The historical visual record of the United States is marred by gaps and distortions, especially in representing race and equality. But if we view past images as simply uniform and unchanging, we will fail to catch significant examples that defied the “visual order.” And some of those exceptions appeared in commercial publications, not as you might expect from alternative or minority periodicals, in part because the readership of those newspapers and magazines included African Americans and their allies.
1876 marked America’s one-hundredth birthday, and the center of the celebration was the lavish Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Boasting 450 acres of technological wonders, national resources, and achievements in art and culture, the lavish fair was more about the future than the past, heralding the nationâ€™s triumphant recovery and dynamic growth since its bloody civil war. Although it opened in the third year of the worst economic depression in U.S. history up to that time (a shantytown outside the fair grounds threatened to dampen the celebration until city officials tore it down), the Exposition drew ten million visitors and every pictorial publication in the country covered its attractions for months. But there was little either on the fair grounds or in print that acknowledged, let alone celebrated, the very recent extraordinary experience of emancipation and Reconstruction
Indeed, African Americans as players in the fairâ€™s activities were noted more by their absence. The Womenâ€™s Pavilion excluded black women even though they had helped raise money to construct the exhibit. No black workers were hired to construct the fair and those who were employed on the grounds during its six-month run only did menial tasks (including work in the Southern Restaurant where, one guidebook explained, â€œa band of old-time plantation â€˜darkiesâ€™ . . . sing their quaint melodies and strum the banjoâ€).
Undaunted, many African Americans visited the Centennial Exposition, determined to participate in the national celebration. Their efforts became grist for the mill of popular artists such as Harperâ€™s Weeklyâ€™s Sol Eytinge, Jr., whose â€œBlackvilleâ€ series of comic illustrations offered to readers across the country a continuous supply of buffoonish portrayals of freedpeople.
One extraordinary exception to the racial divide that the Centennial marked both socially and symbolically was the statue of The Freed Slave, which stood in the expositionâ€™s massive Memorial Hall. Significantly, this bold, life-size figure holding the Emancipation Proclamation aloft and breaking his own chains was sculpted by an Austro-Italian artist, Francesco Pezzicar, and mounted as part of Austriaâ€™s contribution to the fair. It also was the focus of unusual derision by American commentators. Atlantic editor William Dean Howells, for example, called it â€œa most offensively Frenchy negro, who has broken his chain, and spreading both his arms and legs abroad is rioting in a declamation of something from Victor Hugo; one longs to clap him back into hopeless bondage.â€
But as this engraving published in an August issue of Frank Leslieâ€™s Illustrated Newspaper attested, the statue was a magnet for African-American visitors of all classes, a powerful visual symbol from abroad that commemorated their hard fought achievements and, even in the face of violence and faltering federal commitment, persistent aspirations. The statue (which returned to Trieste, where it is now housed in the Civico Museo Revoltella, Galleria dâ€™arte moderna) was to have no counterpart in the United States until the unveiling of the Boston memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in 1897 .
The Frank Leslie’s engraving, based on a sketch by “special artist” Fernando Miranda, offers a unique perspective on the Centennial and African-American participation. It could be argued that this scene of African Americans gathered around the “striking and impressive” statue of The Freed Slave in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition merely domesticated the black experience, safely relegating slavery to a grim past, situating freedom as fulfilled as opposed to its reality as deferred. But if we take into account the abuse that was showered on the Memorial Hall statue and the overall exclusion of African Americans from the Centennial’s celebrationsâ€”as well as the range of black types portrayedâ€”the engraving stands as a powerful statement of dignity and equality.