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African American

Little-known tidbits about the people and the contributions of African-Americans to society.

Honey For Friends, Stings for Enemies: The Washington Bee

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Issue of The BeeFrom the moment African-Americans could set pen to paper, there was the black-owned newspaper. The role of the black press reached its heights in the postbellum era, as millions of the formerly enslaved black Americans hungered for a voice amidst the clamor and fuss of Reconstruction. This voice grew increasingly important as America shifted towards the Progressive Era, where white newspapers and writers hashed out their thoughts on the “negro problem,” nearly erasing the role in which blacks played in their own lives. Not only were black-owned newspapers a source of information, but they were a sign of a thriving community–when blacks formed neighborhoods in urban areas, or even founded their own towns, the existence of at least one newspaper showed others the success and relative prosperity of the black inhabitants.

William Calvin Chase
William Calvin Chase

One of the most famous and influential black newspapers of the Progressive era was The Washington Bee. The Bee was published weekly from 1882 through 1922, and William Calvin Chase was its sole proprietor and editor until his death in 1921. Chase, a native Washingtonian born in 1854, was also born free, and was college educated and a lawyer, which placed him in a unique position during the highly-charged atmosphere for blacks around the time he became editor of The Bee. In his 1891 book, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, Irvine Garland Penn described The Bee’s reputation thus: “Nothing stings Washington City, and in fact, the Bourbons of the South, as The Bee.” The paper’s own motto “Honey for Friends, Stings for Enemies” summed up Chase’s approach to journalism; he could be fulsome with praise and sincerity towards those he respected, but just as easily scorned and castigated those he didn’t. As a result, many of Chase’s friends found his blunt style indiscreet, for he “never failed to expose, in the most condemnatory manner, any fraud unjust attack or evil that caught his vigilant eye.”

Offices of The Bee
Offices of The Washington Bee, 1109 I Street, NW

However, this sort of disapproval spurred Chase on to action, and though he was a Republican and served as District of Columbia delegate to the party’s national convention in 1900 and again in 1912, he did not mince words about which policies he did not like. Chase also didn’t mince words when it came to black Americans themselves, and he considered it his mission to shine a light on the racism and exclusivity of the black upper-class Washingtonians, who frequently looked down upon the masses of Southern blacks who began to move into the city, and who were appalled by Jim Crow, as they considered themselves a buffer between “low class” blacks and whites. He also called out the black leaders of the day, finding them either too too accommodating or too theoretical to make much of a difference in the lives of ordinary black Americans.

So fearless was Chase, he did not mind losing a government post:

It is related, that on one occasion when Mr. Chase called on President Cleveland, he showed [the President] a copy of The Bee, in which [Chase] had said that in consideration of the number of outrages perpetrated in the South upon the Afro-Americans by the whites, it would cost the lives of millions to inaugurate Grover Cleveland, if elected. Mr. Chase did not deny being the author of the article. Although Cleveland was elected and inaugurated without any bloodshed, and Chase supported in a measure his administration, yet he received his discharge a few weeks afterward, at the instance of the president and Secretary of War Endicott, from the position he held in the government printing-office.

This sort of brazenness had more than once brought Chase to court, where he was five times indicted for libel, and acquitted in every case except one, in which he was fined fifty dollars. Nonetheless, Chase was known and respected by nearly every African-American newspaper editor, writer, etc, regardless of agreement with his editorials, because of the steadfastness with which he held to what he thought was right.

Read issues of The Washington Bee, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition

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view of Paris 1900A major development of the nineteenth century was the emergence of world’s fairs, all of which served to entertain visitors and impress them with the technological and cultural advances of Western nations and their colonies which increased exponentially–and dazzlingly–after the 1851 Great Exhibition hosted by England under the auspices of the Prince Consort. By the 1900 world’s fair, which was held in Paris, there had been eleven other expositions, held in such places as Vienna, Philadelphia, Sydney, New Orleans, Barcelona, and Chicago, which introduced a variety of inventions and cultures to awed visitors.

Interior of Negro ExhibitionThough there were three more expositions of significance by the dawn of WWI (St Louis in 1904, Seattle in 1909, and San Francisco in 1915), the one held in 1900 was unique in that it was the first and last fair to bridge the gap between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This was also the pinnacle of imperialism, and the “nadir of race relations in America.” After witnessing the successful campaign for the inclusion of African-Americans in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, African-Americans viewed the Paris Exhibition as another avenue to promote the progress of their people in the thirty-five years since the end of slavery. The year before the fair, W.E.B. Du Bois, a noted sociologist and activist for African-Americans, began to collect material for the display, and focused on “creating charts, maps, and graphs recording the growth of population, economic power, and literacy among African Americans in Georgia.” In conjunction with Daniel A.P. Murray, assistant to the Librarian of Congress, Du Bois was able to assemble a large collection of written works, which included a bibliography of 1400 titles, 200 books, and many of the 150 periodicals published by black Americans.

Du Bois stated that the objective of the exhibit was quadruple, and by displaying it he hoped to illustrate “the History of the American Negro, the Present condition of the Negro, the Education of the Negro, and Literature of the Negro.” he project was backed with a $15,000 budget appropriated from the American government and amounted to numerous artifacts, including “musical compositions, books by African American authors, and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, their award-winning display of photographs, books, models, maps, patents, and plans from several black universities, including Atlanta, Fisk, Howard, Hampton, and Tuskegee, showed the world African Americans “studying, examining, and thinking of their own progress, and prospect.”

One highlight of the exhibit utilized nine model displays to depict the progress of Negroes from slavery to the present day. The models began with the homeless freedman and end[ed] with the modern brick schoolhouse and its teachers. Finally, to illustrate the increase in population of the race and to demonstrate other contributions, there were charts showing population growth, the decline in illiteracy and a record of the more than 350 patents granted to black men since 1834. Du Bois stated, concerning the exhibit “we have thus, it may be seen, an honest, straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.” As a result of its great success, the Negro Exhibit was awarded with seventeen medals during its time on display at the Paris Exposition. Specifically, it received “two grand prizes, four gold medals, seven silver medals, two bronze medals and two honorable mentions” in the various categories of appraisal.

Further Reading:
About Du Bois and the Paris Exposition
The 1900 Paris Exposition
The Exhibit of American Negroes
W.E.B. Du Bois and the 1900 Paris Exhibition
Africans, Darkies and Negroes: Black Faces at the Pan American Exposition of 1901, Buffalo, New York
A small nation of people: W.E.B. Du Bois and African American portraits of progress from the Library of Congress with essays by David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis.
The Exhibit Online