There’s debate about some of the stories associated with the international event that had St. Louis buzzing more than a century ago, such as whether the 1904 World’s Fair was really the point at which ice cream and other treats were invented.
But one thing that historians do know for sure about the seven-month-long spectacle is that it was marked by blatant racism.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed how people of color were treated unfairly at the fair, also known as the Louisiana Purchase Expedition. Joining him for the conversation was Angela da Silva, an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University and president of the National Black Tourism Network.
She’s the historical reenactment director for the 16th annual Mary Meachum Celebration set to kick off at noon on Saturday, May 5. It will chronicle the stories of people of color who primarily were at the fair as either a worker or as part of a display and will also include tabletop science exhibits for children as well as a stage show and other activities.
The “idea of humans on display” is something that has long fascinated da Silva, who regularly teaches students about the Victorian-era origins of cultural tourism. She noted that the 1904 fair’s Anthropology Village, which included a caged Ota Benga among other people collected from around the world, is just one example of how “the exotic other” was frequently placed on display around that time.
“It was done in 1893 at the Chicago expedition, and it [didn’t] end until 1958 in Brussels,” da Silva said. “And so the exotic other was always on display. But here, during the early 20th century, it was from a racial aspect, pretty much from the lens of ‘Thank God that’s not us.’ So it wasn’t that they were really focusing on the culture of these tribes so much as it was an examination and a comparison against the ‘missing links’ and white European society.”
She added that this was all taking place during colonization, with those in power looking for “a justification on why European countries were in Africa and in the Philippines.”
“They brought back these specimens to put on display to say ‘See how savage they are? They need to be brought into the 20th century.’ … When you really see the reports, this is the way they were viewed from the very beginning,” da Silva said. “They were never, ever considered to be human beings.”
And the racism extended beyond the displays themselves. It also showed up in the treatment of people of color who attended the exhibition.
“The fresh water concessions where you would go up to a concession and you’d put your nickel down and they’d give you a glass glass – remember this is 1904, and there were taps that you would turn to get the water on – none of the fresh water vendors would give black people fresh water,” da Silva explained.
The vendors went on record saying they were afraid that white patrons would not drink out of the glasses if they found out that people of color had at some point also used them.
“The answer was no, they would lose business,” da Silva said. “So none of them would [serve people of color]. There were incidents where black people would sit down in restaurants and were told to get up – they’d have to go around to the back door to the kitchen and could get something to go.”
What: 16th Annual Mary Meachum Celebration – The Unfair Fair: Prejudice on the Pike
When: Noon-5 p.m. Saturday, May 5, 2018
Where: Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing (St. Louis Riverfront Trail, 28 E. Grand Ave., St. Louis, MO 63147)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.