“Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895” by Theda Perdue $26.95 University of Georgia Press
8 p.m. Wednesday. $5-$10. Reservations required. The Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road. 404-814-4150. www.atlantahistorycenter.com
“The Atlanta Exposition” by Sharon Foster Jones $21.99 Arcadia Publishing
Sharon Foster Jones
5:30 p.m. Sat., March 27. Eagle Eye Books, 2076 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. 404-486-0307. www.eagleeyebooks.com
4 p.m. Sat., April 3. Borders in Buckhead, 3637 Peachtree Road 404-237-0707. www.borders.com
2 p.m. Sat., April 17. Outwrite Books, 991 Piedmont Ave. 404-607-0082. www.outwritebooks.com
By David Aaron Moore
Opening on Sept. 18, 1895, the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition attracted throngs of visitors to the city and generated national and international press attention. Just 31 years after Atlanta burned, the exposition catapulted the city into the limelight as never before.
“The Cotton States Exposition did what [organizers] had hoped in terms of shaping the city’s image as a progressive leader of the New South,” says Theda Perdue, author of the just released book “Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895” (University of Georgia Press).
Sharon Foster Jones, author of another newly released book on the topic, “The Atlanta Exposition” (Arcadia Publishing), points up one of the most lasting and tangible outcomes of the exposition.
“Piedmont Park,” she said. “That’s where the event took place. The city would not have purchased the property if Cotton States had not first been held there, and we would not have the beautiful park we have today.”
The Cotton States Exposition was designed to promote and showcase products and technologies newly available to the market. Exhibits from multiple states and countries featured machinery and appliances, minerals, food and accessories, forestry, horticulture, agriculture, electricity, painting, sculpture, literature and education. There were theatrical performances, exotic dancers, musicians and bands and cultural offerings from around the globe including Mexico, Japan, Egypt, China and Africa.
There’s not much left to show today’s visitors to Piedmont Park that such an event ever took place. But if you look closely, you can see parts of what once was.
Stone steps, walls and urns remain in various parts of the park. The steps to the Atlanta Botanical Garden at the northern end of the park once led to the expo’s U.S. Government Building. Another set of stairs near the Piedmont Driving Club formerly served as a passageway toward a performance auditorium and the Georgia State Building on the west side of the park. What is today generally referred to as the Parapet — a conglomeration of stairs, columns and retaining walls in an eastern area of Piedmont Park — previously provided a grand ascent to a chimes tower and the Fine Arts Building.
In all, 12 massive main buildings housed the exposition itself. Another 20 or so smaller buildings representing states and private exhibitors were built, and countless vendor booths on the 189-acre grounds sold everything from food to souvenirs. Estimates on the number of people who passed through the gates during the 100 days of the fair range from 800,000 to 1 million.
If you’re a local-history enthusiast, then both Perdue’s and Jones’ books should be in your personal library. Although they examine the world’s fair from different perspectives, together the two offer an in-depth look at a fascinating moment in Atlanta’s history: a time of exciting leaps forward and an event more than tinged with a darker side.
Perdue’s book looks not only at the world’s fair itself, but the social and political climate surrounding it and the marginalization of minorities involved in the presentation. Jones’ book is more expository, packed with historical photos and commentary on structures, statistics and various events.
A note of historical importance covered in both books: Minorities were given unprecedented access to the expo. Similar state and regional fairs throughout the country barred or heavily restricted minorities, but they attended the Cotton States Expo without major restriction.
“Though they were not allowed to dine anywhere except in what was known as ‘The Negro Building,’” says Jones, “to my knowledge they were allowed to attend any of the other presentations and events they wanted to.”
Perdue points to the Negro Building as the most historically significant aspect of the Cotton States Exposition. “On its face the Negro Building acquiesced to segregation. Its exhibits, after all, were segregated from those of whites. But the displays challenged white assumptions of African-American inferiority on which segregation rested, and instead, presented a narrative of accomplishment and triumph.”
Perhaps the most famous speech given on opening day came from Tuskeegee Institute President Booker T. Washington. He spoke directly to President Grover Cleveland and Cotton States organizers.
“One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success. I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.”
And what happened to all the massive structures created specifically for the event after closing day on Dec. 31, 1895?
“Most of the buildings were of a temporary construction,” says Don Rooney, curator of urban history at the Atlanta History Center. “When the city purchased the property in 1904 for Piedmont Park the surviving structures were badly deteriorated. The Piedmont Driving Club used the New York State Building after the Exposition for their ballroom, but on the morning of Jan. 11, 1906, that building was completely destroyed by fire.”
“Many of them sat there for 10 years,” Jones said. “Some were disassembled and used for other things, like to build houses. A lot of residents in the older houses in Midtown today likely have parts of the Cotton States Expo right there with them.”