The antebellum South existed from the Revolutionary War through the end of the Civil War. During that time, the South was full of stereotypes, suffering and white supremacy enforced through slavery. The 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition and the 1899 Greater America Exposition, both of which happened in North Omaha, nostalgized that era with a display focused on slavery. This presentation was the only formal presentation by African Americans during this important event in Omaha history. This is a history of the Old Plantation display.
Structures in the Display
Opening on June 1, 1898, the Old Plantation was located on the North Midway of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Covering 15,000 square feet, the display featured 12 log cabins that were the actual homes of the African Americans performers in the display, used throughout the duration to house the performers.
During the day, the performers worked on actual cotton gins and enacted life during Southern slavery.
In July 1898, the newspaper claimed that one of the cabins in the exhibition was taken from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to Omaha, and that it was the original cabin that John Brown used for his raid. The article was dismissive of the cabin though, ultimately saying “This is but one of the twelve cabins, all having a story attached to them, interesting to the students of American history.”
The Mt. Nebo Church, was built to stereotype what Black churches were like in the South. However, after a fire in July 1898 destroyed it, the Old Plantation Theater was built to replace it. After it was the theater was completed, the newspaper reported the fire was “better for having had a fire.”
During the Greater America Exposition of 1899 the display was identical to the Trans-Mississippi Expo, with no recorded changes.
Performers and People Involved
There may have been more than 100 African American performers in the Old Plantation display during the expositions in 1898 and 1899. People mentioned by name in the news included Lizzie Sherville, Jim Johnson, Sam Scott, Henry Knight, and the Wallace sisters, and “Uncle” Ben and Matilda Johnson. The newspaper excitedly reported Johnson was “so old that his kinky locks rival in whiteness the new cotton.” Other performers included Anderson Dooley and his wife. Dooley was said to be oldest performers in the display, with a sign declaring he was 115 years old. They were from Clay County, Missouri, where Jefferson City is located. In 1899, the display featured a popular African American performer named Will Thomas. According to the newspaper, “Mr. Thomas is known all over the country for his old man character acts and cakewalks, which have won for him prominence in his profession not excelled by any other colored performer now appearing before the public. Finding other names or details on specific performers has been challenging in my research.
Propaganda and advertising for the Trans-Mississippi Expo promoted the Old Plantation display as the most educational attraction on the grounds. A children’s guide to the Expo praised the historical accuracy of the show, claiming that it portrayed life as it really was during the days “just before the wah,” meaning the Civil War.
The planners of the Expo bragged that the Old Plantation in Omaha would be better than the original display at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897. Comparing each, Tennessee had 12 “negro artists,” and Omaha had between 35 and 50 people everyday. There were other accounts throughout both Omaha Expositions that 100 performers worked in the display. The management secured “piccaninnies, banjo artists, buck and wing dancers, cake walks and the old time camp meeting shouters from the cotton fields of the South.”
Another source said the display featured “young bucks and thickliped [sic] sounds to the accompaniment of ‘de scrapin of de fiddle an de old bangjo [sic].” Also called “native darkies,” one account said the performers routinely sang and danced as they acted like they picked, sacked, cleaned, combed, and otherwise processed cotton.
As Frederick Douglass wrote, these performances were, “made to harmonize with the popular idea of Negro ignorance, degradation and imbecility.”
At the time, there was criticism of those performers simply being minstrels who upheld negative stereotypes of Black people in order to entertain white people. According to a modern study, white historians today generally say this, too. This same source said the display showed a “paternalistic attitude towards African Americans and shared attitudes of intolerance towards the principles of free labor.” A promotional article played on the idea of white supremacy, claiming,
In creating their display, the Old Plantation manager claimed to have secured exclusive rights to employ African Americans at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Within a week of starting, the manager accused a dog show located across the West Midway from the Old Plantation of hiring Black people. Two days later, the African Americans associated with the dog show were replaced with white people.
The inventor and manager of the Old Plantation display was Emmet W. McConnell (1868-1964). A former white minstrel, McConnell was an experienced amusement park businessman. He had already run the same display in Georgia in 1895 and Nashville in 1897.
The idea of adding the Old Plantation to Omaha came to McConnell in March 1898, when he came to Omaha from Louisville, Kentucky to build the cyclorama at the Expo. In April 1898, he was contracted to operate the display, with “negro minstreisy [sic], vaudeville booths for rude manufacture, the sale of… pancakes.”
In May, McConnell sent a man from Omaha to the South to buy “the attractions necessary to give a precise idea of what life is on a plantation really is at this day.” He was supposed to bring back 10 cabins, 50 performers, several old-fashioned spinning wheels and a number of donkeys and whatever else that may add to the realism of the show.” According to the Omaha World-Herald, McConnell’s man was to have brought back with him “five vicious bloodhounds used in antebellum days to pursue escaping slaves.”
At the end of May, the newspaper reported 72 performers were hired for the display coming from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Texas, with a fife and drum band from Nashville.
The following year during the Greater America Expo, the newspaper reported there were 100 performers at the display. There was also a photograph taken of this group, which is featured elsewhere in this article.
The success of the Old Plantation display depended on the manager marketing it as a realistic display of African American life and culture in the antebellum South. Every activity in the display was racist and meant to reinforce white supremacy to the mass groups who watched the presentation.
According to research, “the cast of the Old Plantation attempted to express their agency in framing certain aspects of the performance.” Reports from the beginning of the Trans-Mississippi Expo said that lectures and demonstrations were mixed with with traditional minstrel fare.
In early July 1898, a fire in the Mt. Nebo Chapel in the display caused the Old Plantation display to close temporarily. The display reopened later in July with a new theater, lower admission prices, and an”improved” show and a new group of “jolly, rollicking” performers.
As the changes rolled out, the display began small parades daily by the Old Plantation performers. Some of them walked and sang, others pulled carts with women and child performers in them, and still others followed whooping and hollering through the entire Expo. This was meant to attract people to come to the display.
Throughout the length of the Trans-Mississippi, there were large weekly fireworks displays set off behind the Old Plantation. Another regular event throughout both Expositions were watermelon drops by the performers in the display. According to newspaper reports, they gave away 8,000 watermelon chunks at each of these monthly events. Other times, the performers marched throughout the Expo carrying watermelons on their heads, chopping them up and distributing slices randomly.
The manager of the display encouraged visitors to take photographs with the performers in the display. Stereotyped ideas of African Americans were also used to make money. Throughout the Expo, the singers from the display were featured in performances throughout the Expo grounds, including at the Boys’ and Girls’ Building and elsewhere. They were also brought to social clubs and events throughout the city, including the nearby AkSarBen Den.
The Old Plantation display wasn’t the only place racism was used at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo to reinforce white supremacy. The Home Kitchen exhibit used a performer dressed as Aunt Jemima to serve pancakes, and advertising cards for the Expo regularly used racist images to sell the event. African Americans were allowed to attend, but weren’t allowed to otherwise perform, present or enlighten attendees anywhere else at the Expo.
A marriage was held in the Old Plantation Theater in August 1898.
In September 1899, at the end of the Greater America Exposition, there was a grand wedding held in the Old Plantation display. Two performers from another Midway event got married there. After a ceremony in the chapel, there was a “delightful marriage supper” served to more than 20 guests in the Old Plantation cafe. That cafe was never mentioned again, and neither was there any mention of whether performers from the Old Plantation display attended the event.
The End of the Old Plantation
The performers at the Old Plantation display were sent by train to Nashville at the end of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in November 1898. Its unknown whether the same people were brought back for the Greater America Exposition that happened the next year. In the next year, the display was supposedly enlarged, but by January 1900 the entire display and the Expo grounds were completely demolished.
The same display also appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901; the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904; the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, and; the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.”
The Greater America Exposition wasn’t the last time a display called the Old Plantation was used in Omaha either. Instead, it was a regular fixture at AkSarBen festivals for years to come, often using the same language to promote it that was used in 1898 and 1899.
Today, there are almost no conversations about the Old Plantation or its effects on Omaha’s culture. Instead, many people choose to call the Expo the “White City” without a hint of irony or memory for the hatred, hurt and suffering it caused.
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- “African Americans in Omaha and the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition” by David J. Peavler for The Journal of African American History in Summer 2008.