Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895

Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895

Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895

Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895


The Cotton States Exposition of 1895 was a world's fair in Atlanta held to stimulate foreign and domestic trade for a region in an economic depression. Theda Perdue uses the exposition to examine the competing agendas of white supremacist organizers and the peoples of color who participated.

White organizers had to demonstrate that the South had solved its race problem in order to attract business and capital. As a result, the exposition became a venue for a performance of race that formalized the segregation of African Americans, the banishment of Native Americans, and the incorporation of other people of color into the region's racial hierarchy.

White supremacy may have been the organizing principle, but exposition organizers gave unprecedented voice to minorities. African Americans used the Negro Building to display their accomplishments, to feature prominent black intellectuals, and to assemble congresses of professionals, tradesmen, and religious bodies. American Indians became more than sideshow attractions when newspapers published accounts of the difficulties they faced. And performers of ethnographic villages on the midway pursued various agendas, including subverting Chinese exclusion and protesting violations of contracts. Close examination reveals that the Cotton States Exposition was as much about challenges to white supremacy as about its triumph.


On October 14 and 15, 2008, the Department of History at Georgia Southern University hosted the Eighteenth Annual Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Lecture Series. the speaker was Theda Perdue, Atlanta Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Taken together, Professor Perdue’s lectures addressed the theme of race relations and the 1895 Cotton States Exposition and were among the most memorable in the history of the Averitt Lecture Series. the essays presented in this volume are expanded versions of those lectures.

With graceful prose and well-chosen illustrations, Professor Perdue took the audience on a tour of the Cotton States Exposition as seen through the eyes of individuals and groups that were marginalized by the fair’s organizers. We heard Booker T. Washington outline what would become known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” then listened to the debate his speech sparked in the black community. We walked through the building devoted to the achievements of African Americans and viewed exhibits that countered prevailing white orthodoxy on race relations and the meaning of southern history. We examined American Indian artifacts gathered by the Smithsonian Institution, watched Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, and met the Sioux, whose presence in an Indian village constructed on the midway underscored the absence from the fair of the Cherokees who had once lived on Georgia soil. We strolled through other ethnographic villages — Chinese, Mexican, Egyptian — as Professor Perdue took us behind the scenes to reveal the pain and tragedy experienced by men and women who were put on display as specimens of exotic cultures.

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