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Exploring Black-Owned Businesses from the Turn of the 20th Century

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August was designated as National Black Business Month in 2004. Just about a century earlier, visitors to the Paris Exposition of 1900 also had an opportunity to appreciate the entrepreneurial endeavors of African Americans. The Exposition included a display 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. The Library of Congress holds approximately 220 mounted photographs reportedly displayed in the exhibition, as well as four albums specially compiled by Du Bois. In addition to the portraits and educational activities depicted in the photos, the images highlight a variety of business enterprises and occupations.

As with many photos that come into the collections, caption information for the material is sparse. At this point, the Black ownership of the firms can only be presumed by their inclusion in the 1900 display, but in some cases, the locations and names associated with the buildings, occupational activities, and individuals offer tantalizing clues that might help us learn more about the businesses and those who operated them. By using the collection’s “Browse by Subject” feature in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog and selecting subjects such as African Americans–Commerce–Georgia–1890-1900, I located images that immediately sparked my curiosity:

Do you suppose that E. J. Crane himself stands outside this store in Richmond, Virginia? The address, “122-1/2” seems quite distinctive–how long do you suppose it would take you to locate the street, and using what source?

Exterior of structure with J.C. Crane on a sign above the shop, a man standing in the doorway
E.J. Crane, watchmaker and jewelry store with man working in window and man standing in doorway, Richmond, Virginia. Photo, 1899(?).

Another jeweller, Mr. Dodson of Knoxville, Tenn., is shown at work, with the tools of his trade laid out on the table. With a little less glare, it may be that the name of his business would be discernible in the framed sign behind him. (A few pieces of information have been added by Middle Tennessee State University in their exploration of the image.)

Man standing behind desks, looking at object in his hands, magnifier in one eye
Mr. Dodson, jeweller in Knoxville, Tenn. Photo, 1899?

The information that came with this photo identified it as “Dr. McDougald’s Drug Store,” and it’s in a group of images taken in Georgia, but among the information remaining to be discovered is where in Georgia it was taken.

Interior view of “Dr. McDougald’s Drug Store.” Photo, 1899 or 1900.

The exterior view of the store may offer some additional visual clues, and certainly the signs emphasizing its cigar and tobacco wares are borne out by what appears to be in the cases in the store’s interior.

Store on corner with a signs painted on both sides of the building
Exterior view of “Dr. McDougald’s Drug Store” with three African Americans standing in the doorway and a horse-drawn carriage in the foreground. Photo, 1899 or 1900.

From the sign on the wagon in the photo below, it looks as though one might be able to look for a firm by the name of “Standard Ice,” unless “standard ice” was a standard term for a type of ice. According to information associated with the group it came in, the ice operation delivered its wares somewhere in Georgia.

Ice wagon with Standard Ice on the side, people standing alongside and in front of building
Horse-drawn ice wagon and several persons, two with blocks of ice, standing in street in front of residence. Photo, 1899 or 1900.

S. J. Gilpin’s shoe store in Richmond, Virginia, not only shows an array of footwear in its window, but what appears to be several staff members posed outside. A small bonus is some signage for the tailor next door, which may help locate the street on which the establishments were situated.

Seven men standing outside store with displays between them, a sign for a tailor next door
S.J. Gilpin shoe store, Richmond, Virginia. Photo, 1899?

Possibly the best documented of the businesses in the collection would be the Richmond Planet newspaper, which had a long and rich history in the city. Not only is it fascinating to see the interior of the publishing operation, but its product–a publication with a focus on the African American community and, no doubt, advertising for its Black-owned businesses–may suggest one source for locating information about the businesses and business people the photos document. In fact, Black Virginia: The Richmond Planet, 1894-1909, a site that curates, transcribes, and interprets material from the newspaper, includes some information about S. J. Gilpin and his shoe enterprise.

Two men operating printing press
Press room of the Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia. Photo, 1899?

W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway certainly provided visual testimony to active Black entrepreneurship in their era. With some enterprising historical exploration, we stand to learn more about the photos and the stories that lie behind them. We’re eager to know more!

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Comments (2)

  1. Enjoyed viewing this collection of Afro-American
    Businesses circa 1899-1900, so interesting & enlightening*

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