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The Atlanta Negro Building and the Origins of the Harlem Renaissance

Interior of the Negro Building. (Image: Atlanta History Center)
Interior of the Negro Building. (Image: Atlanta History Center)

In his 1893 oil painting, The Banjo Lesson, Henry O. Tanner depicted poor, rural black life with dignity. Colored in earth tones, an oldman sits with a young boy on his lap. The pair appears to have a close bond, as the man passes down his knowledge of the banjo, a staple in black music. The painting tackles the negative imagery of African Americans of that era and offers a peek into what later would be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance, or New Negro Movement, began its rise not in New York City but in Atlanta, Georgia, at a place named the Negro Building at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. The three-month fair took place in what is now Piedmont Park. As the nation moved towards a century of progress, U.S. world fairs and expositions took place in major cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Chicago. These fairs introduced new innovations, major brands, inventions, and companies to the world. But for the “Capital of the South,” the Negro Building was the first of its kind, and a key instrument of the New South movement.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893; oil on canvas.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893; oil on canvas. Hampton University Museum, Virginia.

This New South, as uttered by its most vocal backer, Henry Grady, was “a South of union and freedom,” ridding itself of its sleepy, rural towns and plantations in favor of railroads and factories. But in order for the region to attract new business and capital, it needed to prove that the Old South of “slavery and secession” was truly gone with the wind. While the Cotton States Exposition displayed the New South to the world, the Negro Building presented the first step towards racial progress.

Situated to the right, when one enters the Charles Allen Drive entrance to Piedmont Park, this 25,000-square-foot gray shingled, Romanesque style building had a “beautiful main front with large windows, and four corner pavilions; a large central tower [rising] 70 feet above the floor line, adding much to the general design.”

Opening a month after Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington delivered his “Atlanta Compromise” speech, just a few feet away, the Negro Building gave African Americans their first public space in a white-dominated setting. Inside were hundreds of art pieces in the form of sculptures, paintings, books, literature, and performances. The exhibits gave a platform for both prominent and everyday blacks to express themselves. While the black voice, both political and artistic, had always existed, the Negro Building was the first space that allowed it to be heard by a global audience. Anyone could visit the Negro Building. And they did.

Accomplished black sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who resided in Rome, Italy, for most of her career, participated in three expositions, including the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 where her most revered work, The Death of Cleopatra, was displayed. The marble piece, weighing two tons, shows the queen perched lifeless on her African throne, her head slumped back and left arm dangling to the side. Instead of an image of strength and power, Lewis sculpted Cleopatra at her weakest moment: at death right after she poisons herself. The piece was admired during the fair. A reporter wrote that, aside from an Italian classical piece, Lewis’s sculpture “excites more admiration and gathers larger crowds around it,” than any other exhibit.

Edmonia Lewis, Death of Cleopatra, 1876; marble, 63 by 31.25 by 46 inches.
Edmonia Lewis, Death of Cleopatra, 1876; marble, 63 by 31¼ by 46 inches.

President Grover Cleveland made a stop during his one-day visit to the fair. Inside, a white statue caught his eye. A photo shows the President peering up at the looming sculpture A Negro with Chains Broken But Not Off. The work, by W.C. Hill, makes a case for the New Negro. A black man stands with his arms up, slave chains broken but still bound to his wrist. He appears to beseech the crowd, looking down with hope and conviction that soon he will completely be free of bondage. Hill was likely a student, as more than two dozen black schools and colleges contributed works to the building. A Negro with Chains represented the long struggle ahead for civil rights, despite the end of legalized slavery. Hill counterattacked Washington’s rhetoric of subservience. While Washington’s speech was touted as evidence that the South was on its way to a post-racial, industrial boomtown, Hill revealed the longer road ahead.

Lewis did not attend the Atlanta Exposition but the Negro Building exhibited a neoclassical bust of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, which she likely created from marble. She was even commissioned to do the portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1877. Her other busts were likenesses of army generals and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Col. Robert Shaw, and John Brown.

The work of other African American women inside the exhibition hall included intricate quilts, crochet pieces, baked goods, needlework and paintings. A woman’s affairs section gave black women a space, since the all-white Woman’s Building prohibited their presence. Spelman College, then known as Spelman Seminary, had a mock sick room orchestrated by its student nurses. Carrie Steele Logan, of the Carrie Steele Orphanage in Atlanta, had an exhibit promoting her services in childcare and education. Steele, a former maid who worked in downtown Atlanta, opened her facility in 1888. Today, it serves as a learning and cultural center for children and adolescents.

Depiction of President Grover Cleveland visiting the Atlanta Negro Building, with W.C. Hill's sculpture A Negro with Chains Broken But Not Off in the background.
Depiction of President Grover Cleveland visiting the Atlanta Negro Building, with W.C. Hill’s sculpture A Negro with Chains Broken But Not Off in the background.

Long before the beats, brushstrokes, and ballads of the 1920s, the New Negro movement sought to combat images of the blackface, the shiftless Negro, the Uncle Ruckus and the mammy—the racist caricatures used to portray African Americans. The building, for anyone who was interested in entering, gave authorship of representation back to its people. The New York Outlook wrote that it saw, “evidences of the aspirations and upward striving of a race no longer content with being mere hewers of wood,” while the President was “greatly pleased with the exhibit.” But for many of its participants, proving their capabilities to whites was not important. Rather, it was to have an arena to showcase their artistic development.

The New South upheld its racist foundation, and it would be a half-century later before organized civil resistance led to equal rights under the law, for all people. But the Negro Building contributed to these early efforts, and gave African Americans a space for their political and artistic self-expression. Two decades later, the likes of James Baldwin, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald would continue this New Negro movement, and black arts and culture was soon woven into the American mainstream.

Annabella Jean-Laurent is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who blogs at militantbarbie.com.
Her writing explores race, media, and gender in society. 
 
The Negro Building in what is now Piedmont Park.
The Negro Building in what is now Piedmont Park.
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