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Taking Texas to the World: The 1937 Greater Texas & Pan-American Exposition

Americans primarily remember the 1930s as the time of the great depression. However, it was also a time during which technology and culture were advertised and celebrated at enormous
fairs and expositions. These spectacles helped organize and present a symbolic representation of modern culture and industrial progress.[1]

Beginning in the late 19th century, the idea of "Pan-Americanism" began to take hold in the Americas. The United States promoted the unity of interests and economic activity among the nations of the Americas as a bulwark against the competition among European nations for dominance, which had begun to expand westward. With its visual splendor, the exposition or fair would provide an excellent vehicle to showcase a new Pan-American order. The 1936 centennial of Texas independence also fell during this period. Texas being Texas, a huge centennial exposition was held in Dallas, Texas. Multiple buildings were constructed in the Fair Park complex with grand names, such as the Hall of State, the Centennial Building, and the Esplanade of State

A group of Dallas officials and civic boosters looked at the massive complex that had recently hosted the enormously successful Texas centennial celebration and decided to take that celebration to the world. The centennial buildings at Fair Park would be transformed into a Pan-American paradise with palm trees planted down a grand esplanade and buildings re-decorated into tropical dreamlands. However, this was not just a show; it was a statement. The exposition was an attempt to center the State of Texas as the commercial and cultural center of a new Pan-American international structure. Texas did so by featuring competitions, the commercial superiority of Texas and the United States, and an Anglo-focused definition and display of foreign cultures.

As a place, Texas has always been a land of competition. From the early Spanish conflict with indigenous peoples to the Texas revolution against Mexico, Texas requires and seems to reward intense competition and competitors. The enormously successful Texas Centennial event boasted an attendance of over six million people. Dallas officials decided to exploit this success and put on another exhibition that would center Texas and, by extension, the United States in the newly forming Pan-American architecture. The buildings were renamed to reflect the international flavor of the event. For example, the Esplanade of State became the "Esplanade of the Americas," and the Midway became "La Rambla.” Each day opened with an elaborate production called the Cavalcade of the Americas. This grand pageant featured reenactments of struggles against European domination, including the arrival of Columbus, Cortez's conquest of Mexico, and the American Revolution.

Within this framework, several competitions would occur, some intended, some not. There were multiple contests from locations around the United States to draw attention to the Exposition. A field of several hundred people would race from Chicago to Dallas on roller skates for a $2,500 purse. Bicycle riders from around the United States would compete in a 100-mile race on the Exposition grounds. Other competitions were discussed, including an automobile race on the grounds, a boat race on White Rock Lake, a bicycle race from New York to Dallas, and even a foot race from Mexico City.

The spirit of friendly competition was most focused on what was sometimes referred to as the Pan-American Olympic Games. The Olympics, of course, are a well-established showcase for a nation's athletes and are viewed traditionally as bringing the world together in a spirit of goodwill and sporting competition. The officials of the Pan-American Exposition saw an Olympic-style competition as an excellent way to increase interest and participation in the Exposition.

The games included soccer, football, track and field, a marathon, and boxing. An Olympic-style flame was lit in the relatively new Cotton Bowl stadium on the Exposition grounds, which was decorated specifically for the games. The auto race was also considered part of the event. The amateur athletic federations of various countries sanctioned the event as well.

Notably, the Pan-American games would occur in the segregated South, but the competition would be necessarily multi-racial. Though not advertised as such, the games provided an opportunity for improving more than just international relations. However, controversy intervened with a black runner named John Woodruff set what, by all appearances, was a world record in the 800-meter race.

John Woodruff was the grandson of formerly enslaved people in Virginia. He was already famous for winning a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Days before the Exposition, Woodruff had set a new meet record in the 800 meters at the AAU championships in Milwaukee. The Pan-American track and field events were held in the Cotton Bowl stadium on a track that measured five laps to the mile. A team from Southern Methodist University had measured the track, and the Dean of Engineering certified it personally.

Woodruff ran a world-record time of 1:47.8 in the 800 meters, proving the games' highlight. A week after the race, the spirit of the times rose its ugly head when officials declared that the track had been six feet too short. Officials stripped the record from Woodruff. Woodruff sought answers from the sanctioning body but never got a reply. The incident was never fully resolved, and the obvious suspicions remain that Woodruff was the victim of racism.[2]

Woodruff’s ordeal reminds us that the Pan-American Exposition occurred against a backdrop of societal competition. While the Exposition touted unity and peace, such was not available within the host country's borders. While men like John Woodruff represented their home country successfully in international competition, they faced a different and much less fair battle for equality at home.

The Pan-American games are the last surviving remnant of the 1937 Exposition and are being held every four years to this day. Though many histories put the origin of the games much later, the 1937 Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition was their debut.

One of the primary features of the prominent fairs of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the bold displays of commercial progress. In particular, Texas needed to demonstrate its economic bona fides as a modern economy that had recovered from the Civil War. Even more specifically, Dallas wanted to continue enjoying its self-image of a cosmopolitan economic and financial center, especially compared to its neighbor Fort Worth.

Dallas sought to accomplish this goal by tying itself to the East. Dallas was a center for the cotton trade and had a comprehensive plan for urban development. The State Fair of Texas called Dallas home beginning in the late nineteenth century. Of course, Dallas had also landed the centennial celebration. Since it dominated the fairs in Texas, why couldn’t it dominate the Pan-American community?

Though primarily a cultural event, the 1937 Exposition featured several commercial opportunities. The United States, and Texas, were the Americas' manufacturing juggernauts and would use this opportunity to show it off. The Pan-American Palace was the commercial center of the Exposition. Various Latin American countries displayed such agricultural products as coffee, rubber, and tobacco. Silversmiths and weavers made rings and colorful serapes in the spirit of commercial competition. By exploiting its position as a leader in civic boosterism, the 1937 Exposition would bring continued economic activity to Dallas, this time from all of the Americas, thereby solidifying Dallas’ claim as a commercial center of Texas.

There is a significant overlap of commercial and cultural forces in most societies. Dallas, and by extension Texas, wanted to project its influence over the newly forming Pan-American community by hosting the 1937 Exposition. The organizers of the Exposition decided to promote it primarily as an avenue of cultural awareness and exchange. By doing so, Texas could spread the United States' ideals that had led to commercial dominance. It would prove challenging, however. Social values in the southern United States were not fully mature enough to accommodate too cosmopolitan a culture. Early twentieth-century Texas's racial and cultural insensitivity would lead to difficult circumstances at the Exposition.

One of the more amusing missteps caused internal conflict among the organizers. As part of the effort to take the lead in all things cultural, the Exposition officials sought to organize a group of Dallas' most beautiful women to serve as the official hostesses of the event. Dubbed "Texanitas,” these ladies would star in the Exposition’s twice-daily pageant called the Cavalcade of the Americas.

There was one problem. To better represent Latin culture, the organizers announced they would only audition brunettes for the role. One blond-haired hostess from Dallas, Ms. Helen Ramsey, called foul. Ms. Ramsey had worked as a hostess at the previous year's centennial celebration. She had also been selected as the model for a twenty-foot-tall sculpture on the centennial’s Esplanade of State. Ms. Ramsey gathered six other blond colleagues to protest their exclusion and conducted a sit-in in Dallas Mayor George Sergeant's office. After a crowd of supporters began to gather, Exposition officials gave in and waived the brunette requirement.

Other Exposition demonstrations were more controversial. A grand pageant called the Cavalcade of the Americas played twice a day. The production included a smoking volcano, 2500 costumes, and a scale model of one of Columbus’ ships. The controversy concerned the opening scene, which featured the reenactment of an Aztec human sacrifice. The notion of featuring such an act as an exemplar of culture shocks our modern conscience. That was not the issue, however. The director had chosen to make the sacrificial person a beautiful virgin rather than a more historically accurate male warrior. This drew fierce protests from the Mexican consul in Dallas, Adolfo Dominguez. Dominguez asserted that using a girl in the role would bring racial prejudice and a misunderstanding of Aztec culture. The Cavalcade’s director, of course, was putting sex appeal above both history and cultural sensitivity.

For about a week, the producers cast a male in the role in deference to the Mexican government. That ended quickly, and the female actor returned. This time, the producers stuck to their guns. Exposition General Director Frank McNeny responded to Dominguez's protests calling the sacrifice of the beautiful virgin "a very lovely historic scene.”[3] An international incident was averted when Dominguez pulled out of a written agreement with Exposition officials that mandated the use of a male actor in the role. The incident highlights that though goodwill and friendship were the goals of the Exposition, Texas felt privileged to adjust Latin histories to fit its idea of a commercially successful production. The notion of a Pan-America had yet to be fully resolved in the sociopolitical reality of Dallas, Texas.

Culture and commerce overlapped interestingly when it came to the Expositions art displays. As the idea of Pan-Americanism swept the United States, Texas decided to exploit its enormously successful centennial celebration and lead the nation in exploiting the new Pan-American enthusiasm. The artists that exhibited in Dallas played a unique role in this scenario. In the early nineteen thirties, the development of American art was accelerating. This movement coincided with a sense of regionalism in the United States, resulting in Texas artists moving away from European influences. Mexican artists also participated by painting scenes conveying their concerns about a country suffering from increased feelings of isolation and hopelessness, which in turn influenced the Texas artists.

The exhibition featured a catalog titled Art in the Americas: Pre-Columbian and Contemporary. The exhibition featured Pre-Columbian art objects and work from both the Spanish colonial period and contemporary America. Five galleries were devoted exclusively to Texas artists. By including a wide breadth of work from its neighbors to the South, the Exposition officials placed Texas at the forefront of uniting the Americas in the spirit of the new Pan-Americanism. Further, this effort helped move Texas away from a traditional post-civil War Southern identity and toward one more Western. By doing so, Texas would be free of the ties to other, less prosperous southern states and in a much more competitive position concerning both cultural and commercial endeavors in the Americas.

The 1937 Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition was generally considered a success. Due to its occurring on the heels of the enormously successful Texas Centennial Celebration, the 1937 event has garnered less attention. However, it played an essential role for Texas during a time when Pan-Americanism was a powerful movement. Organizers made a conscious effort to capitalize on the success of the Centennial Celebration by transforming the existing buildings into Latin-influenced architecture. They also tried incorporating Latin culture into Exposition activities such as pageants and art. However, the organizers were also competitive. They wanted to center Texas at the forefront of the burgeoning Pan-American relations. They designed the Exposition to instigate commerce, trade, and cultural and political ties between Latin America and Texas specifically. By doing so, the 1937 Exposition declared Texas as unique in the United States and the gateway between the Americas.

Images

Postcard folder from the 1937 Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition
Postcard folder from the 1937 Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition Source: Postcard folder from the Greater Texas & Pan-American Exposition, Watermelon-kid.com. Accessed July 18, 2023. http://www.watermelon-kid.com/places/FairPark/panam/panam_intro.htm
John Woodruff at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
John Woodruff at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Source: USHMM #14498/FPG International, New York. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/olympics/?content=aa_athletes&lang=en.
The Pan-American Exhibit Hall
The Pan-American Exhibit Hall Source: Fresno State Library Digital Collection. Accessed July 18, 2023. http://digitized.library.fresnostate.edu/cdm/ref/collection/worldsfair/id/16732
Postcard showing the reenactment of an Aztec sacrifice.
Postcard showing the reenactment of an Aztec sacrifice. Source: Flashback Dallas. Dallas Historical Society. https://flashbackdallas.com/2015/11/10/virgin-sacrifice-at-fair-park-1937/.

Location

Metadata

Ken Wise, “Taking Texas to the World: The 1937 Greater Texas & Pan-American Exposition,” East Texas History, accessed March 5, 2024, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/376.