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  • Kalyn McCall

1893 World's Fair: The Birth of a Nation, an Industry, and Aunt Jemima

Aunt Jemima Ad - 1950s

The 1893 World’s Fair symbolized the United States’ ascendancy among the great powers of the world by celebrating its achievements, showcasing its optimism, and giving an air of self-confidence to all who visited. Occurring at the nexus of the “closing of the frontier” and America’s foray into global imperialism, the World’s Fair also took place during the ascendancy of Jim Crow and formalized segregation within the United States. As a marker of American achievement, the World’s Fair, as many black Americans hoped, could have showcased black achievement and celebrated the successes of the first generation removed from slavery. Instead, through exhibitions, commercial products, and protest, the World’s Fair reflected the reconciliationist sentiment dominating the nation at the expense of millions of black Americans.

From the beginning, rather than include local black Americans and leaders and highlight the role of the community in the development of the nation, the World’s Fair took a negative approach to the city’s and nation’s black citizens. In one of the fair’s guidebooks, Chicago is described as being a beautiful place, but still suffering from some failings. Describing” Cheyenne,” purportedly the most dangerous section of the city, the guidebook stated that,

It might almost be called a negro colony, so many colored people reside in it. . . It is with no idea of speaking disparagingly of the fair sex that one remarks on the presence in ‘Cheyenne’ of several dusky female characters of whom the police have a wholesome dread. Most officers would rather engage in a grapple with half a dozen male desperados than with no one of those formidable negresses. They are Amazonian in physique and being thoroughly abandoned, are ready for any hideous devilment which may or may not turn up.

Chicago’s black community, menacing and threatening, is a blight on the near-perfect facade of the “Paris of America.” Throughout the planning stages, black leaders advocated for greater inclusion, although most of their requests were denied. Community leaders like abolitionist Frederick Douglass and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells distributed a pamphlet protesting the gathering and its exclusion of black planners or black achievement, entitled, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. The Afro-American's contribution to Columbian literature.” In its preface, Ida B. Wells decried:

Columbia has bidden the civilized world to join with her in celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, and the invitation has been accepted. At Jackson Park are displayed exhibits of her natural resources, and her progress in the arts and sciences, but that which would best illustrate her moral grandeur has been ignored.

The exhibit of the progress made by a race in 25 years of freedom as against 250 years of slavery, would have been the greatest tribute to the greatness and progressiveness of American institutions which could have been shown the world. The colored people of this great Republic number eight millions – more than one-tenth the whole population of the United States. They were among the earliest settlers of this continent, landing at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 in a slave ship, before the Puritans, who landed at Plymouth in 1620. They have contributed a large share to American prosperity and civilization. The labor of one-half of this country has always been, and is still being done by them. The first crédit this country had in its commerce with foreign nations was created by productions resulting from their labor. The wealth created by their industry has afforded to the white people of this country the leisure essential to their great progress in education, art, science, industry and invention.

The World’s Fair not only ignored black contribution the development of the nation, as Frederick Douglass would elucidate in the pamphlet’s pages, and their achievements since slavery, as contributor I. Garland Penn explained. But as Ida B. Wells made plain her analyses of class legislation, the convict lease system, and lynching, the World’s Fair presented a glossy image of an America that did not exist for all of its citizens. Black American leaders would find official space at the World’s Fair in the Haitian and Liberian pavilions, and the Fair committee attempted to appease them with a “Colored Day” at the fairgrounds. But when Ida B. Wells heard they were distributing 2,000 free watermelons to black attendees, she refused to attend.

Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, did participate, and used his platform at the fair to praise the fair for attempting to include them, celebrate Haiti as a paragon of black liberation, and denounce the fair managers, exclaiming:

In your fawning upon these cruel slayers you slap us in the face, and with the same shallow prejudice which keeps us in the lowering rank in your estimation, this exposition denied mere recognition to eight millions and one-tenth of its own people. Kentucky and the rest object, and thus you see not a colored face in a single worthy place on these grounds .... Why in Heaven's name do you take to your breast the serpent that once stung, and crush down the race that grasped the saber and helped make the nation one and [therefore] the exposition possible?

Douglass took offense to the fair’s segregationist policies, in part catering to their former enemies from the South. In celebrating America, the World's Fair celebrated the reunion of white Americans, Northern and Southern, at the expense of millions of black Americans who fought, died, and labored for emancipation and the preservation of the nation. Democracy made reconciliation and reunion possible, but at the expense of equal citizenship.

While black Americans received some concessions, such as the inclusion of black needlework in the women’s pavilion, shared space with Haiti and Liberia, and a colored day, the longest-lasting impact on the audience came through representations of Africa and representations of the South. One of the most widely publicized and visited exhibits of the fair was the Fon village of the people of Dahomey. Some people saw the display as a sign of humanity's progress, while others were repelled by its presence.

The most abiding legacy of the 1893 World’s Fair for both the black community and American consumer culture was the formal introduction of Aunt Jemima, the face of the world’s first packaged pancake mix, to the world. In American life and culture, the American negro represented the apogee of the culinary art, much like the respected chefs of Italy and France that mastered their trade. Aunt Jemima personified the emancipation of white women, just as Mary Lease imagined, from the drudgery of virtual slavery in the kitchen and the future American food culture at an affordable price. Her labor freed white women so that they could enjoy leisure and other pursuits.

Aunt Jemima was born in the mills Missouri, developed in an imagined plantation in Mississippi, and became a household staple in Chicago. Chris L. Rutt, an editorial writer for the St. Joseph Gazette in Saint Joseph began experimenting with self-rising mixes with a friend, Charles G. Underwood, familiar with the milling business. Saint Joseph has been the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, a jumping-off point for the Santa Fe trails, and one of the most important milling centers of the frontier. In the face of competition, the two set out to stand apart, eventually successfully creating the first self-rising mix. Initially, the mix did not have any marketing, selling based on its novelty, but in 1889, Chris Rutt found his trademark. That autumn, Rutt attended the local vaudeville house where the blackface comedians, Baker & Farrell were slated to perform. The show-stopper of their act was a New Orleans style cakewalk to the tune “Aunt Jemima,” which Baker performed in blackface with a white apron and red-bandana.

Capitalizing on an identity rooted in American culture and appealing to the warmth that “mammy” evoked, Aunt Jemima was born. Eventually, Nancy Green, a former slave from Montgomery County, Kentucky, was found to bring Aunt Jemima to life, debuting at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Weaving together her own past with the lore desired by the company, the story of Aunt Jemima was not one of a helpful black cook, but also of the white, Confederate man’s valued servant. Her original lore, told at the fair, alternated from a story of her using her pancakes in the service of the Confederacy, districting villainous Union soldiers with her delicious vittles when they tried to take over her master’s Mississippi plantation, or a story of her comforting defeated Confederates with her warm, comforting breakfast cakes. Performing in a booth shaped like a giant flour barrel, Green’s Aunt Jemima greeted crowds of guests with her emerging catchphrase, “I’se in town, honey.” While Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass fought to move beyond the antebellum years, the World’s Fair both celebrated and commodified it.

For many black attendees, the 1893 World’s Fair was designed by and for white audiences at the exclusion of communities that helped build the nation and non-white nationals around the globe that deserved equal representation. While revolutionizing industry, technology, and recreation, the Fair, according to Douglass and Well, catered to an exclusively white clientele, projecting and performing a segregated and unequal America.

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