The Unabashed History of Jackson Park, The World’s Columbian Exposition and Fredrick Law Olmsted

To the Editor:

Like much of the history of the African American, an abundance is left out of the narrative to provide for a more palatable consumption for those who wish to deny that a racial divide still exists. In my quest to understand the dissenting opinions about the placement of The Obama Presidential Center on the former site of “The White City” I fell back on what I hold dear; research. I wanted to take a walk with the African Americans who were fighting for inclusion during that tumultuous, time to compare the journey in 1893 with this journey in 2018.

From its conception to its completion and subsequent rebuilding Frederick Law Olmsted and his partners made sure that any black footprint would have limited touch in their “White City”. It was designed and built with the intentional exclusion of the burgeoning African American community. Must like his grandiose vision for Central Park which lay over the blood and bones of African American families in New York, the site which is now called Jackson Park was developed to segregate and to honor racial and class elitism. As the host site for the World’s Columbian Exposition not only were African American’s shut out of the building process beyond menial labor jobs, “they were denied the opportunity to influence policies and decisions of the World’s Fair”. Eric Stoller (2006). In what is described in some articles as a “manifesting racial birthright”, and today is called “white privilege”. Those who considered themselves noblest grande also pulled along a few African Americans with the lure of an African American Exhibit.

Does any of that sound familiar? Let me connect the dots. Jackson Park was never meant to honor African Americans it was in fact built to their exclusion. To some who like to say they are watching over Jackson Park it is painfully clear that they are watching over the visions of an Anglo-Saxon manifest destiny. More than 25 million people attended the World’s Fair with African Americans comprising a little over 13% of the racial makeup during the time yet we were relegated to 1 Colored Peoples Day; the fair ran for 6-months. By trying to keep African Americans hidden from view and showing their diversity and talent it only served to highlight whites anxieties about their social and economic development.

As we are set to honor one of the most significant accomplishments of inclusion by an African American, a man who could not be excluded from the conversation but who directed the dialogue; our 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama we find ourselves 125 years later fighting against the same kind of exclusion. As we honor the legacy of those who fought hard won battles for us this Black History Month, we must keep them at the forefront of our minds. Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglas, Ferdinand Barnett, Garland Penn, “for them the Worlds Columbian Exposition was a contested space an ideological and cultural playing field which black people could display their contributions, progress and potential”.

If African Americans had not been denied access or input into the designs of Olmsted Parks, would they exist as we know them today? I am sure the exposition site would have contained more structures to accommodate the African American population. Certainly, Central Park would not have been built on top of a thriving black community.

The Obama Presidential Center deserves a home in Jackson Park, it deserves to sit in a place of honor. The theme of the Worlds Columbian Exposition was American Progress, 525 years into this theme, fair and equitable access is still being denied. As the city of origin Chicago should take up the mantel and press toward the mark of completion of building the foundation to honor all of those African Americans that were excluded and change the narrative of what Chicago represented 125 years ago.

Sharon Lewis,
Community Organizer, Facilitator and Social Justice Advocate