Frederick Douglass never knew the date of his own birth, or even how old he was. “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it,” he wrote. “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday,” he continued in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. But the famous abolitionist and orator eventually chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14, determining that he was probably born 200 years ago, in 1818.
So when Douglass served as the most prominent representative of African Americans at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, from which his race had largely been excluded despite earnest protestation and petition, he was roughly 75 years old.
The organization of the Exposition was in the hands of a Board of Commissioners appointed by President Benjamin Harrison. Composed of seven and a half million people, African Americans made up more than an eighth of the population of the United States, yet Harrison did not appoint a single black commissioner or alternate (eventually one black alternate was chosen, from Missouri). Only one state, New York, appointed a black representative to the Fair; only three of the hundreds of clerical positions associated with the Fair were filled by African Americans; and all black applicants, no matter how qualified, were rejected to serve in the Exposition’s police force, the Columbian Guard.
To publicize this discrimination, Douglass joined forces with the young activist Ida B. Wells, her future husband Ferdinand Lee Barnett, and the journalist Irvine Garland Penn to write and distribute a pamphlet titled The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition at the Fair. “Theoretically open to all Americans, the Exposition practically is, literally and figuratively, a ‘White City,’ in the building of which the Colored American was allowed no helping hand, and in its glorious success he has no share,” wrote Barnett, who was a founder of Chicago’s first black newspaper, The Conservator, and later became Illinois’s first black assistant state’s attorney. “It remained for the Republic of Hayti [sic] to give the only acceptable representation enjoyed by us in the Fair.”
Haiti, which had won its independence from France almost 90 years earlier after a successful slave revolution, was the only black nation with a pavilion in the Fair’s “White City,” named for the gleaming, whitewashed buildings. The proud country appointed Douglass, who had served as a minister of the U.S. government in Haiti, as one of its representatives at the Fair. Whereas Wells had come to Chicago to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the Fair, Douglass was an official part of the Exposition, though he was no less critical for being so.