Chicago has played host to many expositions in the city’s history — perhaps most notably to the Columbian Exposition, often called the World’s Fair of 1893. In what is now known as Jackson Park, the sprawling fairgrounds, called the “White City,” were famously lit at night by incandescent lamps.
The purpose of such fairs was to show innovation, achievement and imagination.
“I call them cities in miniature,” said Mabel Wilson, architectural designer and professor at Columbia University. “Because they were spaces where people would come and see the future and imagine what they could be.”“But the problem was, Black Americans … could not be visible in the present and the past,” she said.
Black people could pay to attend the 1893 World’s Fair, but as far as any other kind of participation, they could only work service jobs. The fair’s organizers didn’t approve any of the proposals for participation submitted by Black Americans.
Borne out of the lack of accurate representation at events like the World’s Fair, Black organizers took it upon themselves to create expositions that presented Black history, Black achievement and Black innovation.
Chicago was home to an extremely important one: the 1940 American Negro Exposition.
A Curious City listener asked what the 1940 exposition was and what role it played in the city’s history.
The answer contains the DNA of places like the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. Before there were museums and institutions dedicated to displaying Black achievement, there were events like the 1940 American Negro Exposition that helped pave the way for archiving and preserving Black excellence.
Invisible past, present and future
Instead of a place to display their achievement, the 1893 World’s Fair became a place of protest for Black Americans. It required them to think creatively about how they could use this international stage to showcase the hypocrisy of their exclusion.
“So Black Americans had to think about, ‘Well, how could we co-op these spaces and use them for our own interest?’” Wilson said. “And that was true in the fair, in Chicago in 1893, with the Haiti Pavilion.”
Dozens of nations participated in the fair with cultural exhibits, including Haiti, an independent country. Its pavilion famously became the home base of activist and former U.S. minister to Haiti Frederick Douglass. He enlisted journalist Ida B. Wells, educator Irvine Garland Penn and attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett to write and distribute their pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.
In it, Barnett wrote, “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.”
In response, the organizers of the fair created a so-called “Colored Day,” at which
Black people could speak. There, Douglass delivered a moving speech criticizing what was often referred to by white people at the time as “the Negro problem.”
“The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution,” he said.
Yet, this unfair treatment continued. In 1933, when the city hosted the Century of Progress Exposition, Black folks were still largely ignored. While there was a replica of Haitian American John Baptiste DuSable’s cabin included in one exhibit, the majority of exhibits that included Black people made fun of them and pushed false and harmful stereotypes.
The treatment of Black Americans at the city-hosted world’s fairs directly led to Black folks in Chicago creating their own grand exposition. They envisioned it as something that would draw people from across the country and would center on Black innovation and authentic representation of Black people.
James Washington was a Chicago real estate developer who got the Exposition started. According to the Chicago Defender, he devoted five years and traveled 100,000 miles around the country to promote the project. He lobbied to raise $150,000 in state and federal money to help fund the event.
“What was interesting about this particular exposition is that you start to see the rise of Black popular culture and mass culture,” Wilson said. “And you see this very interesting collaboration between a kind of Black business class, people who are running insurance companies and newspapers, people who had a certain kind of social standing in Black communities, and a group of intellectuals and artists who are much more radical.”
There had been smaller celebrations of Black achievement before, many of which were held in Chicago. But the American Negro Exposition of 1940 was billed as the “first real Negro World’s Fair in all history” to celebrate 75 years since the end of slavery.Government officials of all levels supported it, from Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly all the way to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt himself pressed a button from his home in New York to turn on the lights at the Chicago Coliseum, where the exposition was located, launching the start of the two-month event.
The American Negro Exposition ran from Independence Day to Labor Day 1940 at the Coliseum, an arena-sized venue that could hold several thousands of people.
The exposition’s guide book said the event would “promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world on the contributions of the Negro to civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”
There were performances like the “Tropics After Dark,” a musical revue the Chicago Defender said featured night club favorites and was written by famous Chicago and Harlem Renaissance period writers Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes.
Artists like Archibald Motley, who was known as a jazz age modernist painter, were commissioned to create work that was specific to Black representation. The organizers’ goal was to create the most comprehensive collection of Black art that had ever been presented. And as a representative of Illinois, Motley’s contribution was a painting of Chicago’s Black Belt neighborhood.
A legacy on display
When attendees walked into the exposition at its central entrance, they were met with the Court of Dioramas. Thirty-three dioramas surrounded a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. Artist Charles Dawson designed the space and each individual diorama to “illustrate the Negro’s large and valuable contributions to the progress of America and the world.”
The diorama’s themes ranged from significant historical achievements in Africa, such as the building of the Great Sphinx of Giza, to recent Black stories in America — for example, the Harlem Hellfighters in the early 1900s.
“[The dioramas] were really the capstone of that exhibition,” said LaStarsha McGarity, the conservator and co-director of the Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University. “And they represented the first time that Black people had control of their image at that type of event. So they decided to use this opportunity to highlight the global historical contributions of Black people.”The Legacy Museum now has 20 dioramas on display. Dawson, along with exposition trustee Claude Barnett, were alumni of Tuskegee and gifted them to the university. However, they were in poor condition, and it took much work and care to restore each one. McGarity said it’s likely the remaining 13 are lost or destroyed.
“I think it’s really important to know that [these dioramas] were created by an entire group of artists that were working in collaboration and that they were created specifically for that expo,” she said. “And that was very common for things created for an expo to not be kept. They were considered ephemeral. So after an expo, it was very common for them to be destroyed or thrown away.”
Even the beautiful murals, paintings and sculptures that were created by many of the most famous Black artists of the time had no formal place to go after the exposition. Art was given to churches, to schools and even to the homes of the artists’ friends to add to their private collections. Painter William Edouard Scott, for example, created large murals for the event. But much of these installation pieces are now in private homes.
“The Black events aren’t as well documented, mostly because they didn’t have the infrastructure to do that work,” Wilson, of Columbia, said. “Things that were being exhibited and collected weren’t going to go into major museums … And because of that, it can make it very difficult to find the narratives.”
Even without the institutions at the time, Black celebrations through expositions around the country continued to be an important part of documenting Black life. But this would soon start to change. Artist Margaret Burroughs pulled together a collective of Black artists to create the South Side Community Arts Center in 1940 — the same year as the Negro Exposition.She explained the artists came together because they had no place to exhibit their work. They opened the center’s doors that December, just months after the exposition wrapped, creating a space of their own that would no longer be temporary. Its inaugural exhibition included work from artists like Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Margaret Burroughs herself and so many more.
This work was all part of celebrating and commemorating Black history, and Burroughs continued that mission when she co-founded the DuSable Museum in 1961. Perri Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Museum, says that’s something we can’t lose sight of today.
“We have a particular responsibility to advocate for Black history, when we have states in this country who are trying to limit what people can learn, to limit curricula, to censor and ban books about Black history and by Black authors,” Irmer said. “We can’t be erased, we just can’t be.”
Arionne Nettles is a university lecturer, culture reporter, and audio aficionado. She is the author of We Are the Culture: Black Chicago’s Influence on Everything. Follow her @arionnenettles.