Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Treasures from the Vertical Files: American Negro Exposition of 1940

Today’s spotlighted treasure is the program and guide book of the American Negro Exposition, held in Chicago from July 4 through September 2, 1940. (Left: Cover art by R.S. Pious)

Organized by African Americans, this diamond jubilee of the abolition of slavery celebrated African American achievement during the previous seventy-five years. Amidst a national climate of prejudice and discrimination against African Americans, one of the Exposition's goals was to promote racial understanding and good will.

Organizers successfully solicited pledges of financial support and exhibits for display from federal and state governments, charitable foundations, businesses, and fraternal organizations. (Right: A page of local business ads in the Exposition program.)

Organizers also hoped to educate the world about the contributions of African Americans to civilization. Using dioramas, murals, and exhibits, entire sections of the exposition were devoted to representations of African American religion, music, sports, literature, art, science, and industry. A hall of fame featured portraits of 30 African Americans.
The American Negro Exposition (left) followed a century-long tradition of expositions and world’s fairs, including the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1889, and Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. These expositions gave visitors the opportunity to see and experience new technologies (electricity, Ferris wheel, Eiffel Tower), products (carbonated soda, Juicy Fruit gum and Cream of Wheat), and peoples (Lapps, Native Americans, Africans). Most world’s fairs also reinforced the imagined superiority of colonial powers, contrasting their industrial and technological inventions to anthropological exhibits of “primitive” colonized peoples. One such example at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition was an exhibit of Filipino Igorot peoples, who lived in a village on the fairgrounds, constantly on display as exotic “savages.”

The representation of people of color as inferior and uncivilized did not go unchallenged. For the 1900 Paris Exposition, W.E.B. Du Bois created the “American Negro Exhibit” to demonstrate the dramatic progress of African Americans in the thirty-five years since emancipation. This exhibit of 50 photographs featured various aspects of African American middle-class life including images of people, homes, businesses, professional organizations, schools, and churches.

Hailed as “the first real Negro World’s Fair,” the 1940 American Negro Exposition was an even more ambitious attempt for African Americans to control the representation of their achievements and aspirations. Unfortunately, despite initial support, the American Negro Exposition was plagued by poor attendance, labor strife, and withdrawal of promised sponsorship. Nevertheless, historian Adam Green cites the Exposition as an often forgotten example of African Americans proactively shaping their lives and communities. (Right: Artist William Edouard Scott painted murals depicting important scenes in African American history to surround the general exhibition hall.)


“American Negro Exposition,” The Crisis 1940 (June): 175, 178.

Green, Adam. Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Rose, Julie K. “The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath.” Published August, 1, 1996. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma96/wce/title.html

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Archives Intern

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