"Doing the Pan": The African-American Experience at the Pan-American Exposition, 1901

Article excerpt

On the afternoon of November 11, 1900, members of the Buffalo, New York Phyllis Wheatley Club and their supporters gathered in the Michigan Street Baptist Church. The next day, Buffalo newspapers described the meeting under the following headlines:

       "Buffalo Negroes think their Race Should Be Recognized at the
       Pan-American Exposition." (Commercial, November 12, 1900).
       "Negro Exhibit at Pan-American: Colored People of Buffalo are
       Aroused in the Matter." (Buffalo Evening Times, November 12,
       1900).

The Phyllis Wheatley Club meeting received national attention when the Cleveland Gazette, an Afro-American publication, printed a column entitled "Pan American Exposition Color Line". An excerpt from that article summarized the nature of the Buffalo Club's complaint. "Thus far not a single representative of the race has been properly placed by the management of the Pan-American Exposition, either as director, superintendent of a department, honorary vice-president or even clerk in any of the departments. Our people here are indignant at this discrimination and held a meeting November 11th in one of our churches under the auspices of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, composed exclusively of women." (1)

According to all accounts of the rally, it was a "well attended and enthusiastic meeting" of over two hundred people. As reported in the Gazette and the local newspapers, the meeting organizer's purpose was two fold: to advocate for the installation of the "Negro Exhibit" at the Pan American Exposition and to protest the exclusion of Blacks from representation on the Exposition's leadership bodies.

Mary B. Talbert, the Club's corresponding secretary, a future president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and a founder of the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP, was a featured speaker. Mrs. Talbert's essay, "Why the Afro-American Should be Represented in the Pan American Exposition" was a pointed message to Exposition officials. Copies of the paper have been lost, but the newspaper accounts provide us a glimpse of Mrs. Talbert's remarks. She extolled the importance of the "Negro Exhibit," then on display at the Paris Exposition, and chided the Exposition commissioners for their failure to ensure its placement in Buffalo. She also called on these officials to appoint a Black commissioner to represent the interests of the colored people of the community. (2)

In addition to Mrs. Talbert another speaker, James A. Ross, described as a "well-known colored politician" accused the officials of prejudice in not appointing an Afro-American commissioner. Mrs. A.D. Wilson, President of the Central Union of the Women's Christian Temperance Union also expressed her support for the group and its cause. The meeting concluded with the passage of several resolutions "... to the effect that immediate steps should be taken to inform the exposition officials of the desire of the colored people for a Negro exhibit and declaring that the Negroes of Buffalo were unanimous in demanding that a colored commissioner be appointed." (3) There was consensus that Mrs. Talbert had the excellent credentials to make her a strong candidate for the commissioner post.

At the turn of the century Buffalo's Black community numbered 1,698 residents in a city population of 352,287. (4) Although small in number, the community had a long history of civic and political activism. Organized in 1899, the Phyllis Wheatley Club was a fledging organization that demonstrated tremendous influence, even at this early stage in its development. Within two years of it's founding, the Club's membership had grown to more than 300. As an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACW), the organization had dedicated itself to reaching back to help those less fortunate and less able, in accordance with its motto, "Lifting As We Climb." Under the leadership of its president, Mrs. …