In a nod to his relative political and economic clout, Napoleon Hagans was named an Honorary Commissioner of the 1884 World Industrial and Cotton Centennial. (The certificate is little hard to read, but that’s his name at the center fold.) According to the official program, Hon. H.K. Bruce [sic, this was surely Blanche K. Bruce, Republican Senator for Missouri 1875-1881] was Chief of Department, Colored Exhibits, and North Carolina’s “Honorary State Commissioners (Colored)” were J.S. Leary of Fayetteville and Jno. H. Williamson of Louisburg.
The 1884 World’s Fair was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, at a time when nearly one third of all cotton produced in the United States was handled in that port city. The Cotton Planters Association first advanced the idea for the fair, dubbed “World Cotton Centennial” because 1784 marked the earliest surviving record of export of a shipment of cotton from the United States to England.
The U.S. Congress lent $1 million to the Fair’s directors and gave $300,000 for the construction of a large Government & State Exhibits Hall on the site. However, the planning and construction of the fair was marked by corruption and scandals, and the Louisiana state treasurer absconded abroad with $1.7 million of state money, including most of the fair’s budget.
Despite such serious financial difficulties, the Fair succeeded in offering many attractions to visitors. It covered 249 acres stretching from Saint Charles Avenue to the Mississippi River and could be entered directly by railway, steamboat, or ocean-going ship. The main building enclosed 33 acres and was then the largest roofed structure ever constructed. The building was illuminated with 5,000 electric lights – still a novelty at the time and said to be ten times the number then existing in the rest of New Orleans. There was also a Horticultural Hall, an observation tower with electric elevators, and working examples of multiple designs of experimental electric street-cars. The Mexican exhibit was particularly lavish and popular, constructed at a cost of $200,000 dollars, and featuring a huge brass band that was a great hit locally.
On December 16, 1884, two weeks behind schedule, President Chester Arthur opened the Fair via telegraph. It closed on June 2, 1885. In an unsuccessful attempt to recover financial losses, the grounds and structures were reused for the North Central & South American Exposition from November 1885 to March 1886. Thereafter the structures were publicly auctioned off, most going only for their worth in scrap.
The site today is Audubon Park and Audubon Zoo in Uptown New Orleans.
Adapted from World Cotton Centennial, www.wikipedia.org. Copy of certificate courtesy of William E. Hagans.