Using “Big Jim” Parker and the Assassination of William McKinley: Patriotism, Nativism, Anarchism, and the Struggle for African American Citizenship in undergraduate courses
James Benjamin “Big Jim” Parker’s action in wrestling President McKinley’s assassin to the ground and disarming him affords an especially telling episode in the ongoing struggle of America’s diverse peoples to wrest the content of their own narratives from the hands of the dominant Anglo Americans. The Pan-American Exposition of 1901, site of the assassination, offered several exhibits purporting to tell the story of blacks in Africa and the United States. Two were commercial attractions on the Midway. A third was the exhibition originally organized by W.E.B. DuBois and others for the Paris International Exposition of the previous year. The Midway sideshows, the Village from “Darkest Africa” and the “Old Plantation,” trafficked in the stereotypes DuBois and his collaborators sought to dispel. Together the three provide a fascinating context for Big Jim’s tale of courage, exploitation, and ultimate obscurity.
According to the Official Catalogue and Guide Book to the Pan-American Exposition, http://www.buffalohistoryworks.com/panamex/midway/midway.htm, section on the Midway:
For diversion, rather than education, every exposition must have its Midway. The Pan-American Midway occupies nearly a third of the whole space and has nearly a mile of streets. The very large area lying in the northwestern end of the grounds has been allotted to the concessionaires whose business it is to amuse, and at the same time "instruct" the visitors.
Here are found foreign villages with picturesque types of architecture and the curious and interesting evidences of civilization, so different from our own. In modern expositions, the Midway has come to be a fixture, and without it the Exposition would lose much of its charm. Visitors to all of the great National and International shows carry away with them the most pleasant recollections of scenes in the amusement section.
Not only did the Midway attractions prove popular, often as with the Ferris Wheel at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 attracting bigger crowds than the exhibits sponsored by governments, but they often claimed an educational mission. All of the “foreign villages” offering “curious and interesting evidences of civilization” affirmed the authenticity of their exhibits.
from Snap Shots on the Midway of the Pan Am Expo by Richard H. Barry, Buffalo, NY: Robert Allan Reid, 1901.
The Uncrowned Queens project at the University of Buffalo has an excellent discussion of “Africans, Darkies and Negroes: Black Faces at the Pan American Exposition of 1901, Buffalo, New York.”
The project’s discussion of the Old Plantation, unfortunately no longer available online, noted that:
A contemporary description of the exhibit described it as "a reproduction of the genuine southern plantation in ante-bellum days, showing the old roomy mansion, Negro cabins, cotton and corn fields, and in all requiring the services of 250 genuine southern cotton field Negroes in the portrayal of life on the plantation." In the language of the times, another description of the black residents of the Old Plantation identified them as "darkies who vary in age from tiny pickaninnies to white-headed uncles and aunties."
In addition to the crap-shooting pickaninnies, the Old Plantation offered a Minstrel Show every evening.
The Uncrowned Queens project also provided an excellent introduction to the African Village.
This pamphlet was distributed to all visitors to the African Village. The caption under the image reads: Ogandaga as he Leads the Fetish Dance. From a Photograph taken in the Village of “Darkest Africa.”
The Midway attractions complemented each other. The “Old Plantation” purported to tell the history of Africans in America before Emancipation. Fair visitors familiar with contemporary racial theories understood “Darkest Africa” as depicting not only life in a “real African Village” but also as foreshadowing the ongoing “retrogression” of African Americans to “savagery.” A leading advocate of this view was Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, Dean of the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. In 1884 he published “The Negro Problem” in the Atlantic Monthly, then as now a leading journal of opinion. The essay is available in a variety of formats at the Internet Archive, http://www.archive.org/details/negroproblem00shal.
Shaler was a Neo-Lamarckian, that is, a believer in the now discredited theory that acquired characteristics are inherited. So, to cite a highly influential application of the theory, if the American frontier called forth certain traits of independence and courage, the children of those pioneers would inherit those traits. Africans in America, Shaler argued, had inherited centuries of “savagery.” Slavery had served as a kind of school and blacks in America had begun to acquire certain characteristics such as docility. But, with the end of slavery, the question was whether those countless generations of savagery would not again define the characters of American blacks.
W.E.B. DuBois’ goal for the exhibit first develop for Paris and subsequently set up for Buffalo was not just to counter stereotypes with information. It was also to demonstrate that, far from retrogressing, American blacks were making dramatic progress in the two generations following slavery.
Group Portrait, c. 1899, from the “Black Life” section of the Negro Exhibit; the person standing third from the right in the second row appears to be white as does the man sitting fifth from the left in the first row.
W.E.B. Dubois’ own account of the exhibit, THE AMERICAN NEGRO AT PARIS, The American Monthly Review of Reviews, vol. XXII, no.5 (November): pp.575-577, is at http://www.webdubois.org/dbANParis.html.
The history of the Negro is illustrated by charts and photographs; there is, for instance, a series of striking models of the progress of the colored people, beginning with the homeless freedman and ending with the modern brick schoolhouse and its teachers. There are charts of the increase of Negro population, the routes of the African slave-trade, the progress of emancipation, and the decreasing illiteracy. There are pictures of the old cabins, and, in three great manuscript volumes, the complete black code of Georgia, from colonial times to the end of the nineteenth century. Not the least interesting contribution to history is the case given to Negro medal-of-honor men in the army and navy -- from the man who "seized the colors after two color-bearers had been shot down and bore them nobly through the fight" to the black men in the Spanish War who "voluntarily went ashore in the face of the enemy and aided in the rescue of their wounded comrades." It was a Massachusetts lawyer who replied to the Patent Office inquiry, "I never knew a negro to invent anything but lies;" and yet here is a record of 350 patents granted to black men since 1834.
The bulk of the exhibit, is naturally, an attempt to picture present conditions. Thirty-two charts, 500 photographs, and numerous maps and plans form the basis of this exhibit. The charts are in two sets, one illustrating conditions in the entire United States and the other conditions in the typical State of Georgia.
There is “An Historical and Archival Reconstruction, Created by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Ph.D., School of Education, University of Miami, of the exhibit at http://220.127.116.11/ep/Paris/home.htm.
- Lynch law in Georgia / by Ida B. Wells-Barnett; a six-weeks' record in the center of southern civilization, as faithfully chronicled by the "Atlanta journal" and the "Atlanta constitution"; also the full report of Louis P. Le Vin, the Chicago detective sent to investigate the burning of Samuel Hose, the torture and hanging of Elijah Strickland, the colored preacher, and the lynching of nine men for alleged arson is a powerful indictment of anti-black violence. Students can consult it as a response not only to white Southern defenders of "Lynch Law" such as South Carolina Senator Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman but also to scientists like Nathaniel Southgate Shaler who provided an intellectual rationale for mob violence. The New York Times published this account of a Tillman speech in Wisconsin in its August 5, 1901 issue, just weeks before "Big Jim's" heroics.
- The Paris Exposition Negro Exhibit. Students can choose among the themes DuBois identified and create mini-exhibits on them.
- "The Old Plantation" and "Darkest Africa." Students can compare these popular Midway attractions with Shaler's exposition of "The Negro Problem."
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