The “Race Problem” and the Atlanta Compromise
One of the biggest challenges to the Southern progress that the Cotton States and International Exposition hoped to show the world was connected to the issue of race. The exposition planners worried that the increasing violence, the disenfranchisement, and the high volume of lynchings of African Americans would distract from notions of Southern modernity. The solution to the so call “race problem” was articulated by prominent African American speaker Booker T. Washington at the opening of the exposition: “In all things social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet, one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Washington’s speech, dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise” promoted the separation of the races through segregation. The idea of racial separation was met with applause from the crowd. One year later, segregation was deemed constitutional by the United States Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.
The exposition’s planners also welcomed the idea of a “negro exhibit.” The planners could not think of a better way to showcase Southern progress than by a separate main exhibition building devoted to the accomplishments of African Americans. African Americans were also seen as crucial in securing 200,000 dollars in federal funds for the Cotton States and International Exposition by lobbying in Congress. With these contributions, the exposition committee built a “Negro Building” and allowed African Americans to display their exhibits for free (most exhibitors had to pay 1 dollar for each square foot of space). African Americans were also given the freedom to decide what story and which accomplishments they wanted represented by their exhibits. For many African Americans in the South, this would be the first time they had control over their history.