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Du Bois’s American Negro Exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition

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In this exhibit there are, of course, the usual paraphenalia for catching the eye — photographs, models, industrial work, and pictures. But it does not stop here; beneath all this is a carefully thought-out plan, according to which the exhibitors have tried to show: (a) The history of the American Negro. (b) His present condition. (c) His education. (d) His literature.

— W. E. B. Du Bois, “The American Negro at Paris” American Monthly Review of Reviews 22:5 (November 1900): 576.
Paris Exposition 1900, The crowd at opening of the U.S. Building. Sterograph, William H. Rau, publisher, 1900.

Do you recall the mix of excitement and trepidation about 15 years ago as we approached the turn of the millennium? The event spurred many reflections on the state-of-the-art of our society and culture while we worried whether our computers would continue to function. One hundred years earlier as the twentieth century approached, a similar air of anticipation (without the Y2K fears) must have predominated as millions of people visited the Paris Exposition of 1900 to see the exhibits presented by many of the earth’s nations.

The Paris Exposition of 1900 (Exposition universelle internationale de 1900) devoted a building to matters of “social economy.” The United States section of the building featured an exhibit devoted to the history and “present conditions” of African Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois and special agent Thomas J. Calloway spearheaded the planning, collection and installation of the exhibit materials, which included 500 photographs as well as charts, maps, and a display of 200 books written by African Americans.

The Prints and Photographs Division holds approximately 220 mounted photographs reportedly displayed in the exhibition, highlighting many aspects of African Americans’ lives, including business enterprises, social life, and education.
African American family posed for portrait seated on lawn, W. E. B. Du Bois, collector, 1899 or 1900.
Summit Avenue Ensemble, Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas E. Askew, photographer. W. E. B. Du Bois, collector, 1899 or 1900.

Also in the collection are close to 60 statistical charts, graphs and maps, which became very brittle over time. They have recently been digitized, enabling all of us to view them more readily and to appreciate what Du Bois and his colleagues intended to communicate to viewers as they entered a new century.

A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America.
A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America. Drawing, ca. 1900.

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Comments (5)

  1. Thanks for sharing! Great historical material.

  2. I was wondering if the LoC or some other institution has the notes for African American Photographs Assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition? Or other notes for the time period.
    I just saw and one of our local historians has been trying to map these residences to the neighborhood now. On a separate effort, I’m trying to link current residents of the same neighborhood – the adjoining one to mine – to their ancestors who worked the fields under slavery for the first rum distillery in Georgia, recently listed on the Georgia Trust’s Places in Peril program.
    Any help would be much appreciated.

  3. Does anyone know if WEB Du Bois went to PAM conference first, or worlds fair? Trying to find ship manifests, or dates of travels. Any ideas?

  4. What was unusual about the 500 images in the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900’s World’s fair Edward Burghardt Du Bois?

  5. Special mention should go to Daniel Murray, an African-American librarian at Library of Congress who undertook a month’s long effort to compile published literature works by Black authors to display, along with DuBois’ submissions, as part of the Exhibit. His work in all identified 2,000 titles which even awed DuBois.

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