- A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs by Nathan Cardon
Atlanta's 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition and Nashville's 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition were, according to historian Nathan Cardon, "crucibles of modernity" (p. 3). The fairs, both inspired by Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, "presented a future of a scientific and diversified economy centered on a racially divided society" and served as "advertisements for a unique southern modernity" (p. 2). A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs is a fine analysis of these two expositions within their New South context.
Chapter 1 shows how the Atlanta and Nashville fairs exposed the "New South creed," offering "'object lessons'" to southerners who might "improve themselves, become modern, [and] leave behind the social customs and traditions that were so pilloried by the rest of the nation" (pp. 19, 37). Chapter 2 focuses on the fairs' so-called Negro Buildings, prominent structures located near lakes Clara Meer (Atlanta) and Watauga (Nashville), where African Americans exhibited their visions of progress. Chapter 3 examines the Woman's Buildings that demonstrated southern white women's shifting social roles. Chapter 4 illustrates how southern elites used the fairs and their depictions of southern race relations to position [End Page 715] themselves at the cutting edge of American empire. Both expositions, argues Cardon, presented a "Jim Crow modernity," "a modern world based on the segregation of race" (p. 39). Atlanta and Nashville looked backward to the antebellum era as well as forward to the New South that Henry W. Grady had envisioned in 1886. Cardon makes a compelling point that the 1890s formed a pivotal decade, when racial and gender boundaries were somewhat fluid and the South claimed a role in the United States' imperial ambitions. The conclusion shows how the 1907 Jamestown Exposition in Virginia stepped backward from 1890s modernity. The 1907 exposition was built in the mud, miles outside Norfolk. It had no Woman's Building, while its Negro Building was located in a marginal spot and exhibited growing tensions among black leaders. This fair "offered a much-tempered dream of the future" (p. 120).
Cardon uses a broad range of primary sources, including archival collections from Atlanta, Nashville, Chapel Hill, and Washington, D.C.; newspapers, including African American periodicals; and an impressive list of exposition guides and other contemporaneous publications. With its thorough research, this book adds to a growing body of literature on southern expositions, including Robert W. Rydell's All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916 (Chicago, 1984), Theda Perdue's Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 (Athens, Ga., 2010), Bruce G. Harvey's World's Fairs in a Southern Accent: Atlanta, Nashville, and Charleston, 1895–1902 (Knoxville, 2014), and Mabel O. Wilson's Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley, 2012). Cardon draws on these and other works to add new perspectives regarding the fairs' Janus-faced, New South duality, although he limits historiographical engagement to the endnotes. As good as this analysis is, at times it seems so focused on finding commonalities between Atlanta and Nashville that it nearly conflates them into one narrative. More sustained emphasis on both cities' respective histories and circumstances would be useful.
A Dream of the Future successfully shows how the 1895 Atlanta and 1897 Nashville expositions represented an important moment in southern history. Cardon thus enhances an already rich portrait of southern fairs at the turn of the twentieth century.