A Celebration of "Progress"

This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, expositions and fairs were a way of educating people not only about their nation and its place in the world but also about their own place in American society. In 1893, over 27 million people attended the World’s Columbian Exposition—an exposition that used architecture, artifacts, and “living exhibits” to celebrate “American progress.” Held in Chicago to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas, it attracted over 13 million Americans—about one of every five people in the nation. The fair was designed to prove that “the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people,” is the result of natural selection. Many of the exhibits illustrated “the steps of progress of civilization and its arts in successive centuries, and in all lands up to the present time.” The aim was “to teach a lesson; to show the advancement of evolution of man.” That lesson was rooted in social Darwinism—the idea that competition rewards “the strong”.

That kind of patriotism appealed to many Americans, including Francis J. Bellamy, an editor of the popular children’s magazine Youth’s Companion. At his urging, Congress made October 12, 1892, a national holiday. On that day children gathered at schools and churches to celebrate Columbus’s achievements and the fair by reciting a “Pledge of Allegiance” that Bellamy wrote for the occasion: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” At the exposition, hundreds of schoolgirls dressed in red, white, and blue formed a living flag as they recited the pledge. In years to come, children across the nation—immigrant and native-born alike—would stand and recite that same pledge at the start of every school day.

To underscore the progress of the flag and the “inevitable triumph” of “white civilization” over Native Americans, the organizers invited several Sioux chiefs to the opening ceremonies. They made a brief appearance and then quietly left center stage, as a chorus sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” A reporter for the Chicago Tribune noted, “Nothing in the day’s occurrences appealed to the sympathetic patriotism so much as this fallen majesty slowly filing out of sight as the flags of all nations swept satin kisses through the air, waving congratulations to the cultured achievement and submissive admiration to a new world.”1

That message also shaped the design of the exposition. The White City, as the fair was called, was supposed to represent the crowning achievement of American cultural and economic progress. In The City of the Century, historian Donald L. Miller writes:

The spacious exhibition halls were arranged in sympathy with their natural surroundings and were conveniently interconnected by picturesque walkways and two and a half miles of watercourse. At almost every major point on the grounds, footsore sightseers could climb aboard a “swift and silent” electric launch or flag down a smaller battery-run boat—like hailing a cab—and head to the next spot on their guidebook agenda. The railroad that circled the grounds was the first in America to operate heavy, high-speed trains by electricity, and it ran on elevated tracks, posing no danger to pedestrians at a time when trains, trolleys, and cable cars killed more than four hundred people a year on the streets of Chicago.

The streets and pavements of the White City were free of refuse and litter and patrolled by courteous Columbian Guards, drilled and uniformed like soldiers in the Prussian army; there was also a secret service force. . . . Every water fountain was equipped with a Pasteur filter, and the model sanitary system . . . worked flawlessly, converting sewage into solids and burning it, the ashes being used for road cover and fertilizer. There were no garish commercial signs, and with the concessionaires licensed and monitored, the fairgoers walked the grounds free from the nuisance of peddlers and confidence men, yet with the myriad pleasures of metropolitan life near at hand. The pavilions were vast department stores stocked with the newest consumer products, and in the course of a crowded day of sightseeing, visitors could stop at courteously staffed coffee shops, teahouses, restaurants, and beer gardens located at ground level or on rooftop terraces. The White City seemed to suggest a solution to almost every problem afflicting the modern city. . . .2

Problems that did not lend themselves to technological solutions were ignored. The week the exposition opened, a depression began in the United States. By 1894, over 16,000 businesses and 500 banks had failed. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. The organizers paid no attention to these Americans other than to hire guards to keep them off the fairgrounds.

Officials also tried to eliminate dissent at the fair. Although many of the nation’s leading thinkers, reformers, and religious leaders spoke at the exposition, audiences were not permitted to ask questions nor were the speakers allowed to address one another directly. Many Americans found the idea of a clean, sparkling city without controversy or poverty refreshing, even inspiring. The Chicago Tribune described the White City as “a little ideal world, a realization of Utopia . . . [foreshadowing] some far away time when the earth should be as pure, as beautiful, and as joyous as the White City itself.” To Robert Herrick and other visitors to the Exposition, it was a magical place. He wrote: “The people who could dream this vision and make it real, those people . . . would press on to greater victories than this triumph of beauty—victories greater than the world had yet witnessed.”3

At the nearby Midway Plaisance—a strip of land a mile long and 600 feet wide across from the White City, visitors encountered a lesson in “race science” and social Darwinism. Here they saw “living exhibits”—representatives of the world’s “races” including Africans, Asians, and American Indians. The two German and two Irish villages were located nearest to the White City. Farther away and closer to the center of the Midway were villages representing the Middle East, West Asia, and East Asia. Then, wrote literary critic Denton J. Snider, “we descend to the savage races, the African of Dahomey and the North American Indian, each of which has its place” at the far end of the Plaisance. “Undoubtedly,” he noted, “the best way of looking at these races is to behold them in the ascending scale, in the progressive movement; thus we can march forward with them starting with the lowest specimens of humanity, and reaching continually upward to the highest stage” so that “we move in harmony with the thought of evolution.”

The fair’s organizers promoted the idea that the “savage races” were dangerous by warning that “the [Dahomey] women are as fierce if not fiercer than the men and all of them have to be watched day and night for fear they may use their spears for other purposes than a barbaric embellishment of their dances.” “The stern warning,” writes anthropologist Lee Baker, “reinforced many Americans’ fears that African Americans could not be trusted and were naturally predisposed to immoral and criminal behavior and thus kept away from white people through segregation.”4

Some groups were outraged at the way they were presented at the fair. Emma Sickles, the chair of the Indian Committee of the Universal Peace Union, protested portrayals of Native Americans at the exhibition in The New York Times on October 8, 1893. Her letter states in part:

Every effort has been put forth to make the Indian exhibit mislead the American people. It has been used to work up sentiment against the Indian by showing that he is either savage or can be educated only by government agencies. This would strengthen the power of everything that has been “working” against the Indians for years. Every means was used to keep the self-civilized Indians out of the Fair. The Indian agents and their backers knew well that if the civilized Indians got a representation in the Fair the public would wake up to the capabilities of the Indians for self-government and realize that all they needed was to be left alone.

African American leaders also protested. Frustrated and angry that “the Negroes’ ‘progress’” was ignored, two well-known African American activists, Frederick Douglass (Chapter 2) and Ida B. Wells, took matters in their own hands. They wrote and then distributed to fairgoers a pamphlet entitled The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. As a concession to African Americans, organizers set aside a day in August as “Colored Jubilee Day.” Although many blacks refused to participate, Douglass agreed to speak. He used the occasion to outline the progress made by African Americans since the Civil War despite injustices, acts of violence, and blatant persecution. He also lambasted fair organizers who fostered the belief “that our small participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition is due either to our ignorance or to our want of public spirit.”


  • 1 : Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1892.
  • 2 : Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster from City of the Century: The Epic of the Making of America by Donald L. Miller. Copyright © 1996 by Donald L. Miller.
  • 3 : Memoirs of an American Citizen by Robert Herrick. Harvard University Press, 1963, p. 147. Originally published in 1905.
  • 4 : From Savage to Negro by Lee D. Baker. University of California Press, 1998, p. 58.

Connection Questions

  1. What is a fair? What is its purpose? How was the Columbian Exposition like other fairs you have attended? In what sense was it unique? What message did the exposition convey? What emotions did it prompt? Who was the intended audience? What do you think they learned from the fair?
  2. How did the fair encourage patriotism? Build pride in the nation? Whom did the organizers see as part of that nation? Who seemed to lie beyond its universe of obligation? How did the organizers of the Columbian Exposition answer the question of Chapter 1: What do you do with a difference?
  3. What does it mean to associate “whiteness” with being an American at a time of mass immigration?
  4. Historian Donald I. Miller writes, “The White City seemed to suggest a solution to almost every problem afflicting the modern city.” Identify some of those problems and the way each was solved in the White City. At whose expense were many of these problems solved?
  5. Why do you think many Americans found the idea of city without controversy refreshing? What does this reading suggest about how those who disagreed with the majority could get heard in the late 1800s? How have new technologies affected our ability to voice our opinions? To have those opinions heard and respected?
  6. To what extent was the “White City” a utopia? How is it like the “Masterpiece Society” described on pages 31 and 32? What differences seem most striking? Is either a democracy? A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. To what extent was the Midway a dystopia? What lessons did it teach?
  7. How did the fair’s organizers define civilization? Barbarism? Savagery? What do those words mean to you? Record your definitions in your journal so that you can revise, expand, and deepen them as you continue to read.
  8. Emma Sickles protested the way Indians were portrayed at the fair. Why was she outraged at the omission of “self-civilized” Indians? How does she seem to define the term self-civilized? What do you think it means to be “self-civilized”? If the so-called “inferior races” are able to “civilize” themselves, what questions do their efforts raise about social Darwinism? About the validity of the notion of “inferior” and “superior” races?
  9. How did the organizers use “modern science,” including Charles Darwin’s theories (page 63), to reinforce old myths about “race”? How did they use “science” to not only rank the “races” but also justify those rankings? Anthropologist Lee Baker believes that “the ethnological exhibits provided easy answers for Americans who were seeking ways to explain the violent chaos that erupted at the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, race and labor riots in 1892, terrorizing lynch mobs, and reports that African Americans composed the most criminal element in society.” Research one event on Baker’s list. What “easy answers” did the fair provide? Who might be attracted to those “easy answers”?
  10. The Columbian Exposition was one of several “world’s fairs” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Research another fair, like the one in St. Louis in 1904 to mark the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. What did fairgoers learn about human differences—about us and them?

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