Historical Society hosts discussion on race at the Columbian Exhibition

Panelists Christopher R. Reed, Ph.D. and Rebecca S. Graff, Ph.D., listen as panel moderator Courtney Pierre-Cane, Ph.D., discusses her research on Haiti and the influence of the Haitian revolution on Frederick Douglas and on the development of the United States during the panel discussion “No Blacks in the ‘White City’?” at the Hyde Park Historical Society, 5529 S. Lake Park Ave., Sunday, July 15. – Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

Three academics gave a talk on race and the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition last Sunday at the Hyde Park Historical Society, 5529 S. Lake Park Ave., speaking about the importance of the Haitian Pavilion at the fair, as it was the only predominantly black nation that participated, the involvement of black American leaders like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells and the overlooked contributions of other people of color there.

Christopher R. Reed of Roosevelt University, an expert on the black experience in Chicago, spoke, as did Rebecca S. Graff, an archaeologist who focuses on U.S. cities, and Courtney Pierre-Cain, a historian of the black diaspora, both of Lake Forest College.

Graff said the World Fair’s “White City” moniker made sense for its racial practices as well as its architecture. There were recreated ethnic villages, or objectifying human zoos, at the fair, which were revived at St. Louis’ 1904 World’s Fair, though a small number of Potawatomi people indigenous to the Chicago area were present.

While he noted that the population of blacks in Chicago was very small at the time of the fair — less than two percent before the Great Migration began around the time of World War I — Reed detailed his own research that disputed the notion that African-Americans were barred from the fair. He noted photographs showing black people working at the fair and referenced novels and other contemporary writings that mentioned their presence.

“There was a black presence, and there was substance to that presence,” he said. While there was a black Chicago intelligentsia in the 1880s, Graff said they lacked the capital and connections to influence the Exhibition’s policies. Nevertheless, “Blacks — through their energies, through their intelligence, dynamism, courage – were not going to be excluded,” he said.

A scholar of Haiti–Chicago relations, Pierre-Cain noted the island nation’s sense of connection to the city because its first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste du Sable, had Haitian heritage. She tracked the the United States’ relations with Haiti, which only began after the end of American slavery, through Douglass’ diplomatic service there that eventually led him to represent the nation at the Columbian Exhibition. She called the Haitian Pavilion a hub for African Americans and the African diasporic community at the Fair.

Pierre-Cain quoted a speech Douglass gave there: “We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today, that freedom that has come to the colored race, to the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti 90 years ago, when they struck for freedom, then built it better than they knew,” he said. “Their swords were not drawn and could not be simply drawn for themselves alone. They were linked and are interlinked with their race. In striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.”

The event, entitled “No Blacks in the ‘White City’?” was part of Friends of the Parks’ ongoing Walter Netsch Lecture Series. This year marks the World Columbian Exhibition’s 125th anniversary.

“Friends of the Parks is facing head on the difficult conversations Chicago and our larger society need to have about race,” said the nonprofit’s executive director, Juanita Irizarry, in a statement. “We have been asking the question what it means for parks to be democratic spaces, and we can’t be real about that issue without acknowledging the barriers to access that blacks, especially, have had to full and equitable participation in Chicago’s parks and our democracy.”