The 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was a massive event that drew more than two million people to North Omaha to see more than 4,000 displays in 100 buildings across hundreds of acres. The exposition grounds were noted for dazzling visitors with the sheer amount of white surfaces, earning the nickname “The White City.”
Although most histories don’t tell it, African Americans in Omaha knew the importance of the event. This is a history of the 1898 Congress of White and Colored Americans, and other events and activities affecting Black people related to the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
Gearing up for the exposition, there were debates for a few years over whether there should be an exhibit to represent Black people in Omaha. For instance, in 1896 Black community leader Edwin Overall started a movement for Omaha to host a “National Congress of Afro-Americans” during the Expo. He was elected temporary chairman of a steering committee to plan the event, and gained support from several corners. Overcoming critics with diplomacy and joint leadership, eventually he led the community forward.
Because of Overall’s leadership, several important events for African Americans were held in the months during the Expo. For instance, the National Colored Personal Liberty League Annual Convention was held there. The group that brought it was made of Overall, Rev. John Albert Williams, and Cyrus D. Bell. The city’s Black press industry was involved too, hosting a meeting of the National Colored Press Association as well as a meeting of the Western Negro Press Association.
Ultimately though, one of Overall’s main accomplishments during the Expo was organizing the Congress of White and Colored Americans. This so-called “Mixed Congress” had two objectives:
- To bring together representatives of both classes of American citizens herein designated, for exchange of views on INDUSTRIAL, EDUCATIONAL, SOCIAL and MORAL questions of vital moment to the prosperity of our country; and,
- To crystallize such views into some organization which will put into practice such principles as the Congress may agree upon for the accomplishment of the end desired. This organization will not be POLITICAL, but ETHICAL.
According to their charter, “The Governor of each State and Territory is requested to appoint five white and five colored citizens, either men or women, who are in keeping with the spirit of the call, as delegates to said Congress, and to notify the Chairman of the Committee of said appointments.”
Despite endorsement from both Black and white leaders though, the event was under-attended. Black newspapers throughout the country didn’t share the call for attendees, and they didn’t report on the event either. One white clergyman openly promoted white supremacy and hated on the event, calling it a “pathetic” attempt to force social equality.
When the event finally happened in August, three days of activities were held with diverse members of Omaha’s Black community participating throughout. Skilled laborers, porters, homemakers, barbers, attorneys, janitors, businessmen, and domestic workers joined together with an almost equal number of white people in the event. The event was almost 2/3rds women attendees, with many female leaders of activities throughout. Topics of speeches included “What Can Be Done to Bring about a Better and More Respectful Feeling between the White and Colored Americans?”
The Mixed Congress ended with “Colored People’s Day” on August 19, 1898. There was a small event in the Auditorium, where the closing speaker noted that the Mixed Congress as the first significant interracial gathering to discuss civil rights in America. After pledging the meet again, the event was declared a success. Former delegates eventually formed the core of many NAACP chapters that formed in cities across the nation in 1909.
However, in 1899 Overall announced the cancelation of the follow-up meeting. An announcement was printed in the newspaper where Overall declared, “the urgency for a better understanding between the classes of American citizens contemplated by the Congress is becoming more apparent daily, but at this time it appears expedient to postpone the meeting until such time as may be more favorable for such a successful meeting.”
Other Black Representation at the Expo
In the time leading up to and during the exposition, African Americans were constantly involved with the event, including:
- Simply attending the event, which required admission and time
- Investing their money in the event by buying stock, which was sold to raise capital
- Submitted exhibits and managed receptions throughout the entire expo
- Hosted national conventions and formed a national and bi-racial civil rights organization
- Protested segregation before, during and after the event
- Worked on construction crews for its buildings and were employed as security guards
However, there was no Black participation allowed beyond these steps. Calls for one African American member of the 51-person board of directors were completely dismissed, and the executive leadership of the event was all-white, too.
The only presentation of Black people at the supposedly international event was a living history display called “The Old Plantation” that employed the only Black presenters throughout the entire exposition. Designing to reinforce negative stereotypes and promote white supremacy, the display claimed to be the most educational activity in the expo by featuring authentic slave cabins, a “slave church” from Alabama, and with performances promoting racist tropes about Black people.
There were some highlights of African Americans during the event. For instance, the first Black architect in Omaha made his debut presentation and won an award there. Clarence “Cap” Wigington (1883-1967) was 15 years old when he graduated from Omaha High School that year. At the expo, he won three first prizes in an art competition and was awarded a medal. He went on to become a master civic architect.
Another highlight of the expo was an essay written by young George Wells Parker (1882-1931). A recent graduate of Omaha High School, Parker was likely studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C. when he submitted his entry. He went on to become a historian, philosopher and writer.
Between the Congress, the “Colored People’s Day,” the industry conventions, and the token awards given to African American youth, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition truly was “The White City” that didn’t want or have room for African American people. That is still true today, as there is no recognition for the roles Black people fought for and had at the event, including museum displays, historical markers, or other commemoration. Instead, the expo is painted out to be a truly white-only event.
You Might Like…
- “African Americans in Omaha and the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition” David J. Peavler in the The Journal of African American History (93)3 in Summer 2008.
- The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898–1899 Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Wendy Jean Katz in 2018.
- All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 by Robert W. Rydell in 1984.