherently lascivious and thus unable to resist sexual advances through nineteenth-century common law and slave law. Hartman’s piece will elucidate constructs of Black women that pervaded nineteenth-century ideology so that we may understand how Black women at the Fair resisted those constructs. Hartman writes, “Seduction makes recourse to the idea of reciprocal and collusive relations and engenders a precipitating construction of black female sexuality in which rape is unimaginable. As the enslaved female is legally unable to give consent or to offer resistance, she is presumed to be always willing” (538-539) In other words, because the law defined enslaved Black women as both person and property, white Americans constructed the enslaved Black woman as an inherently lascivious person unable to consent or resist due to her position also as property. Rather, she was believed to always be willing or even pursuing sex while also under the control of all white people. Unlike enslaved Black women, white women were both protected against rape by common law and defined by domesticity, thus placing the construct of white women as a different gendered concept than the construct of enslaved Black women, defined by sexuality as inextricable from violence (Hartman 555-556). Hartman explains, “Coercion, desire, submission, and complicity are the circulating terms which come to characterize, less the sexuality of…the enslaved female, than the way in which she is inhabited by sexuality and her body possessed” (541). Sexuality became a tool used by white Americans to remove culpability from themselves as rapists and place blame on the Black enslaved woman because of her lascivious nature. In reality, this use of sexuality made the Black enslaved woman incapable of consent, thus always seeming to experience a sexual violence during relations with any man, even Black enslaved men. The law extended absolutely no protection to Black women in the case of rape, even within this context. I do not mean to criminalize Black enslaved men, rather, to emphasize in a similar way to Hartman the inextricable link between the enslaved Black female and sexual violence committed against her. Hartman writes, 

Here it is not my intention to reproduce a heteronormative view of sexual violence as only and always directed at women or to discount the ‘great pleasure in whipping a slave’ experienced by owners and overseers or eliminate acts of castration and genital mutilation from the scope of sexual violence, but rather to consider the terms in which gender, in particular the category of ‘woman,’ becomes meaningful in a context in which subjectivity is tantamount to injury. The disavowal of sexual violence is specific not only to female engenderment but to the condition of enslavement in general. (555)

While sexual violence is inextricable from the condition of enslavement of all genders, we can understand different meanings of the category of ‘woman’ for white women and Black women when gender is applied to race. As Hartman asserts, we must view the category of ‘woman’ not as a universal set of terms which can be applied to all women, but as a category in which different people inhabit different versions of womanhood. In other words, Hartman writes, “What I am attempting to explore here is the divergent production of the category woman, rather than a comparison of black and white women which implicitly or inadvertently assumes gender is relevant only to the degree that generalizable universal criteria define a common identity. Can we employ the term woman and yet remain vigilant that ‘all women do not have the same gender’?” (556). Although it may seem that I perform a comparison of black and white women in my examination of the Fair, I mean to employ the term woman in the same way Hartman does. Both occupy the category of woman, however, they do so in different ways due to constructions of both femininity as white and Black enslaved women as lascivious people without agency.

Only twenty years after slavery was made illegal, when the Fair took place, these constructs were likely present in Southern ideology. When Black women wrote to Julia Ward Howe to ask to be a part of the Women’s Department, Howe ignored their request which resulted in their exclusion. Through Black women’s exclusion, Howe and the Women’s Department realigned womanhood with whiteness while also denying Black women a chance to construct a new category of woman in which they are not only defined by constructs developed through enslavement. Black women may have asked to be a part of the Women’s Department to put into practice Hartman’s understanding of the category of woman. Rather than unwilling to exhibit with Black men, Black women may have wanted to ally themselves with white women in the fight for liberation from the patriarchy. Instead, Black women resisted constructs by exhibiting with the Colored Department. 

To understand how Black women resisted constructs, I will explain the racist and sexist construct of Black women as intellectually inferior. Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull and Barbara Smith discuss the construct of Black women elucidated by Hartman as the reason why Black women have been constructed as intellectually inferior. Hull and Smith write, “Our legacy as chattel, as sexual slaves as well as forced laborers, would adequately explain why most Black women are, to this day, far away from the centers of academic power and why Black women’s studies has just begun to surface in the latter part of the 1970s” (Hull, Smith 18). Although Black women’s studies started in the 1970s, Black women aligned themselves with academic power not only during enslavement, but through exhibits at the World’s Fair. Teachers such as Mrs. Fannie Barrier Williams and Mrs. Sarah A. Shimm exhibited at the Fair. Later, I will discuss how Mrs. Shimm’s exhibit of a sofa embroidered with the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture aligned her with academic power. On the inherently revolutionary status of Black educators, Hull and Smith write, 

Milla Granson learned to read and write through the exceptional indulgence of her white masters. She used her skills not to advance her own status, but to help her fellow slaves, and this under the most difficult circumstances. The act of a Black person teaching and sharing knowledge was viewed as naturally threatening to the power structure. The knowledge she conveyed had a politically and materially transforming function, that is, it empowered people to gain freedom (18).

I contend we can apply this same line of thinking to the women who presented at the Fair. This is especially true for Black women teachers who exhibited. Black women exhibitors resisted the construct of Black women as inherently inferior intellectually, thus also threatening the white power structure. In fact, Mrs. Shimm threatens the Capitalist power structure by exhibiting an unreproducible creation, her embroidered sofa, thus resisting self-commodification. In turn, if other teachers, such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, were included in the Women’s Department or Colored Department exhibits, they would have been able to further deconstruct the construct of Black women as intellectually inferior while simultaneously threatening the patriarchal, Capitalist power structure.  

Howe wrote in her personal diary, as Miki Pfeffer states, “that representatives of the Colored Ladies Centennial Committee requested space in the Woman’s Department, being ‘very unwilling to have their work put in promiscuously with that of the colored men’” (456). Although Howe suggests Black women were unwilling to exhibit alongside Black men, she could have assumed they were unwilling without Black women stating as such. Rather than assume Black women did not want to exhibit with Black men, it is possible Black women wished to align themselves with the Women’s Department to organize a group of women of all races. If Black women were included in the Women’s Department, the possibility of an organized group to resist the American patriarchy would have been much greater. Post-emancipation, Black men assumed the role as the head of the family, the patriarch, placing them in a position of authority over Black women. In “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” Claudia Jones writes, 

After the Civil War…[the] new economic arrangement, the change in the mode of production, placed the Negro man in a position of authority in relation to his family. Purchase of homesteads also helped strengthen the authority of the male…In regard to his wife and children, the Negro man was now enabled to assume economic and other authority over the family; but he also could fight against violation of women and his group where formerly he was powerless to interfere (113). 

Post-emancipation, Black men assumed a new role of empowerment, a similar role white men assumed in the family. However, as the Black man gained power, “…the subordination of Negro women developed” (Jones 113). Therefore, Black women, while fighting alongside Black men for Black liberation, also had to resist gendered hierarchies as they were perpetuated by Black men. Their request to present with white women in the Women’s Department to align themselves with other women may have been an attempt to resist the patriarchy. Howe and the Women’s Department’s choice to exclude Black women not only reinforced white women as the definition of womanhood, but also destroyed Black women’s attempt to resist the patriarchy in an early form of intersectional feminism. However, this exclusion did not keep Black women from resisting constructs of Black women as lascivious and thus as intellectually inferior. Rather, Black women resisted those constructs while also adhering to Black Feminism through their exhibits with the Colored Department. To understand how, I will discuss Mrs. Sarah A. Shimm’s exhibit at the World’s Fair.

Mrs. Shimm represents the deconstructive possibilities of the inclusion of both Black women in the Women’s Department and more Black women teachers at the Fair. Mrs. Shimm was a teacher from Washington D.C. who often wrote articles discussing racial tensions under the pen name Faith Lichen.

Unfortunately, as the excerpt from July of 1885 on the left details, Mrs. Shimm passed away shortly after the World’s Fair. Scholar Kate Adams discusses Mrs. Shimm’s revolutionary exhibit of a sofa embroidered with the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture in “Becoming Global: Gender, Race, and Cognitive Mapping at the 1884 World’s Fair.” Ostensibly, the sofa represented women as limited to the domestic sphere, a construction the Women’s Department has been criticized as perpetuating (Adams 33). However, Adams writes, “If white women chose domesticity over self-commodification, Shimm’s sofa refuses fungibility even more emphatically with its unwieldy size and extravagantly unreproducible needlework” (33). If white women resisted capitalist ideals of self-commodification using domesticity, then Mrs. Shimm elevated that resistance by making a singular, unreproducible piece of work out of domestic pieces.

Additionally, Mrs. Shimm exemplified the educational and deconstructive possibilities of creations typically associated with the domestic sphere by embroidering on her sofa the story of the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture, along with an original poem pictured on the right. Fairgoers who saw Mrs. Shimm’s sofa would learn about L’Ouverture, the history of Black people from a global point of view, and what Adams calls “a radical Black global imaginary” (32). Effectively, Mrs. Shimm deconstructed the American construct of Blackness as inferior by presenting different histories and imaginings of Black liberation. Simultaneously, she deconstructed the domestic sphere as a limiting space for all women. About Shimm and her sofa, Adams writes, 

Although often congratulated on their recent emancipation by speakers like Howe, many Black fairgoers had descended from Haitian immigrants and been free for generations. Through L’Ouverture, Shimm rejects the racial imaginary that dates Black freedom from “just two decades ago,” credits it to white benevolence, and aligns it with (deferred) US democratic belonging. The caption embroidered beneath his portrait, “First of the Blacks,” asserts a claim that is hierarchical—prioritizing resistance to white culture rather than emulation of it—and temporal: it designates an alternate moment and location for the emergence of global Blackness. (36)

Shimm’s sofa was an act of resistance against white American culture which not only assumed all Black fairgoers had been emancipated–exemplifying the white American association of all Black people with enslavement–but also a resistance to white American capitalist culture. I will discuss criticism of the capitalist nature of the Fair by other Black Americans further in my third section (jump link to third section/essay). Mrs. Shimm’s exhibition of her sofa exemplifies an early act of Black Feminism because she educated Fairgoers on global Black history and imaginings. Mrs. Shimm aligned herself with academic power while also aligning Blackness with freedom. Thus, if Mrs. Shimm had been able to present with the Women’s Department, she would have been able to deconstruct the domestic sphere as an unproductive setting while also rejecting self-commodification. Finally, if more Black women were able to exhibit at the Fair, they could have used exhibits to deconstruct racist and sexist constructs of Black people and women. However, as we will see in my third paper, Black women were excluded from discourse about the Fair in newspapers. This exclusion may have kept Black women from knowing about their ability to exhibit. On the other hand, due to their seeming lack of importance to people concerned with the Fair and its separation of departments, their exclusion from discourse may have influenced some Black women to forgo exhibiting at the Fair. Either way, my analysis of the newspaper discourse will emphasize the Capitalist economy as white Americans’ motivation to include Black Americans in the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884.

Continue Reading by Julia Creson:

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

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