The Midway


View Historic Photographs
of the African Village
Pan American Exposition

Photos courtesy of the
Buffalo Museum of Science.

There is no question but that 1901 was an exciting year for the residents of Buffalo, New York, its surrounding communities, and indeed the world as the city was the host for the Pan-American Exposition that year.  In 1899 the United States Congress passed an Act to "encourage the holding of a Pan-American Exposition on the Niagara Frontier." The Act described the purpose of this Exposition as the vehicle "to fittingly illustrate the marvelous development of the Western Hemisphere during the nineteenth century, by a display of the arts, industries, manufactures, and the products of sail, mines and sea."2 During its six month run, the Exposition attracted over 8 million visitors to exhibits and displays that celebrated the monumental scientific, technological and artistic accomplishments of the time.3

Midway Map Midway, Pan American Expo

Maps of Midway
Pan-American Exposition of 1901

As we continue to examine the history of the 1901 Pan American Exposition, particularly the countries and cultures represented on the Midway, none perhaps is so striking as the portrayal of the people of color from around the world, especially those of African descent. For people of African descent, it is particularly striking because it partially illuminates the tragic story of African contact with European imperialism/colonialism.  This is clearly apparent in three exhibits, namely "Darkest Africa," "The Old Plantation" and the "Negro Exhibit," previously thought lost.  

Each exhibit was distinct and tells an important history.The "African Village," for example actually symbolized two elements, the birthplace and ancestry of colonial America's slaves as well as 20th century Africa under colonial rule.  Most of the participants in the African Village, for example, were subjects of the various colonial empires including Britain, Belgium, Germany and others.4Participants of the "Old Plantation" were imported from 19th century slave holding states, namely Georgia, and represented the enslavement of Africans in North America.5The hard fought for "Negro Exhibit," previously exhibited at the International Paris Exposition of 1900,6 represented the accomplishment of slave descendents after less than 40 years of freedom from slavery.

Nubian Parade

Nubian's march in a
Pan  Am Parade

In essence, these three exhibits represent a linear march through time of a people from a period of pre-capture on the African continent to enslavement and later emancipation.The emphasis of the Pan Am was on the first two exhibits that were located on the Midway.  It was on the Midway that visitors paid to witness the "primitive and wild tribes" of Darkest Africa and their "darkie" brethren on the "Old Plantation. " At the same time, the Negro Exhibit, later lost to history for nearly one hundred years, portraying the accomplishments of a formerly enslaved people, languished in near obscurity in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building.

The following is a brief description of the Midway at the Pan American Exposition and each of the exhibits featuring African and African Americans.  (It is, however, important to note that we have not included the "Streets of Cairo" (Egyptian) nor the Cleopatra Exhibit that included scores of Nubians from the Sudan as these represented themes rather than ethnographic "human exhibits." 

The Midway

The foreign-village type of Midway show was introduced at the 1889 Paris Fair and expanded at Chicago in 1893. In Buffalo, directors made a clear if unwarranted distinction between "scholarly" explorations of culture in the Exposition buildings and popular "ethnologies" on the Midway where people from different cultures became living exhibits.

The Pan American theme of human progress from "savage" to "civilized" played itself out on the Midway and reinforced negative attitudes toward people of color.These perceptions were also related to the modernist notions that drove the Exposition: everything western and industrial was good; all else was inferior, suffering at best from what early anthropology dubbed a "cultural lag." The "living exhibits," of particular interest for this page is that of"Darkest Africa," and the "Old Plantation."

Pan American Midway

Midway Parade, Pan-American
Exposition, Buffalo, 1901. 
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Located in the northwest section of the Exposition grounds, the Midway was reputed to have "nearly a mile of streets."10 In fact, the Midway exhibits occupied nearly one-third of the 350 acres that comprised the fair's site.A visitor to the Pan American Exposition's Midway could find much of interest there. As one eye witness observed, "The Midway is interesting always, but especially so in the evening.Its incongruity is perhaps its chief charm.Here, amid surroundings that suggest everything but America, wander people of every age and condition in life."

The Midway featured over forty attractions that provided a curious mix of amusements, sideshow style entertainment and "educational" exhibits.For an additional cost, the Midway visitor could explore "Darkest Africa", attend a minstrel show at the "Old Plantation" or venture into the future in the "Trip to the Moon".In fact, given the promotion of the exotic, the novel and even the forbidden, it is no wonder that the Midway attracted millions of fair goers.According to Leary and Sholes most of the 8.1 million visitors to the Exposition made the Midway"a central destination" of their visit.

Darkest Africa

This was a "human exhibit" arranged by Xavier Pene an explorer, entrepreneur who was the "accredited agent of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution.  Pene had gone to Africa to secure "his company of natives," primarily from the West Coast of Africa. The purpose of the exhibit was "to present not only a strange form of entertainment for the curious onlooker, but it will be an intensely interesting scientific ethnological exhibit-a character study of the various races of equatorial Africa." A newspaper article, contested by some researchers, reported that "the European governments in whose African possessions these people are found, strenuously oppose the temporary emigration of large numbers for exhibition, and it was with exceeding difficulty that permission was granted."

The same article reported that Pene did, however, secure permission but had to assure these various governments, British, German, French and Portuguese that the object of transporting the Africans to the Exposition was purely scientific and educational.Pene also had to pay for "his natives," such that "It was necessary to deposit a large sum in gold as security for the return of the natives to their country at the close of the Exposition." 

Where did these Africans come from? It was reported that Occupants for the African Village were "obtained from Libreville, on the Gabon, in French Congo, hardly a degree north of the equator, to Mopamades, in Angola or Portuguese West Africa, sixteen degrees south.The best-known natives are the Pongos of the Gabun, whose Bantu language is generally spoken along the coast.In the interior, east of Gabun, are the Fans, a rising power, which are driving the Congos to the coast.The Fans are cannibals, but their cannibalism has been abandoned, except by those far in the interior where prisoners of war are still eaten."

The African Village was billed as an ethnological exhibit but was also considered to be "one of the leading entertainment features of the Pan American Midway"  which was to have enormous economic success. It occupied a prominent location not far from the main entrance to the Midway and has a site covering over 60,000 square feet. It was one of the largest concessions on the amusement street of the exposition.

Immediately outside the exhibit, a child 'spieler,' or 'barker' dressed in exotic clothing, was "barking" out the promise of excitement within."African Village inhabitants were portrayed as fascinating but dangerous: "African warriors from Darkest Africa - Assegal Throwers, Zulus, Cannibals." Sixty-two people supposedly representing 35 tribes were brought to Buffalo to demonstrate weapons, handicrafts, songs, dances and it was said, witchcraft.Only one, John Tivie, had been outside Africa before, to Chicago in 1893, and they all remained secluded in their compound."

Within the village, from May to October, eleven tribes from the West Coast of Africa demonstrated village life, performed dances, and produced handcrafts.The native builders preceded the main company to make the village ready for its occupants when the Pan-American Exposition gates were thrown open on the first of May.A consignment of building materials for the village came from Libreville by French steamer.The Africans also brought with them the materials and household utensils they needed to build traditional huts, implements of labor, weapons of war and the chase.The artifacts included spears, axes, knives, and swords.  In the center of the village was a big dancing pavilion.Here the "fetetch" dance was performed at the close of the evening. 

On completion, the building gave no more than a bare hint of the interior curiosities that would greet the visit to the African Village upon the opening of the exposition.

What were the names
of the African Women
on the Midway?

The names of these women were most
graciously provided by Kevin Smith,
Associate Curator of Anthropology,
Buffalo Museum of Science.

Newspaper reported state that:"There were representatives of fifteen tribes from the Ashantis of the Gold Coast to the dwarf Ocoas of the Upper Congo River, a company, all told, of about 150 uncivilized blacks, men, women and children, living precisely as they do in their jungle homes, in huts build by themselves of materials which will be brought from Africa for that purpose and put together by native builders."

The different tribes were represented by families or villages, each having a number of their artisans and tradesmen and exhibits of the products of their country.There was ivory, gold and coffee from the French Congo and coffee, iron, cautchouc and palm oil from Angola.

It was indeed an interesting group of natives who came to the Exposition.There were members of the Congo Royal Guards and a corps of native dancers, who will perform the "King's Dance of the Dahomeyans." For at least one of this group, this was not their first time in America.The group from Dahomey had also participated at the Chicago's World's Fair in 1893.At that time, Xavier Pene was also their agent.

While there appeared to be little or no attempt to make a connection between the Africans and the participants on the Old Plantation, an interesting feature of the entertainment was that the villagers were expected "to provide the African chants of which, it was said, all the Southern Negro melodies present modifications.The original chants are the common songs of the different tribes.Lecturers will also relate the folk tales, those of "Brer Fox" and "Brer Rabbit," amid realistic surroundings."

The Popularity of the Exhibit

Promoters of the African Village billed it as being ". the largest and most interesting company of blacks that has landed in America since slavery days."It was also billed to "be the last exhibit of wild, native life from the tangled jungles of West Africa that will ever be transported to any civilized country. The protecting powers have agreed to forbid it and the people of Pan-America will be curious to see the natives whom the great powers of the earth are afraid to let out of their sight."

At the exhibit, a pamphlet entitled,"Darkest Africa, Real African Life in a Real African Village" was sold depicting the Darkest Africa exhibit.It was reported in the pamphlet, that the Village was "In the Midway but not of it."It stated specifically that "Being on the Midway it must use Midway methods or be neglected, but it still remains that the exhibit is not a mere Midway show, but one of high scientific and educational interest."

"Darkest Africa was also billed as an ethnological exhibit but was also considered to be "one of the leading entertainment features of the Pan American Midway." Leary and Scholes reported that "exceptional interest attached to the African Village because of its scientific associations but point out that"The degree of ability and knowledge present within the compound was ignored by some visitors who wanted only to see the Africans practice vile and unspeakable acts despite the fact that those were largely fictions created by the promoters."


Pan American Magazine, 1899.

Leary, Thomas and Elizabeth Sholes. Images of America. Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition, 1998. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, p.7.

Express, March 31, 1901.

Barry, Richard H. Snapshots on the Midway of the Pan American Exposition. Buffalo. New York: Robert Allen Reed. 1901.

W.E.B. DuBois. The Negro Exhibit. American Monthly Review of Reviews (22), November, 1900.

Leary and Sholes.



Ibid. Buffalo History Works. Reprinted from the Official Catalogue and Guide Book; The Midway to the Pan American Exposition.

Betts, Lillian W. "The People at the Pan- American.The Outlook, No. 69, September 14, 1901.

Leary, Thomas and Elizabeth Sholes. Images of America: Buffalo's Pan American Exposition. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Press, 1998.

Leary and Sholes, p. 103.

Express, March 31, 1901.

Express. March 31, 1901.






Leary and Sholes, p. 102.

Express. March 31, 1901.

Pan Am African Village, 190.

Courier, July 25, 1901.


Express. March 31, 1901.






Darkest Africa.Real African Life in a Real African Village. Pamphlet, p. 4.