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“The Negro Exhibit” at the Pan-Am

By Sarah Ruth Offhaus:

This article is the second in a series devoted to introducing readers to Buffalo’s place in the early history of the Civil Rights movement.  Click here to read the first story on Buffalo’s Phyllis Wheatley Club, and check back in the coming weeks for the third installment on the Niagara Movement…

 In 1900, the Paris Exposition caught the attention of the entire world.  This massive fair showcased the achievements and technological advances that occurred in the 19th century, alongside possibilities to come.  Countries from around the world represented themselves via art, theatre, and exhibits of handicrafts.  In an unprecedented move, the United States represented a portion of its populace that had long been overlooked.  Our country’s submission, entitled “The Negro Exhibit”, showcased the many literary, social, scientific and overall achievements that African Americans had accomplished in the decades after emancipation, along with statistics regarding their daily lives.

 Created by a number of individuals, most notably W.E.B. Dubois, hundreds of photographs documented African Americans and the country they inhabited.  Portraits of individuals from all walks of life were showcased along with images of the homes of prominent individuals, and the grounds of African American universities, store fronts and churches.  Literary works were collected and presented, along with displays highlighting black accomplishments, such as listings of patent-holders, and photographs of black men who had received medals of honor fighting for our country.¹  News of this unique exhibit spread, and soon members of Buffalo’s own growing African American community knew that the Negro Exhibit would be a worthy and appropriate addition to the Pan-American Expo.  

The Exposition had already planned on showcasing two exhibits on the Midway, both of which portrayed Africans and African Americans in unfavorable and exploitative fashions.  “The Old Plantation” featured a miniature slice of a rather fictionalized Antebellum South, containing songs and entertainment from black Southerners, while conveniently hiding the painful and horrific realities of their not-so-distant past.  Another Midway exhibit, “Darkest Africa”, featured native Africans, who had been brought to the U.S. as living displays of the cultures they had left behind.  Neither of these exhibits gave fair impressions of the people who were featured in them.  Instead, they catered to the curiosities of the masses at the expense of both African and African American cultures.  

There were no plans in place for the Negro Exhibit to appear in Buffalo’s Pan-Am Expo.  It took an unflinching community of citizens to push the Board of Directors toward approving it.  On November 12, 1900, Buffalo papers reported that a meeting had taken place at the Michigan Street Baptist Church.  The Phyllis Wheatley Club, among others, met on the evening of November 11th to announce their intentions.  Mary Talbert read aloud an essay entitled “Why the American Negro Should Be Represented at the Pan-American Exposition.”²

Through the dedication and planning of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, and other members of Buffalo’s black community, the Pan-American Exposition agreed to include the Negro Exhibit.  It was located in the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, a large structure featuring displays of arts and crafts, the latest in manufactured foodstuffs, and representatives from hundreds of companies and organizations.  

Compared to other aspects of the Pan-Am, there is not much information about the Negro Exhibit.  Many guidebooks published exclusively for the Exposition don’t even mention it.  Charles Ahrhart’s “Official Catalogue and Guide Book to the Pan-American Exposition” lists all the exhibitors featured, but the Negro Exhibit is not present.   Based upon the amount of existing information, it would seem that the Exhibit certainly did not receive the same amount of coverage as “Darkest Africa” or “The Old Plantation”.  Buffalo’s African Americans had achieved their goal of including the Negro Exhibit, however white audiences still did not appear ready to embrace the message.

In September, 1901, the New York Times ran an article reviewing the literary collection featured in the Negro Exhibit.  Though the exhibit contained works by the likes of Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois, the article contains an overall negative tone, and by the second paragraph outright states “We may as well be entirely frank in the appraisal.  Much of it is rubbish.  None of it is very great.”³  The piece does contain praise for a few works deemed exceptional, however it also serves as proof that regardless of the achievements displayed in The Negro Exhibit, many white audiences were still blinded and unwilling to view African Americans in an equal light.  These types of reactions did not hinder the progressive spirits of Buffalo’s black community, however.

The addition of The Negro Exhibit to the Pan-Am was a unique and unprecedented achievement for American blacks, and the community of African Americans in Buffalo recognized the need for greater change.  The Negro Exhibit became a stepping stone for many of Buffalo’s citizens, and they would continue to leap toward equality, recognition and justice.  Check back soon for our next piece highlighting the Niagara Movement and Buffalo’s important place in our country’s Civil Rights history!

¹Du Bois, W.E. Burghardt. 1900. “The American Negro at Paris.” The American Monthly Review of Reviews, vol.21, no.5, p.575-577

²”Negro Exhibit at Pan-American.  Colored People of Buffalo are Aroused in the Matter.” Buffalo Evening Times, 11/12/1900.  

³”Negro Authors: Three Hundred Books by Them on Exhibition in Buffalo.”  The New York Times, 09/21/1901.

Photo credit:  From the “African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition” collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

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