Contextualizing the Cotton States Exposition

See Georgia State University’s 19th and 20th Century Labor Prints from the Southern Labor Archives Digital Collections

Today, I’d like to make a pitch for an excellent book about the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895. Theda Perdue has published an excellent short volume on this topic, Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 (U of Georgia P, 2010). The book is short, precise, and packs a punch of information. Divided into three chapters, “Beyond the ‘Atlanta Comprimise,’ ‘Vanishing Indians,’ and ‘The Global South,’ Perdue’s book takes on the social and cultural histories of the exhibits of the “Negro Building,” the performance of Native American cultures via Smithsonian exhibits and Wild West Shows, and the participation of other countries such as China, Mexico, and Costa Rica. She weaves this information within a rich historical backdrop that examines post-Reconstruction Atlanta and southern politics, legacies of American Indian Removal, and U.S. imperial projects on the horizon that will result in attempts to control spaces in the Caribbean and the Pacific. In short, it’s an excellent synthesis of the forces that informed late nineteenth-century Georgia. But, don’t take my word for it. Find it here. And, at the end of this post, I’ll include a video of one of Perdue’s lectures on the research that created this book.

For my purposes today, I thought I would highlight four documentaries that help us contextualize the material in Perdue’s book. The first is an excellent short film from Lewis Lehe, who was still in high school when he made it! It’s a Thick Book examines Alabama’s 1901 constitution. While it doesn’t deal with Atlanta directly, it does give one the sense of what southern post-Reconstruction politics were like. More importantly, it allows the viewer to see the continued material implications that emerge from this time period.

Next, it seems appropriate to have some background about southeastern Indian Removal, particualrly as it applies to Georgia. We Shall Remain: Trail of Tears, directed by Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker Chris Erye as part of PBS’s American Expereince, offers a rich look at the complicated period of the 1820s and 1830s that led up to the Removal. It also features excellent snippets of the Cherokee language.

While it may be shocking to some readers to think about the numerous “exhibits” of living people that comprised World’s Fairs and Expositions such as the Cotton States, this practice has a long history within museums and anthropology circles. Today, almost all museums and anthropologists would balk at the idea of putting humans on display, but this was a practice very much of the nineteenth century that considered non-white people as exotic and vanishing populations. Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992) chronicles this history as it pertains to California.

Lastly, it is important to think about the history we have inherited from the display culture of the nineteenth century that Perdue outlines for us. This film, The Couple In the Cage (1992), from Heredia and Fusco does just that.

And as promised, here’s a video of Perdue talking about her work.

Plus, here’s one final image from the excellent collections from Georgia State University’s Southern Labor Archives Digital Collections. This was published in Puck around 1895 and described as:

“‘Prosperity’ dawns over the Atlanta Exposition.”

You should visit these archives. No really, go. Now.

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