Piedmont Park is Atlanta’s beloved green space. Originally a gentlemen’s club for riding horses, the 185 acres is now a park located in the heart of the city. The grounds were transformed in 1895 when the Cotton States and International Exposition was held on the site. For almost a year previous to the exposition, workers leveled hills, built up low ground, enlarged a pond to form a lake, and constructed massive buildings to host the fair. Atlanta had hosted previous and smaller expositions, but the one in 1895 is the one commonly known as “The Atlanta Exposition” because of its magnitude – both literally and figuratively. It was this exposition that formed the layout of the park as it exists today.
Almost a million people attended the Atlanta Exposition, including U.S. President Grover Cleveland, U.S. President William McKinley, Buffalo Bill, and numerous state governors and Civil War officers. Over 6000 exhibits showcased the achievements of the day such as inventions involving electricity, agriculture, transportation, and manufacture. There were twelve main buildings – each crammed with remarkable pieces showcasing the world’s abilities. The Atlanta Exposition displayed fine art from America and Europe. The first motion picture projector showed movies in the first movie theater at the exposition; the projector was later sold to Thomas Edison who successfully marketed it as the Vitascope. Education was emphasized at the Atlanta Exposition, and schools from kindergarten to universities provided exhibits of their facilities and accomplishments.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Atlanta Exposition was the effect the fair had upon African American race relations. This was the place that Booker T. Washington made his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech. It had been 30 years since the Civil War had freed the country of slavery, and America was floundering in establishing civil rights for African Americans. The Atlanta Compromise Speech was given at the Opening Ceremonies of the Atlanta Exposition on September 18, 1895. Booker T. Washington advocated racial harmony through social segregation in exchange for black economic opportunity and education. The speech was generally accepted at the time as an acceptable way to incorporate the newly-freed African Americans, but it was later criticized as not promoting true racial equality. It was a first step to providing equal civil rights to all Americans, regardless of race.
Today, the grounds at Piedmont Park still closely resemble the Atlanta Exposition fairgrounds. Stone walls, staircases, planters, and balustrades remain in the park unchanged from when they were built in 1895. The citizens of Atlanta utilize the park for mass gatherings such as the Dogwood Festival, Arts Festival, and Pride Festival. Finish lines for the Peachtree Road Race, Aids Walk Atlanta, and the Breast Cancer 3-Day are in the park. Local residents run, walk their dogs, and play sports at the park on a daily basis. A non-profit group, the Piedmont Park Conservancy, has overseen the restoration and care of ninety percent of the park for twenty years. Three million people visit Piedmont Park each year, and many of them never realize that this historic park was formed by the Atlanta Exposition.