As with every institution in the Thirties, the New York World's Fair struggled, often unsuccessfully, with on-going racism in America. Stereotypes continued to cloud the issues of employment, representation and the presence, or lack, of blacks on the fairgrounds. Yet, "The World of Tomorrow" did offer some hopeful signs for the future.
In early 1939, the Sunday Worker obtained and printed an inner-office memo detailing specifics of satisfactory applicants for jobs at the fair: "Smart, groomed, pleasing appearance and manner, extremes in appearance, dress or makeup will not be acceptable, no distinct foreign or racial types." The paper editorialized "Americans who welcome this significant exposition and support it will surely look with disdain upon any form of un-American discrimination."
Natalie Young personally understood the problem. Having heard about possible employment opportunities at the fair through her school, Pratt Institute, Miss Young journeyed to the Walter A. Lowen Agency that handled placements for the Exhibitors' Division. She first applied for a job as a "sandwich girl" and was turned down. On a second visit to secure a position as a demonstrator, the agency emphatically informed her, "We are not taking Negroes or Jews."
To substantiate Miss Young's claims, the New York Amsterdam News, the oldest Black newspaper in the United States, sent a reporter to the agency. Although white male and female applicants filled the office, a receptionist informed the gentleman, "I'm sorry but we don't have anything for you today." After producing his reporter's credentials, Mrs. Maude Lennox, the office manager allowed him a quick interview, denying any discriminatory hiring practices.
Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, one of the founders of the New York Coordinating Committee for Employment wrote in his autobiography of a meeting with Grover Whalen over the issue. Rev. Powell informed the fair's president: "You cannot have a World of Tomorrow from which you have excluded colored people." Mr. Whalen responded: "I do not see why the world of today or tomorrow of necessity has to have colored people playing an important role."
With this indictment ringing in his ears, Powell took his organization to the streets in protest. Three hundred marched through Times Square three days before the fair's scheduled opening. On the big day, two hundred protestors paraded up and down Roosevelt Avenue outside the fair gates from 2:00 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. Rev Powell insisted they would return each day until their demands were met.