African Americans and The Centennial
by Tiana J. Odum

Francsesco Pezzicar created a sculpture entitled "The Freed Slave," which stood in Memorial Hall during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. The freed slave is half naked holding the Emancipation Proclamation, and he has broken the chains that have bonded him for so many years. In Frank Leslie's Illustrated Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition, an illustration shows  fashionably dressed African American spectators admiring this statue, which may represent the struggle of African Americans and how far along they had come since slavery. The questions is: "Is this a true representation of Blacks during this time period?" And, "Were Blacks really considered free during this period?"

The illustration attempts to show that blacks have come from being half naked and shackled with chains at the feet to being fashionably dressed. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. It applied only to slaves in the Confederate territory, and left slavery protected in Union held areas. In effect, it declared the enemy's slaves free and kept its bondage. The document promised emancipation on a massive scale, for the millions of Southern slaves who could escape the Confederacy or who could hang on and wait for the Union Army to liberate them. (1) 

By the time of the Centennial, the Proclamation had been in effect for approximately thirteen  years. Blacks thought this meant that they finally had a place in society and were thought of as human beings. This was not so during the Centennial Exhibition. Blacks wanted to take part in the celebration because they would be sharing America's freedom as well as their freedom. Blacks also hoped that they would be well-represented at the Centennial since they shared something in common with America. 

 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Historical Register


The Centennial would be an exciting moment for Blacks. To their surprise, however, there were not many exhibits that represented their heritage. At the fair, there were only two works that represented the work of the black artists, "The Death of Cleopatra," by Edmonia Lewis, and " Under the Oaks," by Edward Bannister. This may have made blacks at the Centennial angry because they were noted for being slaves, not for their achievements of the past thirteen years or so. The illustration in Leslie's  suggests that they were disappointed with the sculpture. Their faces reveal that they feel as though they were degraded and humiliated. The rest of the fair illustrated the achievements of America, but this sculpture just showed how blacks should be grateful that America liberated them.

Even the most influential black in American society, Frederick Douglass, suffered humiliation at the fair. For opening day, he had been invited to sit on the platform with other dignitaries, but police officers refused him admittance to the stand. Had it not been for the personal intervention of the new York senator, Roscoe Conkling, he would have been compelled to watch the proceedings from afar.(2)

Blacks had struggled so long to achieve a place in society, and the Centennial was the way to prove it. They aided in the preparation of the exposition in its early stages. When asked to help prepare for the upcoming exposition, blacks felt that this was one step closer to being acknowledged as free and regular human beings. White women sponsors of the exposition asked black women to help raise funds by selling stock subscriptions. At the first organizational meeting, however, black women discovered that "we were to be classed." The Afro-Americans protested being manipulated, which resulted in the white women passing a resolution expressing their regret that the executive committee had appointed a committee of black women in the first place. Having raised funds for the exposition, black women received neither mention nor exhibit space in the Women's Building.(3) Although black women did not receive the recognition they deserved, the black community felt that this was a personal achievement of which they were proud.

Even though blacks did not receive the credit or opportunity  they deserved at the Philadelphia Exposition, American blacks were represented at the fair in a concession called "The South" or "The Southern Restaurant." After the general exclusion of black exhibitors from the Philadelphia Centennial and the later 1883 Supreme Court decision in the civil rights cases sanctioning the discrimination against blacks by individuals, in 1885 many blacks regarded the Colored Department at the New Orleans World's Industrial and Cotton Exposition as noteworthy for existing at all.(4)  It is ironic that blacks achieved greater recognition in the South as opposed to the North.  Blacks were always trying to escape the South to find freedom in the North.  However, freedom in the North was not what blacks expected. It meant that they were free from slavery but not free to be acknowledged as a person.

memorial art gallery

Memorial Hall, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition

The illustration of the "Freed Slave" in Leslie' s Illustrated Historical Register suggests that blacks were a part of the elite, judging by the clothes they wore. The illustration may not have been a true representation of African Americans during this time period, but it was what the artist may have wanted to imagine how black people were seen since the Emancipation was blacks' ticket to freedom.

For another analysis of African Americans at the Centennial, click here.


(1) Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and the Monument in the Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton:Princeton University Press,1997), 52.

(2) Robert W. Rydell,  All The World's Fair: Visitors of Empire at the American International Expositions,1876-1916 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 28.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Rydell, 80.