"This Is Our Fair and Our State": African Americans and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition

Article excerpt

It was an otherwise typical spring day in San Francisco when the journalist Delilah Beasley made the journey across the bay to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) from her home in Berkeley on June 10, 1915. Beasley, writing simultaneously for northern California's mainstream daily and largest newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, and for the black newspaper, the Oakland Sunshine, had visited the world's fair before. But this time, she went with a different purpose: to witness the Bay Area's African American citizens as they marched in a parade at the state's most spectacular event of the year. Beasley and other African Americans believed that the PPIE was an ideal setting to assert their presence as citizens. Black Californians looked to Beasley, one of the state's most influential black reporters, to convey news about cultural events and the pressing political concerns of a population living through the age of Jim Crow.

Beasley had moved to California in 1910, already a newspaperwoman. Born in Ohio in 1871, she began her career in journalism in the Midwest, writing for the Cleveland Gazette as a teenager. (1) She also studied to be a nurse and a professional masseuse, jobs that took her west to Berkeley with a client. But a lucky break--and a tremendous commitment to the progress of African Americans--landed her an extraordinary opportunity in the world of journalism: writing for the leading white and black newspapers of the East Bay's largest city. A race woman (2) and active member of the black women's club movement, Beasley informed readers of the wonders of the world's fair. But what did fairs--and their promise of education and entertainment on a grand scale--mean for the state's African American population? And how would a black reporter interpret their possibilities?

The year of the fair, 1915, marked a pivotal moment in the history of black Californians. In that year, African Americans formed northern California's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and organized a massive outcry against the degrading portrayals of African Americans in Thomas Dixon's play, The Clansman, and D. W. Griffith's newly released film version, The Birth of a Nation. Beasley interpreted these events for a large California readership. Her viewpoint as a journalist and her role as a historian make her a compelling figure through which to examine the convergence of these events in state history. Her commitment to the women's club movement and the rights of black citizens provides a provocative lens through which to rethink the fair and the state of race and gender politics for black Californians.


Like other U.S. world's fairs, the PPIE emphasized nation and patriotism for a largely European-American audience. African Americans' participation in the fair underscored the ways in which all black citizens, and especially women, found themselves pushed to the margins in state and national politics. Though women had been granted full suffrage by California's male voters four years earlier, they were not yet considered equal participants in matters of state. Yet black women refused to stand on the political sidelines; they took the lead in the state's branches of the NAACP, moving seamlessly from their work in the black women's club movement and churches to the "race work" of the nation's earliest civil rights organization. Beasley and other African American women used the fair to carve out real and figurative spaces in which to articulate their political agendas and challenge Jim Crow. By harnessing the language and symbols of patriotism so prevalent at the fair, black Californians--men and women--claimed the nation as their own at the precise moment that the social and political influences of Dixon's and Griffith's works attempted to erase their history as citizens.

Asserting citizenship was a gendered affair, however, and the language and symbols available to women differed from those accessible to men. …