Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895

Theda Perdue

Racial tensions on display at a landmark cultural event


"Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 is a model for how to read one historical event and find the deep meaning about the larger society in which it occurred. This book reveals the telling authority of racial tension in American life in the 1890s in three taut chapters and enriches our understanding of an event we've all heard about but, in fact, know relatively little about."
—Robert J. Norrell, author of Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington

"This remarkably revealing book shows that an extraordinarily talented historian can turn an event that we thought we already 'knew' into a far richer source of new insight and broader and deeper understanding than we might ever have imagined. Thanks be to Theda Perdue for this illuminating account of the intersection of race, resistance, and imperial ambition in the capital of the 'New South.'"
—James C. Cobb, author of Georgia Odyssey

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The Cotton States Exposition of 1895 was a world’s fair in Atlanta held to stimulate foreign and domestic trade for a region in an economic depression. Theda Perdue uses the exposition to examine the competing agendas of white supremacist organizers and the peoples of color who participated.

White organizers had to demonstrate that the South had solved its race problem in order to attract business and capital. As a result, the exposition became a venue for a performance of race that formalized the segregation of African Americans, the banishment of Native Americans, and the incorporation of other people of color into the region’s racial hierarchy.

White supremacy may have been the organizing principle, but exposition organizers gave unprecedented voice to minorities. African Americans used the Negro Building to display their accomplishments, to feature prominent black intellectuals, and to assemble congresses of professionals, tradesmen, and religious bodies. American Indians became more than sideshow attractions when newspapers published accounts of the difficulties they faced. And performers of ethnographic villages on the midway pursued various agendas, including subverting Chinese exclusion and protesting violations of contracts. Close examination reveals that the Cotton States Exposition was as much about challenges to white supremacy as about its triumph.

Georgia Southern University Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Lecture Series

Page count: 128 pp.
31 b&w photos, 1 table
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5

Read more about the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


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Theda Perdue is the Atlanta Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina. Her eight books include The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears and “Mixed Blood” Indians (Georgia).