Early Chicago: The 1893 World's Fair

For African American leaders, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, popularly known as the "World's Fair," seemed the perfect opportunity to exhibit the contributions, achievements, and racial progress of African Americans in the nearly 30 years since the end of slavery.

While Exposition organizers planned an immense, broad-sweeping attraction that would dazzle fairgoers with the achievements of many nations (with an emphasis on American accomplishments), they refused to give African Americans a voice in the development of the fair. Blacks were allowed to participate as low-level workers, performers, speakers, and, of course, paying guests, but white organizers kept them from any meaningful positions of influence or authority.

Social reformers Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnett wrote a protest pamphlet intended for distribution at the fair in multiple languages: The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. The pamphlet was written to make international visitors aware of both the achievements of blacks since emancipation and the difficult and dangerous conditions they continued to face after slavery. The Haitian government allowed protestors to use their building which assured that the pamphlet was distributed to park guests. Unfortunately, it was only printed in English due to limited funding.

African Americans were best represented at the open forums sponsored by the World's Congress Auxiliary of the Chicago's World's Fair where several blacks were invited as speakers. A diversity of issues ranging from medicine to moral and social reforms were raised at the forums. These speeches were well attended and received. But despite the intelligence and eloquence of the orators, fairgoers were mainly exposed to racist and dehumanizing stereotypes. The Exposition's exhibits generally characterized people of color as primitives, or worse.