Exclusion at the New Orleans World’s Fair

Barrier’s portraiture art continued to improve through the years and receive gallery recognition. She would have the opportunity to exhibit her works at the 1884-85 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans. Black women were excluded from the Woman’s Department at the fair, so Barrier’s art would have been displayed at the Colored Department exhibit. “Women of color who originally wished to show with their gender, instead exhibited with their “race” in the Colored Department, the first such space offered to people of color at a world’s fair.  Women of color faced additional challenges by being twice removed (Pfeffer, 6). Julia Ward Howe, a well-known aristocratic white woman was chosen with distinction to lead the Woman’s Department of the fair. She kept a journal throughout her years of preparation and implementation of the department and noted in the journal after meeting with the Colored Ladies Exposition Association representatives that she would attempt to help them find a suitable location for their displays somewhat insinuating that they might be included with the white women. Ultimately the white supremacist women exercised hegemony and overruled the Black women’s request. “But the southern white ladies 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 (Deegan, 107-108). (Link to map)

Barrier’s artwork exhibited at the World’s Fair was recognized and reported on in national publications.  According to Mrs. N.F. Mossell, (Link to James M) “At the New Orleans Exposition some years ago her pieces on exhibition were the theme of many favorable criticisms by visiting artists (Deegan 127). The Washington Bee described the ladies at the fair as, “There is a decidedly local feeling here among the ladies, favorable to the picture of Gov. Pinchback, executed in crayon by Miss Fannie Barrier, of your city, as against that of Supt. Cook, executed by Miss Ada Hand, also of Washington.  Our girls declare that the work of Miss Barrier is far superior to that of Miss Hand, and in the matter of subject they are equally positive in asserting that Gov. Pinchback, excels in manly beauty. The former looks every inch the man, while the latter has a conceited, selfish appearance which destroys manliness.”  The Times Democrat of New Orleans described Barrier’s work as, “Then the work of Miss Fanny Barrier, a public-school teacher of Washington. It will be seen upon examination that Miss Barrier has marked talent. She has a good number of exhibits of various styles of work. She has had superior advantages in art schools it was learned, and whether or not, she must have had a certain degree of native talent” (The Times-Democrat). (Link to Renee)

The Times-Democrat went on to describe some specific works of art by Barrier. “She has a head in oil, a cluster of bright autumn leaves upon a gold plaque. This is a little gem in oil. The head of a girl, which is skillfully hammered, clear in details, making a bold profile and mounted in plush. Upon a satin banner with a near sky, a girl sits in easy attitude upon a knoll of the ground, which is covered with grass, dotted here and there with white daisies, a handful of which also has just gathered and sat down to arrange. Her dress is in happy contrast to the green and blue, of harmonizing shades in the sky and foreground. It is of bright red which warms the picture. A low muslin bodice with embroidery frill is loosely hung about her waist, the armlet band merely clasped over her shapely arm. The landscape looks quiet and absorbed, as though not to disturb the brown study of the maiden fair.” (The Times Democrat)

Interestingly, all women, Black and white, faced exclusion at the New Orleans World’s Fair when it came to the necessities of life – bathrooms. As Miki Pfeffer, author of Southern Ladies and Suffragists explained on page 80, “Inadequate ‘Closet accommodations’ caused thousands of women ‘untold embarrassment and inconvenience.’ It was inconceivable that there were no toilets in the Government and States Building, which held the Women’s Department, Colored Department and Educational Department, where so many female teachersexhibited. Women were ‘absolutely suffering,’ the Picayune declared. Women demanded ‘better accommodations and politeness, justice and humanity” (Pfeffer, 81).Could the intersection of race, gender, and common decency for women in providing bathrooms have contributed to Barrier Williams future career of seeking justice and equality for one and all?

Leaders of future World’s Fairs would make note of the success of the Colored Department at the New Orleans fair to encourage Black participation and international recognition that would have a lasting impact on race relations. But Jim Crow lurked just beyond this brief moment in late-nineteenth-century New Orleans. The rigid laws of the 1890s halted the trajectory. Blacks rallied together at the fair to likely discuss important issues of the day such as economic and political equality, educating Black children and the memories of slavery. Through their participation in the Colored Department at the Cotton Centennial in 1884-1885, African Americans legitimized their competence and their identity. “Although the words of one speaker at opening day did not come to pass that in the future ‘we shall know no North, no South, no East, no West, no white, no Black,’ working together did foster racial pride and personal power to a remarkable degree during the precarious transition between Reconstruction and Jim Crow (Pfeffer 442-462).

August Straker, one of the Black leaders and dean of the South Carolina’s Allen University law school, called the opening of the Colored Department “commencement day of the colored American citizen”(Times-Democrat).  African Americans participated together on Louisiana Day at the fair. A colored clergyman who spoke for his people expressed throughout his discourse a hope of progress. The next World’s Fair to be held in Chicago was reported to have taken a step backwards. In fact, African American accomplishments weren’t featured in the White City at all. Thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the remarkable postbellum achievements of slavery’s survivors were all but erased from the story of America. Among 65,000 exhibits, only a few tokens of African American art and invention were grudgingly included (Massa 319-339).