Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition, 1895 (review)
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Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition, 1895. By Theda Perdue (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. Pp. 181, $26.95 cloth) [End Page 152]

This book originated from a lecture series on the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition and was expanded into a monograph on the disparate fates of America's indigenous population and that of formerly enslaved black Americans. Although not cited directly, Perdue's thesis on black and red destinies in the South confirmed Alexis De Tocqueville's prophecy on the subject of triracial accommodation in his landmark Democracy in America (1840). "The Indians die as they have lived, in isolation: but the fate of the Negroes is in a sense linked with that of the Europeans. The two races are bound one to the other without mingling; it is equally difficult for them to separate completely or to untie."

Perdue explored fullest the postemancipation linkage between whites and blacks. It was at Atlanta that the post-Reconstruction status and plight of the black population of the South were so brilliantly exposed in Booker T. Washington's address, along with the efforts of the black communities around the nation to control the representation of their image on the fairgrounds. Some of the latter especially wanted to move beyond the limited representation that the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 afforded. A modicum of success occurred with construction and design by blacks of a Negro Building which housed artifacts and other evidence of African American progress since 1865. Washington's presence on the main podium also brought a symbol of limited acceptance of a biracial modus vivendi to light. Underlying racial tensions, actual violence, and sustained attempts at the political, economic, and social subordination of blacks, however, undermined the best hopes of white leaders to show the New South in a positive light to potential global investors.

If the New South was to become the habitation of African Americans and whites solely, what had happened and was happening to the various Native American groups that had been indigenous to the area since before pre-Columbian times proved that their isolation had finally yielded to their local extinction. Perdue aptly devoted a full chapter to the systematic effort at eliminating not only [End Page 153] traces of Indian culture but the peoples themselves (the Trail of Tears) in determined activities that were proving deviously effective. The remnants of the Indian populations of Georgia found that they had no place at the Columbian Exposition (or in U.S. census enumerations as they were absorbed into the general white or black populations), while various other tribes and representations from outside the South (such as Inuit, Sioux, and Aztec descendants) were accorded places. These accommodations came with a price and that was one that produced pity, disgust, or scorn from white fairgoers. Both the federal government and the academic world contributed to this negative image of the Native Americans in what could be considered a racial conspiracy.

Overall, the point of view of the Caucasian fair and Atlanta civic leaders is reflected in their attempts at controlling how non-white groups would be presented at the Exposition. This included confirming Civil War historian James M. McPherson's application of the term and practice known as herrrenvolk democracy for whites that relegated all blacks perpetually into a subordinate status in the South.

Strangely, in exposing the plot to isolate Indians in mind and presence, this monograph exhibits a weakness in the lack of a full exploration of what the various Native Americans who were vanishing may have wanted in the way of a future from their own point of view. Perhaps impossible to ascertain from documentation, as was the case for the African Americans, it would have been useful information. The reader is left to wonder what really motivated the groups that did appear to travel to Georgia on the one hand and, on the other, what were their general reflections of how they saw themselves at an event that was aimed at minimizing their humanity altogether. [End Page 154]

Christopher R. Reed

Christopher R. Reed is professor emeritus of history at...


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