Resource

Fighting Jim Crow

A pamphlet written by Ida B. Wells that addresses racial inequalities in the United States.

Content Warning: This resource contains graphic language about lynching.

Document Text

Summary

Preface

TO THE SEEKER AFTER TRUTH:

 
(…) Why are not the colored people, who constitute so large an element of the American population, and who have contributed so large a share to American greatness, more visibly present and better represented in this World’s Exposition? Why are they not taking part in this glorious celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of their country? Are they so dull and stupid as to feel no interest in this great event? It is to answer these questions and supply as far as possible our lack of representation at the Exposition that the Afro-American has published this volume.

(…)

Why are Black Americans not visible at the World’s Columbian Exposition? The writers of this pamphlet have published this document to address the lack of visibility of Black people at this event.
Chapter 2: Class Legislation  
The South is enjoying to-day the results of this course pursued for the first fifteen years of our freedom. The Solid South means that the South is a unit for white supremacy, and that the Negro is practically disfranchised through intimidation. The large Negro population of that section gives the South thirty-nine more votes in the National Electoral College which elects the President of the United States, than she would otherwise have. These votes are cast by white men who represent the Democratic Party, while the Negro vote has heretofore represented the entire Republican Party of the South. Every National Congress has thirty-nine more white members from the South in the House of Representatives than there would be, were it not for the existence of her voiceless and unrepresented Negro vote and population.

(…)

Black Americans in the South are kept from voting through laws and intimidation. The Black population gives Southern states more power in national politics, but only white men are elected into these powerful positions.

Chapter 3: The Convict Lease System

 
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington claim to be too poor to maintain state convicts within prison walls. Hence the convicts are leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations. These companies assume charge of the convicts, work them as cheap labor and pay the states a handsome revenue for their labor. Nine-tenths of these convicts are Negroes. There are two reasons for this. Southern states rent out prisoners to perform work on railroads, in mines, and on plantations. The state profits from their labor. Ninety percent of these prisoners are Black.
(1) (…)The white Christian and moral influences have not only done little to prevent the Negro becoming a criminal, but they have deliberately shut him out of everything which tends to make for good citizenship.

(…)

White people restrict opportunities for Black people to earn an honest living.
(2) The second reason our race furnishes so large a share of the convicts is that the judges, juries and other officials of the courts are white men who share these prejudices. They also make the laws. It is wholly in their power to extend clemency to white criminals and mete severe punishment to black criminals for the same or lesser crimes.

(…)

The justice system is biased against Black Americans.
Chapter 4: Lynch Law  
[The Negro] is now charged with assaulting or attempting to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us of the sympathy of the world and is blasting the race’s good name. Black men are often falsely accused of violence against white women.
The men who make these charges encourage or lead the mobs which do the lynching. They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with the outside world. They write the reports which justify lynching by painting the Negro as black as possible, and those reports are accepted by the press associations and the world without question or investigation. The mob spirit had increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long since been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight. The sheriffs, police, and state officials stand by and see the work done well. The coroner’s jury is often formed among those who took part in the lynching and a verdict, “Death at the hands of parties unknown to the jury” is rendered. As the number of lynchings have increased, so has the cruelty and barbarism of the lynchers. Three human beings were burned alive in civilized America during the first six months of this year (1893). Over one hundred have been lynched in this half year. They were hanged, then cut, shot and burned.

(…)

White people make up these lies on purpose and they are often believed. More than 1,000 Black people have died in mob violence in the past decade.

Ida B. Wells, The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Library of Congress.

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Background

Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the World’s Fair, in 1893. The event commemorated the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas 400 years prior. The exposition welcomed visitors from all over the world and showcased new advances in technology and industry. Over 27 million visitors attended the event during the six months it was open.

The World’s Columbian Exposition excluded Black and Indigenous Americans from public participation. The Women’s Pavilion did not acknowledge women of color. While the Haiti Pavilion represented the island nation with a predominantly Black population, there was no representation of Black Americans at the fair. Black Americans were only visible to attendees in service roles. They worked at the exposition as cooks, cleaners, and laborers. Nancy Green, the Black woman who was the face of the Aunt Jemima brand, served pancakes to visitors.

About the Resources

Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, both famous activists for Black civil rights, wanted to address this exclusion. However, they disagreed on the best tactics to pursue. Douglass was an official representative of the exposition, as he worked the Haiti Pavilion. He believed in highlighting Black excellence. Ida B. Wells believed that she and other Black Americans should not have to perform for a white audience. 

As part of their protest, Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass wrote a pamphlet addressing the lack of Black representation at the fair. Irvine Garland Penn, a Black educator and journalist, and Ferdinand L. Barnett, a newspaper publisher and Ida B. Wells’s husband, contributed as well. They distributed over 10,000 copies of the pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition to visitors outside the fair. It contained a detailed critique of not only the exposition’s exclusion of the contributions of Black Americans but also the treatment of Black Americans throughout the United States. These excerpts were written by Wells. In them, she specifically addresses voting restrictions, convict labor, and lynchings. 

The organizers of the exposition eventually organized a special day for Black Americans, which Ida B. Wells considered to be meaningless, although Frederick Douglass did approve. The exclusion of Black Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition further emphasized what Black Americans already knew—they were not welcome in mainstream American society.

Vocabulary

  • assume: To take.
  • barbarism: Brutality or cruelty.
  • clemency: Mercy or lenience. 
  • constitute: To consist of.
  • convicts: Prisoners.
  • coroner: The official who investigates unnatural deaths. 
  • disfranchised: Not allowed to vote.
  • foul: Immoral.
  • furnishes: Provides.
  • handsome: A large amount.
  • heretofore: Before now. 
  • leased out: Rented out.
  • legislation: Law.
  • lynching: Murder by a mob, especially by hanging, without a trial.
  • mete: To distribute or give out.
  • Negro: An outdated and often offensive term used to describe Black people.
  • pamphlet: Small booklet that usually has arguments about a certain topic.
  • plantations: Large farms where crops like coffee, sugar, and tobacco are grown. 
  • rendered: Processed or delivered.
  • revenue: Income.
  • Solid South: Historical term for the politically united southern states of the United States.
  • white supremacy: Belief that white people are superior and should be given more power than others.
  • wholly: Completely.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the World’s Columbian Exposition and how were Black Americans represented at it? 
  • Why did Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass publish this pamphlet? Why did they distribute it during the World’s Columbian Exposition?
  • What issues does Ida B. Wells address in the pamphlet? What does she see as the connection between these issues and Black Americans’ treatment at the World’s Columbian Exposition? 
  • What did Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass disagree about concerning the World’s Columbian Exposition? What did they agree about? What does this tell you about the challenges Black activists faced carrying out their work?
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Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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