The Jamestown Exposition

On a whim, I went to Disney World last week. Literally decided Sunday I wanted to go and left on Friday. I hopped in my car, filled the gas tank up, set the GPS and off I went. The ease of modern day travel aiding and abetting my moment of insanity. As I was passing through Atlanta (side note: Atlanta’s interstate is a war zone! FOR NO reason!!!), I wondered where Josie lectured when she was in Atlanta? How she got there? How long she stayed? Josie traveled often: to Boston, Detroit, Baltimore, Norfolk, Atlanta, San Antonio. “Ease of travel” was not something she would have experienced.

Although Josie was well traveled, most of her travel wasn’t for pleasure. She traveled to Black hospitals along the East coast to study their methods of running a hospital. She traveled to Detroit, MI to learn about water therapy/medical shock treatments, to various cities, including Atlanta, raising money for Hubbard Hospital.  But in 1907, Josie went on a much needed vacation. She went on a month long pleasure trip to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C, with a most exciting stop at the Jamestown Exposition in Jamestown, VA. It wasn’t 100% a vacation, as it was rumored in the newspaper her trip was “mingled with business.” However it is the closest I can find to it.

The Jamestown Exposition was a “worlds fair” type event meant to celebrate the 300 years of progress of the United States since the founding of  Jamestown in 1607. There was a Negro Building focused on the progress of Blacks since emancipation. Booker T. Washington was one of the most prominent advocates for the Negro Building and its possibilities. The building was designed by and built by Black craftsman. Every light in the building was wired and installed by Black electricians, 40,000 lights. It must have been a beautiful site to see. States, cities and communities all over the US were invited to create exhibits. The exhibition had a building for every state that wanted to participate for Whites. Blacks had one exhibition building for all states and created individual exhibits within the building. Josie Wells was on the ladies Nashville planning committee for Tennessee. The goal of these planning committees was to put on display the very best of “Negro thrift and industry.”

The exhibits included a full size slave cabin next to a modern day single family home. Exhibits on Black innovation and educational advancements of all sorts were put on display: scientific, medical, literary, agricultural…etc. There was even an exhibit on the first Black Kindergarten, opened in Kansas in the late 19th Century. Josie surely spent time browsing this exhibit. In the same year she spoke in Nashville about the importance of Kindergarten education. Art and music greeted and entertained visitors. Fisk singers performed for visitors daily. Meta Warrick, who was famous for her artistic interpretation of the Black experience, sculpted plaster dioramas of historic scenes. The below image, which I felt was the most compelling, illustrated the first African slaves brought to Jamestown in 1619 (although not the first slaves to the United States, which occurred in the mid 1500’s.) Josie, Meta, female exhibitors throughout the exhibition and many of the Jubilee singers represented not only Black men and their accomplishments, but women as well.

Plaster sculpture by Meta Warrick.

A description of the overall physical appearance of the buildings was published in a Raleigh, NC newspaper in July of 1907.  “Within the ample space of six acres are the Negro Buildings where there are three good, large, neat and well supplied restaurants and one large hotel where colored people can be served with anything they can pay for, in excellent style and by polite attendants.” Note hotels and restaurants had to be built to accommodate the amount of Blacks that would be visiting the exposition. Black Virginia businessmen built restaurants, hotels and even modes of transportation, like steamships, to get the many Black visitors to the exhibition. Although, Josie stayed with friends, Dr. and Mrs. Byrd, in nearby Norfolk.

The most common mode of travel was train, Pullman cars offered travelers comfort for long journeys. Special rates were given for travelers attending the exposition. Josie would have paid the same rate as a White person, but would have had to sit in a much less luxurious car when in any Jim Crow region. And if she had a seat in an integrated Pullman car and the train crossed into Jim Crow territory, she would have had to physically move herself and her belongings to the Jim Crow section or car.

Advertisement, Nashville Tennessee, August 1907

There was no ease of travel for Blacks in Josie’s day. Finding hotels, restaurants and transportation was not something that was “easy.” Blacks were not welcomed at many locations. She could not have just “decided to go” on the fly like I did to Disney World. Travel took planning and even if your trip was meticulously planned you weren’t guaranteed courtesy, kindness and most importantly, safety. I wonder if Josie felt any kind of hesitation, fear or uncertainty? If she did, she didn’t let any of those emotions stop her from her travels. She explored the country learning and educating others and hopefully relaxing and enjoying herself along the way.

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