Women Who Made Noise, part I
Blogger’s note: International Women’s Day kicks off the first of a series of posts pairing women who made history in Chicago. Some blazed a trail; others defied the law; most thought and lived beyond the status quo; all were magnificent women who led magnificently complicated lives. Check in throughout the month of March to see who’s up!
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition can be told as a tale of two women: supreme Chicago socialite and philanthropist Bertha Honoré Palmer and journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. The fair, held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, attracted more than 20 million people and put a gleaming city back on the map after the Great Fire of 1871.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, 1900
Lawrence Carmichael Earle
Oil on canvas
Bertha Honoré Palmer (1849–1918) famously served as president of the Board of Lady Managers during the planning of the fair. Born into a wealthy family in Louisville, Kentucky, she moved to Chicago at age six. The roots of her life as a philanthropist began with her parents’ example during the Civil War: they gave aid to Confederate soldiers imprisoned in Chicago’s Camp Douglas but also supported the Union cause by contributing to the Northwestern Sanitary Fairs, which directly aided Union troops. Bertha’s rise into social prominence continued upon her 1870 marriage to retail magnate and hotelier Potter Palmer. The couple survived the Great Fire, although most of their real-estate holdings were destroyed.
Bertha Honoré Palmer, 1900
Palmer emerged as a grande dame in the remaking of her hometown, during a time when all eyes of the world looked to see if Chicago would make it or break it. At the head of the Board of Lady Managers, she ensured that female artists, architects, and women of ideas participated in the staging of the fair. Some Chicagoans took issue with Palmer and how she approached her task, particularly who was invited to the planning table and who wasn’t. Her associates were primarily of her world—white and highly educated with a privileged perspective.
Unhappy with Palmer’s way of doing things, some women, including a group of prominent suffragists and Catholics, forged their own plans to honor the legacy of Queen Isabella as Christopher Columbus’s patron in his exploration of the New World. They felt slighted from the official organization and wanted representation, but they weren’t the only ones.
Civil rights activist and author Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) took her issue—racism—to the streets and byways of the exposition, sending a message to millions of visitors that she and her fellow African Americans were not represented there. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Spring, Mississippi, but enrolled in college with the help of the Freedman’s Aid Society. Upon the death of her parents, she left her studies and took a teaching job to support her siblings.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, c. 1930
Wells’s life as an activist began in earnest in 1883, when she was forcibly removed from a whites-only train car and sued the railroad company (she won, but the lawsuit would be overturned in 1887). Other African Americans wanted to hear her story, and she embarked on a career of a self-publishing pamphleteer, confronting matters of politics and race and exposing crimes against humanity. In 1892, she was forced to leave the south to protect her own life after her hotly critical and first anti-lynching pamphlet, Southern Horrors, exposed the lynchings of three black businessmen in Memphis.
She came to Chicago the following year. During the fair, she hand-distributed her pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, published with the assistance of Frederick Douglass. The booklet criticized the exclusion of African American people from the fair’s planning and exhibits, where black people were on display as sideshow attractions. Afterward, she stayed in Chicago, marrying Ferdinand Barnett in 1895 and continuing to make a difference as an advocate for racial justice, suffrage, and education.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Bertha Honoré Palmer were contemporaries, leading lives of influence in the same, but different, Chicago.