African Americans at the Turn of the 20th Century: A Graphic Visualization

Visitors to the 1900 Paris Exposition would have had the opportunity to view an extraordinary display of photographs, charts, publications and other items meant to demonstrate the progress and resilience of African Americans in the United States, only a few decades after the abolition of slavery. The materials were assembled by African American intellectuals Thomas J. Calloway, W. E. B. Du Bois and Daniel A. P. Murray.

These exhibit materials are in the collections of the Library of Congress, where the Prints & Photographs Division holds the photographs and charts compiled by Du Bois. The charts, created by an Atlanta University-based team led by Du Bois, visually communicate aspects of the African American experience over time, some of them looking at the United States as a whole and others at the state of Georgia as a case study. Du Bois was creative in his data visualization techniques. The chart below shows the proportions of African Americans who lived in cities of various sizes, and those who lived in the country. The largest category by far — African Americans living in “the country and villages” — is shown as a large red coil, while the other categories are shown as less eye-catching straight lines.

The Georgia Negro.<em>City and rural population. 1890.</em> Chart prepared by W. E. B. Du Bois. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33873

The Georgia Negro.City and rural population. 1890. Chart prepared by W. E. B. Du Bois. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33873

The following chart makes use of bar graph styling to show how public school enrollments of African American children increased to about 60% by the end of the 19th century, with literacy rates higher than those of Russia at that time according to Du Bois in a short promotional article he wrote in the American Monthly Review of Reviews. Notice how the length of each full bar increases to emphasize growth over time.

A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America. <em>Proportion of total Negro children of school age who are enrolled in the public schools.</em> Drawing collected by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33911

A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America. Proportion of total Negro children of school age who are enrolled in the public schools. Chart collected by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33911

The rectangular blocks of color in this chart, showing various occupational categories in which African American businessmen worked, almost look like they could have inspired Piet Mondrian.

A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America. <em>Negro business men in the United States.</em> Drawing collected by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33919

A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America. Negro business men in the United States. Chart collected by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33919

The drawings assembled by Du Bois also made use of maps. This one, introducing the Georgia case study, uses two world maps side by side to illustrate routes used during the slave trade, and uses a star to highlight Georgia. It describes how this and additional visual aids would be used to show how Georgia, as a representative state, could demonstrate how African American lives changed over time in one state. The text concludes with a quote made famous by Du Bois: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.”

<em>The Georgia Negro / A social study.</em> Drawing by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33863

The Georgia Negro / A social study. Chart prepared by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33863

The Du Bois charts were fully digitized at high resolution several years ago and made available through the online catalog, offering researchers unprecedented access to these valuable images and facilitating an uptick in scholarly publications making use of the images. The charts can be viewed and downloaded by anyone, from seasoned researchers to those simply interested in catching a glimpse of these remarkable windows into the past.

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