CWF Card: Case Closed

By The History Detectives Team
30 November 2009
Category: DIY Investigations

Our first web investigation reminded us that what you don’t find can sometimes be more revealing than what you do.


The owner of this card wanted to know what the Colored World’s fair was, and if it was ever held. You quickly solved the first half of the mystery. The aim of the Colored World’s Fair was “…to show the result of the industrial progress of the colored race during the past quarter of a century at a fair in Atlanta, Georgia.” Addressing the second half of the mystery proved to be more challenging. The following timeline, compiled from the newspaper articles you found, summarizes the progress of the Colored World’s Fair:

Feb 17, 1887: Senator Blair introduced a bill to appropriate $400,000 for the CWF and that “the majority of the committee appears favorably disposed toward the amount”

March 3, 1887: the President is granted authorization to appoint CWF Commissioners.

April 18, 1888: The CWF is to be opened “in Atlanta next November”

October 20, 1888, the New York Age reported: “…opposition in certain quarters prevented the passage of the [WCF] bill by the present Congress.”

Two years later, on October 13, 1890, The Daily Inter-Ocean reported: “The “Colored World’s Fair Association,” … has forwarded a petition representing their desire that a proper exhibit … be provided for in connection with the World’s Fair in 1893”

No mention of the CWF was to be found between October 1888 and October 1890 during an extensive search of historic newspapers. We thus conclude that the Colored World’s Fair was never held.

Dr. Christopher Robert Reed, History Professor and author of All the World is Here! The Black Presence at the White City, is the authority on the history of African-American expositions. After reviewing your research he emailed us this response:

The historical significance of the proposed “Colored World’s Fair of November 1889” to be held in Atlanta rests in its having been conceived in the first place, and in its having advanced to a stage where presumably white southern racial opposition stalled funding in the U.S. Congress. The latter was not unexpected since this was a period of intense racial opposition to any event or movement toward African American progress within the southern political economy. The forces of terror were firmly committed to turning the clock backward in social relations to a pre-Civil War model, as evidenced by the violent and extra legal activities undertaken by the Ku Klux Klan and other like groups.

On the other hand, African Americans sought eagerly to demonstrate their worthiness as citizens. They reasoned that a tangible demonstration of their progress since the Emancipation would enhance the legitimacy of their claim to fair treatment as citizens and guarantee protection from lynchings, political exclusion and economic subjugation. The concept of holding a fair, or exposition, at various levels of government — whether state, regional or global level — was firmly accepted as an integral part of economic growth and development as well as being a sign of group progress. With New Hampshire Senator Henry William Blair’s support in the Congress, their faith in the American system of government and its being responsive to citizens’ entreaties appeared well placed. Blair had proven himself as a champion of education and literacy, financial reform and temperance and now he exhibited that touch of concern for human dignity for all noted in New Englanders throughout the nineteenth century.


When the prospects of the “Colored World’s Fair” evaporated, black agency turned to participation in another congressionally-sponsored exposition, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, later announced to be held in Chicago. Debate among African Americans across the nation proved divisive as to the shape of any “Negro exhibit” and as a result, there was no unified black exhibit. Instead, Wilberforce University, Hampton Institute and Atlanta University exhibited separately, placing on display various educational samples of their scholarship and in the case of Hampton, their craft work also. No graphs or charts were used to visually show fairgoers in 1893 the evidence of racial progress in home and farm ownership, financial resources, school attendance and industrial development. Several African American women did speak, however, at the World’s Parliament of Representative Women, who along with spokesmen at the Congress of Labor, the Congress on Africa and the World’s Parliament of Religions, gave the world an indication of how far the former American slaves had progressed in 28 years.

Within two years at Atlanta, the Cotton States’ Exposition was held and some of the dreams of 1889 were finally realized in a manner sought previously.

Thanks to Kathleen for bringing us this mystery, and thanks to DeeDee, Kaji, Stephanie, Jessica, Steve, R. Ritter, Clinton, Dennis, S. Pounds, Shannon, and everyone else who contributed to the investigation. We may never know who N.E. Clarke and Montie Pearson were, or why this card was issued, but you’ve illuminated a little-known attempt by African Americans to advance themselves during the decades following the Civil War.

To all of our website visitors and Facebook fans: Would you like to see more DIY investigations like this? How can we improve the experience? Let us know your thoughts.


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