We’re twenty minutes into Mabel Wilson’s lecture at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts, and we get to one slide with two short questions. In big red text: “Negro Building?” “WTF?”. The questions are plastered over a black and white photo of a neoclassical Negro Building from the 1985 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. By the time the slide pops up, Mabel is already a third of the way into her presentation. The crowd gets it. It’s funny, unexpected, and totally relevant to see this slide. It reminds you of the moments when you hear or see something [racist, stupid, or plain unbelievable] that you’re not quite sure you heard or saw, and it takes you a minute or two to register the moment.
The simplicity of the slide contrasts Mabel’s lecture, style and topics. Mabel’s presentation and her recently-published book “Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums” are dense with historical references, sociological theories, architectural descriptions, and key Black figures who span the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to today’s prominent Black architects. As she describes it, Mabel’s craft is her synthesis of “cross-border relationships.”
Her description of the preparation, content, and meaning behind the 1900 Paris World’s Fair [Exposition Universelle] shows this cross-discipline insight. Mabel describes W.E.B. Du Bois’s instrumental role in organizing the content. She then goes on to describe the richness of T.J. Calloway’s graphics, which she points out, have a beautiful De Stijl quality [15 years before the style was formally established]. Next, she dives into the meaning of such a dense exhibit, which was part of the Social Economy Pavilion, housed in a simple neoclassical building. The “American Negro” exhibit occupied an L-shaped space at the corner of the pavilion. The entire pavilion was unique in its focus on information and data, a first for the World’s Fairs. The award-winning exhibit was rich with charts, photographs, and “examples of what American blacks could accomplish as farmers and industrial workers but also as teachers, writers, artists, and thinkers” [Negro Building, 86]. The American Negro exhibit was also integrated with the rest of the Social Economy Pavilion, a deliberate and unprecedented decision made by the White executive fair organizers with clear input from the Black leaders.
The Atlanta Cotton States and International exposition occurred 15 years before the Paris Fair, was also a successful exhibit, but was housed in it’s own building. The Atlanta Fair organizers lauded the Negro Building as the analog to Paris’s Eiffel Tower and Chicago’s 1893 Ferris Wheel--and that’s where we return to the second question in Mabel’s slide. The building itself was also neoclassical, symmetrical in volume, measured about 25,000 square feet, and had pointed towers with prominent glass arched windows. The lead architect was Bradford Gilbert, a White architect, who also oversaw all other buildings in the sprawling complex. The fair buildings were predominantly built with an exploited Black workforce, the Negro Building included.
The way Mabel describes it, you get the sense that it was a coherent exhibit, from the part of the Black organizers led by Booker T. Washington. There was an organized effort at every level--the logistics of bringing Black participants and fairgoers despite racist impediments, the philosophical conversations that guided the planning for the fair content, the content of the exhibit, and even the circulation of the content to other public venues after the exhibit. But Mabel is clear to point out that the coherence did not stand in for a singular message that the Black movement at that time proposed. Mabel’s assessment points out that it was “counterspheres” [or oppositional movements in reduced terms], plural not singular, that made this possible. It was the smaller pieces of the puzzle, the many leaders with different viewpoints [in cases deeply different] that united in a common goal to constructively resist the racist structures. The two fairs themselves exemplefy this difference. One had its independent building and the second was integrated within the typical White exhibits.
If we take a step back to analyze the bigger picture and push the fictional ‘fast forward’ button, we ask ourselves: 100 years later, where do we stand today? There are many answers to this question and I will dig into two.
The first answer is that the US is two years away from constructing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C.’s National Mall. Prominent Black Architect David Adjaye leads the ambitious design. This is a symbol of a clear gain for the movements, but this symbol is not immune to critical criticism. Mabel points out that the museum as an entity [not a building] suffers from a “loss of agility” and the content seems more moderate when compared to its predecessors. These predecessors are the early grassroots 1970s and 1980s museums in cities like Chicago and Detroit. The new established museums lose that agility because of the necessary boards, and the many decision makers. At the end of the day, the building is an emblem of many peoples politics, and it’s logical to find valid political criticisms. Nonetheless, the building is a concrete gain.
The second answer is that we stand amidst a new type of “world’s fairs.” Today’s world’s fairs are conferences like G8, G20 and the Climate Talks [recently held in Qatar]. It is in conversation and negotiation spaces like these summits that spheres of influence convene. The results of these conferences indicates the direction in which politics, money, and laws will follow. The results of not having diverse representation for people of color, and for poor nations affected by exploitative industries can be catastrophic. Thankfully, at these ‘new world’s fairs’ we also find counterspheres that mirror the work that the Black movements did. These counterspheres are today’s movements that strive for racial, social, economic, environmental justice, and a number of other similiar causes. The strategies that today’s movements follow are not altogether different from those that occurred during the time that Negro Building covers: there are nonviolent and violent confrontations, there are protests in the form of civil disagreements in the streets and in the courtroom, and there are public debates in print and in mainstream web media. Lets hope that in 100 years, the Mabel O. Wilson of 2113 can stand at a podium, unpack the history that unfolds at today’s world’s fairs, and be able to describe concrete gains.
Article written by
Abel "Diego" Romero, SFNOMA Media Coordinator Contact SFNOMA Media at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image 3 - Rendering of Atlanta's 1985 Negro Building
To dig deeper into the conversation:
 Check out Mabel O. Wilson's information via Columbia:
 Pick up a copy of Mabel’s “Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums”, University of California Press, 2012
 Check out upcoming SFNOMA blogs and add your opinion to the articles to keep the conversation going!