African and African-American Musicians Seeking Progress at A Century of Progress

By Ohman, Marian M. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Fall/Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

African and African-American Musicians Seeking Progress at A Century of Progress


Ohman, Marian M., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Among the generation of African Americans born in the late nineteenth century were optimists who believed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery would enable them to move forward. When Chicago announced its intention to present an international fair in 1933 celebrating its one-hundred years of progress, many states and countries, some in Africa, indicated interest in participating. Leaders envisioned an appropriate occasion to honor their ancestry, trace their historical achievement, and demonstrate their capability in the arts. African Americans, too, perceived this as an opportunity to display their multiple talents in the creation and performance of music and the drama associated with it. Unfortunately, obstacles associated with institutionalized racism coupled with inadequate financial resources handicapped involvement.

Modern national expositions and fairs date from the mid-nineteenth century. England held the first large exhibition marking progress and achievement at the Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park in 1851. It might have been the financial success of this project that inspired many others, although the cost of presenting such a significant event subsequently soared and few reaped similar profits. Two years later New York City conducted the first international exposition in the United States but suffered a substantial financial loss. Perhaps it was the triumph of Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, rather than financial gain, that inspired Chicago's twentieth-century fair.

Planning began in the early 1920s. Local civic leaders and eminent businessmen initiated plans to commemorate Chicago's one-hundred years of progress and achievement in science, engineering and technology. Support subsequently diminished, especially among those business executives concerned about the nation's impending financial crisis. Charles S. Peterson, city treasurer, revived interest and expanded the focus to embrace an international exposition. In January 1928 entrepreneurs received a non-profit charter from the Illinois Secretary of State. Rufus C. Dawes (1867-1940), a utilities magnate, served as president. Other administrators included the previously mentioned Charles Peterson, vice-president; Daniel H. Burnham, secretary; Lenox R. Lohr, vice president and general manager, who answered directly to Dawes; Colonel John Stephen Sewell, director of exhibits; and Norman W. Gregg, director of promotion. The initial designation, "Chicago Second World's Fair Centennial Celebration," became A Century of Progress in 1929.1

One African American, Chicago Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott (1868-1940), was asked to join the founding group. He declined an active role but did pay the one-thousand dollar membership fee.2 The planning committee initially assigned a minor position to another African American, Jesse Binga (1865-1950), a prominent Chicago realtor and banker, but his participation ended following his bank's failure in July 1930 and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment for embezzling $32,500. Thereafter, no black staff or committee member functioned among any of the fair's eight divisions. Fair administrators encouraged other ethnic groups to participate, but not African Americans. They had expressed concern about their exclusion and denial of active participation, but the fair's president assured them that discrimination would not be tolerated.3 Initially, the Chicago Defender accepted this positive response and week after week promoted the forthcoming extravaganza.

A Century of Progress aroused national and international attention. Twenty-three states and territories entered exhibitions, and thirty-three foreign countries created representative international villages. One African concession displayed examples of ancient arts. Jungles, deserts, villages, and kraals were also portrayed, along with replicas of huts used by traders and missionaries. …

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