Du Bois in Paris: Challenging Stereotypes with Images and Objects

In the summer of 1900, three years before the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois traveled to France to participate in the Paris Exposition Universelle. At the time, he was deep into his pathbreaking Atlanta University Studies of black social life in the United States. Drawing on this work, Du Bois brought to Paris the “American Negro Exhibit,” a collection of photographs, charts, objects, patents, books, and pamphlets that depicted “the history and present condition” of African Americans.[1] (You can find a digital reconstruction of the exhibit here.)

"Exhibit of American Negroes at the Paris Exposition," from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The American Negro at Paris,” The American Monthly Review of Reviews XXII, no. 5 (November): 576.
“Exhibit of American Negroes at the Paris Exposition,” from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The American Negro at Paris,” The American Monthly Review of Reviews XXII, no. 5 (November): 576.

In a letter to Booker T. Washington, Thomas Junius Calloway, who was Du Bois’s collaborator on the exhibit, stated clearly the ideas and prejudices they hoped to counteract:

Europeans think us [African Americans] a mass of rapists, ready to attack every white woman exposed, and a drug in civilized society. This notion has come to them through the horrible libels that have gone abroad whenever a Negro is lynched, and by the constant reference to us by the press in discouraging remarks.[2]

Calloway argued that the exhibit’s depiction of black individuals, schools, businesses, churches, homes, farms, and professional endeavors would not only impress foreigners but convince “white Americans” that their stereotyped and discriminatory ideas about African Americans were incorrect.[3]

As a sociologist and historian, Du Bois marshaled historical evidence and quantitative data to support the exhibit’s big idea: that African Americans had made enormous progress in the decades after the Civil War and that their prospects for future development were bright. At the same time, they faced significant obstacles, the most damaging of which was white racism. The exhibit showed that in Georgia, which was the focus of many of the displays, black “school enrollment” had “increased from 10,000 in 1870 to 180,000 in 1897.” In that same state, African Americans owned one million acres of land. The exhibit also included charts, however, which showed “the struggle” African Americans “have had to accumulate and hold this property.”[4]

Perhaps the most visually striking aspect of the exhibit was its series of 363 photographs of African American individuals, groups, and institutions. (The Library of Congress has digitized these images and made them available on its website.)

Law Graduating Class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., ca. 1900,  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  LC-USZ62-35752
Law Graduating Class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., ca. 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-35752

This image depicts a class of law school graduates from Howard University in top hats and tails. Another image, from that same university, features researchers in a pharmaceutical laboratory. These photos of black students embarking on professional careers directly challenged stereotypes in popular media of African Americans as uneducated, ignorant, and incapable of scholarly achievement. Alongside these images were photographs of prominent African Americans’ homes and businesses, formal portraits of well-dressed individuals, and group images of families, workers, and musical performers. Similar to the photos of students, these images offered an implicit critique of both Europeans’ and white Americans’ negative racial attitudes toward African Americans.

For his efforts, Du Bois received the Paris Exposition’s gold medal and the press reviewed the exhibit well. After Paris, it traveled to Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition and, finally, to the collection of the Library of Congress. Although a stunning challenge to the racial ideologies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the exhibit did not dislodge the stereotypes it so directly upended. Instead, negative depictions of African Americans continued. Moreover, in the first decade of the twentieth century, African Americans endured segregation, disfranchisement, and over 800 lynchings (including 106 in 1900 alone).[5] Nevertheless, the scholarly and ideological work that Du Bois undertook was essential to the emerging activist movements that would challenge racial inequality and racial violence in the twentieth century.

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The American Negro at Paris,” The American Monthly Review of Reviews XXII, no. 5 (November): 575-577 (quotation from paragraph 3).

[2] Thomas Junius Calloway, quoted in Rebecka Rutledge Fisher, “Cultural Artifacts and the Narrative of History: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Exhibiting of Culture at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51, no. 4 (2005): 753.

[3] Ibid., 753-754.

[4] Du Bois, “The American Negro at Paris,” paragraph 7.

[5] “Timeline of African American History,” American Memory, Library of Congress.

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