New-York Historical Society

African Americans and the World of Tomorrow

Post written by Kenneth Cleary, a summer intern at N-YHS who processed the Paul Gillespie Collection of New York World’s Fair Materials.

A rich collection of photographs from the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair is newly available to researchers at the N-YHS library. Donated to N-YHS in May of this year, the Paul Gillespie Collection of New York World’s Fair Materials (PR 283) contains a large number of amateur photographs that present a view of the fair from the perspective of its many visitors. As an intern processing this collection, I became curious as to why only ten of the roughly 3,500 photographs in the collection depicted African American subjects. Knowing that African Americans were about ten percent of the U.S. population during this time, I wondered why there were not hundreds of photographs showing black people, either attending or working at the fair.

A 60-foot statue of George Washington dominated the Fair, which was ostensibly organized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first President's inaugeration. Paul Gillespie Collection of New York World's Fair Materials, PR283.

A partial explanation for the under representation of African Americans in the collection might be found in accusations by the NAACP and other civil rights groups that the New York World’s Fair Corporation restricted job opportunities for African Americans. The April, 1939, edition of The Crisis decried the exclusion of jobs to African Americans, “except in the capacities of maids and porters” and called upon the fair to champion “justice of opportunity.” Likewise, The Harlem Community Cultural Conference, declared in May that, “The Negro is being given only a menial part in a great fair which is supposed to typify the truly democratic world of tomorrow.”

A family gets a taste of the 1939 World's Fair. Paul Gillespie Collection of New York Worlds Fair Materials, PR283.

The New York World’s Fair Corporation denied any bias in its hiring practices, but African Americans filled only three significant positions. These were, Walter L. Roberts, hired as a draftsman; William Grant Still, hired to compose music for the fair’s Theme Center; and acclaimed Harlem sculptor Augusta Savage, commissioned to create a work for the fair.  Her sculpture, “The Harp,” inspired by the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was prominently displayed in the court of the fair’s Contemporary Arts building.

Augusta Savage's "The Harp." Paul Gillespie Collection of World's Fair Materials, PR283.

More typically, African Americans were employed as entertainers, often in roles that fit common stereotypes and assumptions about race in 1939-40 America, such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performing in “Hot Mikado” or black men costumed as “native Africans” in Frank Buck’s Jungle Land.

The "Hot Mikado," a jazz version of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, was one of the biggest hits of the 1939 World's Fair. Paul Gillespie Collection of New York World's Fair Materials, PR 283.

African Americans perform in Frank Buck's Jungleland, a popular attraction at the 1939 World's Fair. Paul Gillespie Collection of World's Fair Materials, PR 283.

Economic considerations may also have played a significant role in reducing African American attendance at the fair. As has been noted by other researchers, the costs for spending a day at the fair were beyond the reach of many Depression-era American families.

Passers by at the Fair. Paul Gillespie Collection of New York World's Fair Materials, PR 283.

While the Gillespie collection only contains a small number of photographs depicting African Americans or racial themes, they raise interesting questions about African American participation at the fair and how that fits within the larger context of American race relations on the eve of the Second World War.

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1 Comment to African Americans and the World of Tomorrow

  1. Porscha Williams's Gravatar Porscha Williams
    April 30, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    What an interesting piece.

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This is a blog created by staff members in the library to draw attention to the richness and diversity of our collections.

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