The Color Proof Fair

This is the final paper for my racial patterns of urbanization class. I was inspired to write this paper for a few reasons. 1) I used to live in Chicago so I was familiar with the geography/landscape. 2) I really enjoyed reading Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. 3) History needs to be more accurate and honest.


The Color Proof Fair


The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) was advertised as an event where “All the World is Here!” The Chicago World’s Fair was an “effort by America ’s leaders to define social reality” (Rydell, 1984, p. 39). “At the behest of several of Chicago’s well-heeled industrial entrepreneurs, and flush with congressional appropriations, the architect Daniel Burnham and the urban planner Frederick L. Olmsted collaborated to produce the White City, a dreamlike vision on the banks of Lake Michigan” (Ardis & Lewis, 2003, p. 189).” Dubbed “the White City ” due to the color of the Exposition facilities, the Chicago World’s Fair was indeed a mostly white event.

“Some twenty million Americans visited the 1893 fair, dividing their time between the main exhibition buildings, the so-called White City, and the Midway Plaisance” (Rydell, 1999, p. xii). According to Rydell (1999), “the World’s Columbian Exposition was held to commemorate the 400 th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in the New World and was designed to advance the causes of American nationalism, imperialism, and consumerism” (p. xi).

Unfortunately, American nationalism at that time was formulated around a system of white supremacy. It is ironic that a cultural spectacle of this magnitude occurred twenty-eight years after the end of the Civil War. Slavery was abolished, however, racism was rampant in 19 th century Chicago . Rydell (1999) states that “African Americans were denied a voice in the fair’s creation and most African-American Exhibits had to be approved by all-white screening committee before they were accepted for display” (p. xiii).

The “ White City ” was constructed by whites for whites. “Theoretically open to all Americans, the Exposition practically is, literally and figuratively, a ‘White City,’ in the building of which the Colored American was allowed no helping hand, and in its glorious success he has no share” (Wells, Douglass, Penn, & Barnett, 1893, p. 79). According to Rydell (1984), the White City was looked at by many white middle-class contemporaries as “a manifestation of what was good in American life and as an ennobling vision Americans should strive to effectuate” (p. 40).

Fortunately, a decent amount of documentation exists which tells the story of the African-American experience (as well as other peoples of color) at the Chicago World’s Fair. Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett created a pamphlet entitled The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to Reed (2000), “the pamphlet represented a new level of rejection of [white] American racism” (p. xi).

In this paper I will provide a brief national context of race, a summary regarding the environment of the host city ( Chicago ), and a third section concerning the Columbian Exposition. I have been fortunate in that my literary searches have proven to be extremely fruitful. In fact, I was able to obtain a copy of the actual pamphlet from 1893!

National Context

Plans for the Chicago World’s Fair were announced in 1890. Prior to the Chicago World’s Fair, “the United States had held two world fairs: the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the 1884-85 New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition” (Rydell, 1999, p. xv). According to Rydell (1999), “both had demeaned African Americans…reducing them to second-class citizens” (p. xv). At the Philadelphia fair, African Americans were not allowed to hold construction jobs and were “withheld from formal participation in the fair” (Rydell, 1999, p. xv). Even the national spokesperson for African Americans, Frederick Douglass, was almost barred from sitting in the speakers’ stand (Rydell, 1999).

The exclusionary tactics were equally racist at the New Orleans exposition. African American Exhibits were included but were organized into segregated “Colored Departments” (Rydell, 1999). According to Rydell (1999), “as they looked forward to the Chicago fair, African Americans determined to improve their treatment at America’s earlier fairs, to press for inclusion, and to insist on equal treatment with white exhibitors” (p. xvi).

In chapter 1 of Reed’s (2000) treatise on the Black presence at the Chicago World’s Fair he describes four distinct viewpoints regarding the fair from the national African American Community. According to Reed (2000), there were “disparate sets of expectations, aspirations, hopes, and fears…on what the fair represented, each reflecting particular experiences and leaving an indelible imprint on its constituents and on the shape of the event” (p. 1).

The first set “originated from the ranks of the middling and elite classes, especially from the northern states, who comprised the Talented Tenth” (Reed, 2000, p. 2). This group of power brokers viewed the fair as a springboard “in which they could demonstrate their recent educational achievement as they participated with whites in decision-making” (Reed, 2000, p. 2).

Unfortunately, this set came up against the racist ideology of the day. According to Reed (2000):

Their quest for involvement in the administration and operations of the fairpitted African American against Caucasians who wanted absolute control based on what they perceived as a manifesting racial birthright. Their interest rested on the acquisition of civic spoils related to the attainments of economic class and those of gender interests (p. 2).

Another set of African Americans who were interested in the Chicago World’s Fair were the “demographically dominant laboring class, especially that segment found in Chicago ” (Reed, 2000, p. 2). To this group, the fair offered the potential for tremendous amounts of employment.

In the South, a group of African American “middling and elite leadership sought salutary representation of their race” (Reed, 2000, p. 2). This set wanted “exhibits that demonstrated the rising level of African American intellectual competence since emancipation” (Reed, 2000, p. 2). According to Reed (2000), “exhibits, either included in larger demonstrations of progress or presented separately, would notably proved African American advancement in the arts, letters, and crafts” (p. 2).

The last set of African Americans “wanted to visit Chicago and enjoy the scientific and cultural wonders of the fair” (Reed, 2000, p. 2). This set specifically wanted to see “not only what America has done for the Negro, but what the Negro has done for himself” (Wells et al., 1893, p. 64).

Race, Class, and Gender

Almost 30 years after the Civil War ended, the identities of African Americans in the United States were extremely complex (Reed, 2000). “At various levels, the very nature of the African Americans’ being, race, culture, social grade (or class), gender, ideology, and politics intersected, sometimes in a most convoluted fashion” (Reed, 2000, p. 37).

According to Reed (2000), two national identities began to emerge for African Americans. Reed (2000) states that “in dramatic contrast, however important the influence of core black culture was on the many, a sentiment toward a countervailing national identity as Americans, or Colored Americans, grew stronger…” (p. 41). W. E. B. Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk described this “racial duality” which “fit the experiences of the ultra-assimilationist elite perfectly” (Reed, 2000, p. 41). “The African American, according to Du Bois, was aware that he was both a Negro and an American” (Reed, 2000, p. 41).

Reed (2000) describes the members of the African American upper class as being assimilationists who prepared for “entry into respectable WASP society, even as token representatives of their group…[and] worshipped at predominantly white [churches]…[as well as living] near predominantly wealthy, and white” (p. 45). According to Reed (2000):

The views of this elite on racial identity revolved primarily around the question of how closely its members would align with or distance themselves from the sentiments associated with the majority of persons of African descent. The elite deviated by choice from the derivative African-and-southern-based cultural practices and heritage that comprised Afro-American Culture. Like many persons of color in color-conscious America , the elite’s concern with skin color bordered on obsessive (p. 45).

Gender was also crucial to the context of the World’s Fair. According to Appelbaum (1980), “there had been a separate women’s pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 and at the New Orleans Cotton Centenary of 1884, but they could not begin to compare in significance with Chicago’s contribution to feminism” (p. 62). Appelbaum’s view regarding feminism is probably justified considering the feminism of the period. However, I think it would be historically prudent to include a view that includes the fact that this form of feminism was a rich, white women’s movement. It did not include women of color. Appelbaum (1980) states that “the great champion of women’s rights Susan B. Anthony…played a large role in planning the Exposition’s Woman’s Department” (p. 69). Unfortunately, Anthony was a champion primarily for white women’s rights and her feminism did not include all women. White women who were wealthy, such as Bertha Palmer were instrumental in planning the Exposition. Conversely, Black women were marginalized as evidenced by Ida B. Wells’ pamphlet.

African Americans and Chicago

According to Reed (2000), “on the eve of the fair, black Chicago proved itself incapable of assuming many ideological postures as it sought advancement” (p. 48). Racial consciousness constructed from racial solidarity and racial pride shaped the world view of Chicago ’s African Americans (Reed, 2000). “While in the world of the Afro-Saxon elite WASP hegemony dictated respect and emulation, in the world of the African American rank and file the wrongdoing and foibles of whites were all too well known to make anything but a negative impression” (Reed, 2000, p. 49).

According to Reed (2000), “with the dawn of freedom in 1865, nearly three decades before the opening of the fair in Chicago, the African American population consisted of about 3,000 working class persons locked in the grip of uncertainty as to their future” (p. 55). During this time, Chicago and the nation “were in the midst of a financial, technological, and machine revolution” (Reed, 2000, p. 50). African Americans worked as builders but not as principle builders for the Chicago World’s Fair. In fact, “it had been determined that no colored man should be employed on the force of the Columbian Guards and that determination was not to be varied” (Wells et al., 1893, p. 79). According to Barnett (1893), “in consideration of the color proof character of the Exposition Management it was the refinement of irony to set aside August 25th to be observed as ‘Colored People’s Day’” (as cited in Wells et al., 1893, p. 80). “In this wonderful hive of National industry, representing an outlay of thirty million dollars, and numbering its employees by the thousands, only two colored persons could be found whose occupations were of a higher grade than that of janitor, laborer and porter, and these two only clerkships” (Wells et al., 1893, p. 80).

World’s Columbian Exposition

The World’s Columbian Exposition was not built upon principles of inclusion. According to Rydell (1999), “an early indication that the politics of exclusion would shape the World’s Columbian Exposition came when President Benjamin Harrison…constituted the U.S. National Commission to work with local Chicago business and political leaders in organizing the event” (p. xvi). The President appointed commissioners for every state and territory. Although there were almost eight million African Americans, none were appointed to serve as commissioners (Rydell, 1999). Rydell (1999) states that “the African American press denounced the ‘simon pure and lily white’ character of the commission” (p. xvi). In what can only be labeled as an exercise in tokenism, Harrison appoints an African American man as an “alternate commissioner.” African American men were denied the opportunity to influence the policies and decisions of the World’s Fair.

Conversely, “recognizing the growing power of women’s organizations within American society, and building on the strong representation of women in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, which included the first ‘Woman’s Building,’ the Commission appointed a Board of Lady Managers” (Shaughnessy, 1997, ¶. 3). Ardis & Lewis (2003) state that, “even on this most promising of avenues, then, white administrators devised an excuse for excluding African Americans, all the while maintaining a pretense of liberality” (p. 191). African-American women in an act of solidarity drafted a proposal for a separate Black women’s exhibit and for a representative on the Board of Lady Managers (Rydell, 1999). According to Rydell (1999):

These proposals ran into two difficulties. First, the mostly affluent and all-white Board of Lady Managers, led by Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of the Chicago real estate tycoon and hotelier Potter Palmer, proved to be unsympathetic to appeals from African-American women. Second, African-American women became increasingly divided among themselves about the wisdom of a separate exhibit (p. xvii).

Unfortunately, a white woman was appointed to “solicit Black women’s exhibits” (Shaughnessy, 1997, ¶. 6). This was quickly rejected by the majority of African Americans (Shaughnessy, 1997). The white women of Chicago ’s “elite” class tried to appease Chicago African Americans. According to Shaughnessy (1997):

Fannie Barrier Williams, whose elite status within the Chicago Black community recommended her to white supporters, was given a clerical position. The question of whether Black women would be represented by Black women was thereby settled in the affirmative, but Black women continued to protest because Williams was not part of the group that had been struggling to achieve Black women’s representation (¶.7).

Eventually, “Hallie Q. Brown, Principal of Women at Tuskegee Institute” was appointed to a “clerical position in the Fair’s Department of Publicity and Promotion” (Shaughnessy, 1997, ¶.8). Brown determined that the neither the (Men’s) Commission nor the Board of Lady Managers were “trying to include exhibits by African Americans…[and that their actions were] an attempt to gloss over their exclusionary actions” (Shaughnessy, 1997, ¶.8).

African-Americans were split on the idea of seemingly “separate but equal” fair exhibits (Rydell, 1999). Some, believed that a “separate African-American exhibit would replicate the success of the Colored Department at the New Orleans exposition” (Rydell, 1999, p. xvii). However, others believed that the acceptance of segregated situations implied that African-Americans endorsed such a policy (Rydell, 1999). Rydell (1999) states that “Ferdinand L. Barnett, editor of the Conservator, Chicago’s lone local African-American newspaper, insisted on integrating Blacks’ and whites’ exhibits to show ‘we are American citizens and desire to draw no line that would tend to make us strangers in the land of our birth (p. xviii).

There were only a few African-Americans who participated in exhibitions at the Chicago World’s Fair. African-American exhibitors included: Edmonia Lewis, George Washington Carver, Joan Imogen Howard, as well as several African-American colleges (Rydell, 1999).

Many African-Americans distrusted the white exposition leaders, and rightly so. According to Rydell (1999), “there was, of course, an enormous risk associated with this…namely, that whites would proceed to represent African Americans in derogatory ways intended to support the rule of white supremacy at the fair and in American society more generally” (p. xix). It became clear that some whites were proponents of white supremacy. Rydell (1999) states that the “R. T. Davis Milling Company…persuaded Nancy Green, a fifty-seven-year-old former slave and long-time servant for a Chicago judge, to become a living advertisement at the fair for the company’s self-rising Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix” (p. xix). The rampant racism of the fair was in full display in the form of a stereotypical image of “exactly the kind of role exposition directors imagined for African Americans in their dazzling White City ” (Rydell, 1999, xix). Aunt Jemima was an “emblem of a fair that made the promise of easier living for whites in America ’s future contingent on blacks remaining in a subordinate position in U.S. society” (Rydell, 1999, xx).

The Midway

“The Chicago world’s fair, generally recognized for its contributions to urban planning, beaux-arts architecture, and institutions of the arts and sciences, just as importantly introduced millions of fairgoers to evolutionary ideas about race – ideas that were presented in a utopian context…” (Rydell, 1984, p. 40-41). The Chicago World’s Fair consisted of two primary areas: the White City and the Midway Plaisance. According to Rydell (1984), “the Midway provided visitors with ethnological, scientific sanction for the American view of the nonwhite world as barbaric and childlike and gave a scientific basis to the racial blueprint for building a utopia” (p. 40). According to Gonzalez:

[Cultural exhibitions] could be categorized into two groups: the first was a stereotypical parody of a culture, a sort of caricature of the host country it represented, displayed as little more than a side show. This was especially true for cultures that were generally the subject of bias and underrepresented to begin with. There was a Dahomey village from ‘darkest Africa ’ which showed the ‘cannibal tribe’. Indian ‘chiefs’ and ‘braves’ in feathered headdresses also were put on show, set into an environment of teepees and wigwams. The second category of international display was a bit more realistic and at least as legitimate as one could get at the Midway. These included the German beer halls, the noisy Egyptian bazaars, the controversial Algerian belly dancers, and the World Congress of Beauties, which showed representatives of forty countries in national attire (¶. 4).


Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass

The racist principles, actions, and messages of the World’s Columbian Exposition were challenged by several members of the African-American community, primarily, Ida B. Wells, and Frederick Douglass. Wells was a civil rights activist who crusaded against the lynching of Black men in the South (Rydell, 1999).

When Wells returned to the U.S. in May of 1893, she “walked into…[a] nationwide controversy over race and racism [in the form of the] World’s Columbian Exposition” (Schechter, 2001, p. 94). Douglass and Wells came up with an idea for a pamphlet that would challenge the racism of the Chicago World’s Fair (Schechter, 2001). According to Wells, “we had decided…that a book should be published and circulated” (as cited in Duster, 1970, p. 116). Initially, Wells and Douglass had hoped to publish the pamphlet in “foreign languages” to inform the “rest of the world of the travails of Black Americans in both North and South” (Rydell, 1984, p. 52). Unfortunately, a lack of funds forced Douglass and Wells to publish the pamphlet in English with prefaces in German and French (Rydell, 1984). The pamphlet consists of the following sections:

  • Preface (To the Seeker After Truth) by Ida B. Wells
  • Introduction by Frederick Douglass
  • Class Legislation by Ida B, Wells
  • The Convict Lease System by Ida B. Wells
  • Lynch Law by Ida B. Wells
  • The Progress Of The Afro-American Since Emancipation by Irvine Garland Penn
  • The Reason Why by Ferdinand L. Barnett
  • To the Public by Ida B. Wells


In his introductory chapter, Douglass refers to the World’s Columbian Exposition as a “white sepulcher” (Wells et al., 1893, p. 4). Douglass was the only appointed African American representative in the World’s Columbian Exposition (Duster, 1970). He was not representing the U.S. Instead, Douglass was chosen be the delegate for Haiti (Douglass had been the U.S. Minister to Haiti from 1889 – 1891) (Rydell, 1984 and Rydell, 1999). According to Ferdinand Barnett “that republic chose Frederick Douglass to represent it as Commissioner through which courtesy the Colored American received from a foreign power the place denied to him at home” (Wells et al., 1893, p. 81).


The White City was an example of the pervasiveness of 19 th century white supremacy. The overtness of the racism that occurred during the World’s Columbian is a wild ride of irony. The Chicago World’s Fair celebrated Christopher Columbus as the “discoverer” of America while simultaneously oppressing and marginalizing people of color. According to Rydell (1999), “the racism at the World’s Columbian Exposition mirrored, framed, and reinforced the larger horrors confronting Blacks throughout the United States where white supremacy mean segregation, second-class citizenship, and sometimes lynching” (p. xli). I think that the best way to close my paper is with the closing paragraph of Ferdinand L. Barnett:

The World’s Columbian Exposition draws to a close and that which has been done is without remedy. The colored people have no vindictiveness actuating them in this presentation of their side of this question, our only desire being to tell the reason why we have no part nor lot in the Exposition. Our failure to be represented is not of our own working and we can only hope that the spirit of freedom and fair play of which some Americans so loudly boast, will so inspire the Nation that in another great National endeavor the Colored American shall not plead for a place in vain (Wells et al., 1893, p. 81).

Barnett’s words resonate with a sense of hope and social justice. The urban landscape of Chicago in 1893 was a portrait of racism. Today’s Chicago is extremely diverse. According to the 2000 Illinois Census, more than 36% of the city is African American.




Ardis, A. L., & Lewis, L. W. (Ed.). (2003). Women’s experience of modernity, 1875 – 1945. Baltimore , MD : The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Duster, A. M. (1970). Crusade for justice: The autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago , IL : The University of Chicago Press.

Gonzalez, R. (2001). Chicago 1893: Midway. Retrieved June 6, 2006 , from Chicago 1893 Web site:

Illinois (2000). State of Illinois : Illinois Census 2000. Retrieved June 8, 2006 , from State of Illinois : Illinois Census 2000 Web site: &towns=14000

Reed, C. R. (2000). All the world is here! The black presence at white city. Bloomington , IN : Indiana University Press.

Rydell, R. W. (1984). All the world’s a fair. Chicago , IL : The University of Chicago Press.

Rydell, R. W. (Ed.). (1999). The reason why the colored american is not in the world’s columbian exposition: The afro-american’s contribution to columbian literature. Urbana , IL : University of Illinois Press.

Schechter, P. A. (2001). Ida b. wells-barnett and american reform, 1880 – 1930. Chapel Hill , NC : The University of North Carolina Press.

Shaughnessy, E (1997). How did african-american women define their citizenship at the chicago world’s fair in 1893?. Retrieved June 5, 2006 , from African-American Women and the Chicago World’s Fair Web site:

Wells, I. B., Douglass, F., Penn, I. G., & Barnett, F. L. (1893). The reason why the colored american is not in the world’s columbian exposition: The afro- american’s contribution to columbian literature. Chicago , IL : Published Independently by Ida B. Wells (An online version can be found at: