Black History Month – Hall of Negro Life – 1936
As a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Independence of Texas from Mexico, the United States and the State of Texas commissioned the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition and Celebration. The exhibition served as the United States turn to host the World’s Fair. At that time, the U. S. was in the recovery stage from the Great Depression which severely damaged the county financially.
The Centennial Celebration served as a stimulus project for the Federal government as well as a way to boost the spirits of the country. After a brief competition, Dallas, Texas was chosen as the site of the exposition. The State had started planning for the event many years before it actually took place and made public its plans to host the grand celebration.
A group of ambitious African Americans also had their eyes on participating in the event. Jessie O. Thomas chronicled their efforts in his book, “Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition”. African Americans had long wanted to demonstrate to the world their abilities, achievements and accomplishments, but were denied the opportunity to do so in previous world exhibitions.
W. E. B. Du Bois managed to get a limited showing at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair where he exhibited a collection of African American photographs, charts and maps. His work was highly praised and the Paris exposition judges awarded him a Gold medal for his exhibit. Further efforts to show the world the creativity and resourcefulness of the American Negro was denied until the 1936 Texas fair.
Du Bois inspired Antonio Maceo Smith, a Texas black businessman, to take up the cause of pursing a African American exhibit in Dallas. His efforts, with the help of many black leaders in the state, were overwhelmingly difficult, mostly because of the opposition and obstacles presented by the white leadership of the state.
Fortunately Smith had valuable allies in Washington DC. President Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned to convince black voters to support him for re-election. Roosevelt had also established an informal group of African American advisors know as his Black Cabinet. They had enough influence to offset the obstruction of the white fair commissioners in Texas. According to Jessie O. Thomas, not only did they get funding for a significant African American exhibit, they got an entire exhibition building funded, which was named “The Hall of Negro Life”!
Even in the light of the Hall’s accomplishments the opposition persisted. Even though the Hall was the first building on the Fair Park grounds to be completed, failure by the white construction company to meet required building codes closed the Hall on the opening day of the Texas Centennial Celebration. The fair formally opened on June 6th, the Hall of Negro Life opened 13 days later on the 19th of June, 1936.
The late opening was greeted with an enthusiastic crowd of thousands of supporters. Thomas described the building in his book: “The Building was one-story in height, somewhat L shaped with 14,000 square feet of floor space for exhibits. The Building was flanked with well selected shrubbery in the midst of which were planted flood lights which cast their indirect rays against a background of bright color. In the front of the building, in large letters of wood, twelve inches high, with a bronze finish, appeared ‘THE HALL OF NEGRO LIFE’.
Over the main entrance was a great seal, in the center of which was a heroic figure of a Negro with broken chains from slavery, ignorance and superstition falling from his wrists. While in his hands and all around him were tools symbolic of the Negro’s participation in various phases of American culture including music, industry, agriculture, literature and art”.
The Hall opened with art displayed by renowned artists and murals painted by famed artist Aaron Douglas adorning the entrance of the building. The categories of exhibits on display ranged from education, health, agriculture and business to social services, literature and religion. African America culture was represented by books, black newspapers, colleges and African American folk life exhibits.
October 19 was designated as Negro Achievement Day at the Centennial Exposition. Activities featured football games and track meets while church choirs filled air with song. The estimated attendance that day was 65,000. When the Centennial Exposition ended in November, it was estimated that over 400,000 visitors entered the Hall of Negro Life’s building to inspect its 600 exhibits of which 60 percent of its visitors were white.
As it turned out, the Hall’s astounding success was the source of its demise. The exposition was scheduled to continue another year as the Pan-American Exposition. The administrative staff of the Hall of Negro Life had began planning new exhibits. Then, for reasons unknown, but easily surmised, the Texas Centennial Commission and the City of Dallas voted to discontinue the Negro exhibition and ordered the demolition of the Hall of Negro Life.
Today the Dallas African American Museum sits on the lot where the Hall of Negro Life once stood. As planned by powers in charge, the accomplishments of those who built the Hall was erased from the minds of a generation or more of African American men, women and children. Even though the building has been resurrected, the damage that was done to their vision can never be repaired, but it can now be remembered.
Written by Greg Maxwell (my pen name!!!)