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

By Julia Creson

Scholarship about the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884 (originally titled the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition) discusses the fair as a source of hope for the future of America, particularly for Black Americans who would be able to participate fully for the first time in a world’s fair (Pfeffer 442). In “A Glimmer of Hope: The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, New Orleans, 1884-1885,” Samuel C. Shepherd Jr. asserts, “For visitors, participants, and Louisianians the exposition provided at least a glimmer of hope for the future” (Shepherd 272). While this statement may still resonate today, we must elucidate what those hopes for the future looked like for different groups as they were constructed and represented at the World’s Fair by the separation of departments. While American white men exhibited in their own state’s exhibit, organizers of the Fair made a separate Women’s Department and Colored Department. Additionally, the Women’s Department, directed by Julia Ward Howe, excluded women of color. Because the Beautiful Sisterhood of Books focuses on the Women’s Department, our project has been to recover the exclusion of Black women (see suggested readings). While I found a few calls for women of color to exhibit and one list of six Black women who exhibited at the Fair in my research of Black newspapers, I did not find any discourse about the exclusion of Black women from the Women’s Department. Instead, I found articles advertising the Fair as an opportunity for Black Americans to show the progress they have made since emancipation and discourse criticizing the separation of the Colored Department. In “‘Mr. Chairman and FELLOW AMERICAN CITIZENS’: African American Agency at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans, 1884-1885,” scholar Miki Pfeffer writes, “However the Colored Department at the Cotton Centennial came to be, the general response to its inclusion was positive.” (446). As the title suggests, Pfeffer discusses the agency Black Americans displayed by exhibiting at the New Orleans World’s Fair. Because of the racial tensions in the newspapers I researched, I would like to interrogate ‘however the Colored Department came to be’ rather than state the response to the inclusion of the Colored Department was positive. I would contend the general response to Black Americans’ exhibits at the Fair was positive. Based on newspapers, Black Americans criticized the inclusion of the separate Colored Department as racist and segregationist. The general response of white Americans to the separation of departments was positive. I will discuss both in this introductory paper and at length in my third section. If responses are determined by expectations, what were Black Americans’ expectations of their inclusion at the Fair? Turning to ‘the glimmer of hope,’ I ask: for what future did Black men and Black women hope? In short, what were white American motivations to include Black Americans in the Fair, and what were Black Americans motives to exhibit at the Fair?

For white Americans, these motives seem to have been based on economic goals. Because the Southern American economy was built by forced slave labor, which legally ended in 1865, economic motives for the Fair of 1884 are inextricably linked to racial oppression. If we understand the racial motivations behind the Fair, we can understand how Black Americans, and specifically Black women, presented exhibits to resist the white American construct of Black people as inferior to create their own narrative and pave the way for future work towards Black liberation and women’s liberation. To introduce white American motives, which I discuss further in my third section, I will analyze predominantly white news articles, “The Southern Ex-Position A Show Which Is Intended To Eclipse That Of 1876,” originally from New York’s The Sun, republished in the Washington Bee and “Twenty Years’ Progress,” originally from the National Republican, republished in the Huntsville Gazette.

The article from The Sun alleges, “The primary object of the exposition is to educate the people, and this will be kept constantly in view.” Supposedly, the main objective of the Fair was to educate people through exhibitions from across the globe. However, this same article states, “The Southern Exposition…is the outgrowth of an idea that originated in 1879, when the Mississippi Cotton Planters’ association was organized with a view to meet the desperate state of things then threatening the planting interest by the proposed exodus of the colored population and the apparent necessity for replacing the old methods of raising cotton by new methods and labor-saving machinery.”

Rather than education, the original objective of the World’s Fair may have been to save the Southern economy as it was threatened by the end of enslavement and Black Americans’ migration out of the South. The Mississippi Cotton Planters’ association, having lost enslaved people as a major labor source, needed a new solution. Already, we see the inherent link between American capitalism and the oppression of Black people. The New Orleans’ World Fair of 1884, disguised as a celebration of the success of America, became the solution to what was the loss of enslaved people as a labor source. When considered with “Twenty Years’ Progress” from the National Republican, the capitalist economic objectives of the Fair become clear.

The National Republican was a paper started in support of the Republican party, the party which supported Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Ostensibly, the paper would thus espouse similar views to Black Americans on topics such as the separation of departments. However, with consideration that Lincoln only supported abolition with aims to reconcile the North and the South, this article is one of many which supports Black men’s ‘progress’ only in relation to the economy while excluding Black women other than in references to ‘colored people.’

The National Republican article states, “The World’s Fair will afford the colored people the best chance they have ever enjoyed of showing the progress of their race in America since the emancipation proclamation and the arms of the union soldiers made them free.

A department will be set apart for the exclusive use of the colored people, and they are invited and urged to make the best of their opportunity.” The article suggests a display of the progress made by Black people since emancipation as the main reason Black Americans should exhibit at the Fair. It also claims Black Americans should be thankful for the separate department, that they should ‘make the best of their opportunity’ with a silent ‘because it could be the only one you get’ seeming to linger at the end of the sentence. This is especially true in hindsight, because Jim Crow laws were put into effect shortly after the New Orleans Fair. The article states, “The colored people cannot expect to do everything at once…They have only been in the race on even terms with their Caucasian brethren for 20 years. They have made wonderful advancements in that time…There are colored men in every profession and pursuit of life.” In other words, Black Americans have only been allowed freedom for twenty years, so they have not yet reached the same level as white people. For proof they have made ‘wonderful advancements,’ the article seems to say, consider that Black men are allowed to have jobs now. Although I may sound glib, I mean to elucidate the underlying economic motives for the Fair as inseparable from racism even when intentions seem well-meaning. First, this article quantifies Black progress by relating Black progress to white progress; to reiterate, when Black Americans are allowed the same freedoms as white Americans, they may be able to achieve the same success.

Then, the article claims, “They are producers wherever they find a habitation. They are workers, and they should make an exhibit of the product of their toil that will reflect credit not only on the colored people as a race, but upon the country…Hundreds of useful inventions have been given to the world by colored men. They are developing a genius in that direction” (“Twenty Years Progress”). Here the article quantifies progress as an ability to be producers, workers, and inventors of works which are beneficial to the country. In short, Black Americans should exhibit at the Fair to prove that they are as useful to the American capitalist economy while free as they were while enslaved. In other words, freed Black Americans must prove their economic worth to white Americans.

The article writes, “They are a growing people–growing in power, in independence, in wealth, and in everything that tends to useful citizenship.” Because Black Americans were free, they could attain more power, independence, and wealth, all of which allowed them to be ‘useful citizens,’ or producers for the American economy. When we read these papers closely, we see not education, but an opportunity to bolster America’s capitalist economy as the objective of the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884. Seemingly, Black Americans were a chess piece used by white Americans to win the game of American capitalism. Rather than enslaved products themselves, Black Americans had to prove their ability to be producers of goods. I will discuss this further in my third section in which I analyze the economic situation in the South and Black Americans’ criticism of their participation in a Fair which separates departments by race.

While one of these articles refers to Black men specifically, both follow suit of other newspapers in their lack of discussion about the exclusion of Black women from the Women’s Department. In my second section, I discuss why Black women may have asked to exhibit with the Women’s Department, the negative effects of their exclusion, and the positive effects the Women’s Department could have created had Black women been able to exhibit with them. I will use Black Feminism as an anachronistic category to contend that the Black women who exhibited with the Colored Department adhered to contemporary Black Feminism through their organizing efforts. In arguing Black women at the Fair adhered to contemporary Black Feminism, I will recover and historicize the long tradition of Black women organizing to fight for their liberation from both racism and sexism. 

I speculate that Black women may have asked to be a part of the Women’s Department in an early act of intersectional feminism. If they were to be included in the Women’s Department, the Women’s Department would have been able to further deconstruct racist constructs of Black women as inherently lascivious, as discussed by Sadiya Hartman in “Seductions and the Ruses of Power,” and as intellectually inferior, as discussed by Akasha (Gloria) T. Hull and Barbara Smith in the introduction to All the Men are Black; All the Women are White; but Some of Us are Brave. Black women exhibitors did deconstruct these notions through their exhibition with the Colored Department. However, simultaneously, the Women’s Department and their director, Julia Ward Howe, perpetuated the construct of femininity as white by excluding Black women. Through an examination of scholarly discourse about the Fair and the Women’s Department, I will discuss how Black women did deconstruct racist constructs of themselves by exhibiting; however, I contend that those deconstructions would have been more effective had Julia Ward Howe worked to include Black women in the Women’s Department.

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Suggested Readings:

The Non-Innocence of Recovery and the 1884 World’s Fair

Introduction to Pageantry and Performance

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

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