Academic journal article American Studies

Journey to a Land of Cotton: A Slave Plantation in Brooklyn, 1895

Academic journal article American Studies

Journey to a Land of Cotton: A Slave Plantation in Brooklyn, 1895

Article excerpt

Billed as a "Panorama of the Negro," Nate Salsbury's 1895 Black America pageant commemorated the social evolution of blacks from "the Jungles of Africa to the Civilization of America."1 The pageant integrated the civic drama of historical pageantry, the commercialism of the variety show, and the educational imperatives of the ethnographic exhibition. Urban northerners were transported to the "sunny South" of the antebellum era, a rigidly hierarchical world where "cotton was king." Audiences milled around the "slave village," a temporally and spatially displaced "plantation" in Brooklyn's Ambrose Park with a guidebook that drew their attention to "characteristic" scenes of remarkable verisimilitude: a slave quarter buzzing with neighbors out "visiting," the scent of poultry and livestock, and the blooms of a realistic cotton "field" (whose bolls were held up with sticks and wire).2 Nearby, a group of black southern laborers processed and baled cotton in a mule-powered gin. In the evening, Black America featured a variety showcase of songs, dances, and customs said to be typical of black southern folk. Vocal soloists, sixty-three vocal quartets, and a plethora of choral ensembles evoked the Old South with familiar songs like "My Old Kentucky Home" and less familiar ones like "The Cabin Where I Was Born" and "Ham Bone Am Sweet" while dancers demonstrated folk dances like the "heel and toe" and the "buck and wing." As a grand finale, the faces of the "immortal friends of the bondsmen"-John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, General Sherman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe-were displayed "in heroic size" as the choir sang "America" in the background. As the anthem rose beneath Lincoln's "mute and benign countenance," one misty-eyed witness believed the image of the "Great Emancipator" to be especially fitting since it was he, the observer noted, who had made "a country for blacks where before it had been only an abiding place."3

A master of outdoor entertainments, most Americans knew the pageant's white manager Nate Salsbury from his wildly successful Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Black America has been largely forgotten, despite being one of the biggest outdoor shows of its time. Its popularity and contradictory message of progress and pacification reflected an era of racial retrenchment.4 Salsbury recruited nearly five hundred black southerners from Virginia and North and South Carolina who replaced the "show Indians" of the Wild West Show, now on tour. Salsbury hoped his new show would redress the financial damage caused by the Panic of 1893 and the steep overhead required for a cast of hundreds.5 Black America's nostalgic depiction of the African American past willfully ignored the brutally inhumane "unfreedom" of slavery, indulging instead in a nostalgic view of slavery as a beneficent institution, a stopover in the transition between African barbarism and industrial modernity. The show aimed to portray "the peculiarities of the Southern negro in a manner that most Northern persons have never been able to observe."6 "We see the negro himself," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle excitedly announced, "the American citizen, and the colored voter, in the process of evolution. . . . We get glimpses of the working of his mind, learn what appeals will move him and in what lines he is most likely to make progress."7

What was the public's investment in identifying the African American performers in Black America as individuals devoid of the artifice that commercial entertainment entailed, in other words, to see them billed as "the real thing" rather than actors and artists performing for a paying audience? What satisfactions did such investments in black "naturalism" provide for its white audiences? Outside the pageant's walls, African Americans arrived in New York City in ever-greater numbers in search of the social and political equality unavailable to them in the South. Once settled, this population began to chafe publicly against the deeply entrenched forms of northern discrimination. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.