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In their landmark “American Negro Exhibit” for the 1900 Paris Exposition, the leading black intellectual and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and lawyer and educator Thomas J. Calloway, strategically deployed 363 photographs. The following images are reproduced courtesy of the Daniel Murray Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Image gallery curated and annotated by Renée Mussai
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In Du Bois’ albums, light-complexioned and blond-haired black people were exhibited alongside darker-skinned individuals, showcasing the diversity within the African-American community — and challenging physical appearance and color codifications as signifiers of racial difference.
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Among the 363 photographs compiled for a series of photographic albums entitled Types of American Negroes (Volumes I-III), and Negro Life in Georgia, USA, Du Bois exhibited more than 250 studio portraits, ranging in style from a mug-shot aesthetic reminiscent of anthropological studies to bourgeois portraits with theatrical props and backdrops.
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At the original 1900 exhibit, both sitters and photographers were presented anonymously. It has since been established that Thomas Askew, a prominent African-American photographer in Atlanta, made many of the photographs for Du Bois’ Georgia Negro studies. In the Library of Congress catalog, a typical image caption would read, “African American woman, half-length portrait, facing right, with left hand under chin.” Some sitters have since been identified, including Du Bois’ students at Atlanta University.
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In his groundbreaking sociological study on race and society, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois describes a dual sense of identity and internal conflict created by the notion of double-consciousness:
One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
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With the “American Negro Exhibit,” Du Bois’ intention was to produce a comprehensive, alternative view of the black subject, in his own words “an honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.“
As such, it provided an extraordinary insight into the conditions of black culture at the end of the 19th century, only 35 years after the abolition of slavery.
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During a time of escalating racial violence and social inequality, Du Bois’ curatorial project was executed with the explicit political and visual agenda to disrupt prevalent stereotyped and one-dimensional depictions of the black subject in Europe and America at the turn of the century. Retrospectively, his remarkable collection of photographs can be read as the origins of a visual construction of a new African-American identity.
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Not only do Du Bois’ albums represent a visionary archive of an emergent black subjectivity and passionate plea for the staging of difference beyond preconceived notions of shared physiognomies, but they also serve as a testament to Du Bois’ belief in the power of photography as a political tool to institute social change.
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Portrait of Mamie Westmorland, schoolteacher. Photograph by Thomas Askew. W.E.B. Du Bois, Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. (1900), vol. 1, no. 79.
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In a review of the “American Negro Exhibit,” Du Bois described the Georgia Negro Studies as “several volumes of photographs of typical Negro faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas.”
The majority of the photographs represent remarkable portraits of well-dressed, educated and dignified African-American men, women and children posing in prosperous homes or photographic studios.
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Overall the images represent an emerging black middle class — doctors, lawyers and other professionals, as well as aspiring students and young scholars. Other images in the albums depict businesses, homes, churches, social and family groups, rural and street scenes, as well as historically black higher-education institutions such as Fisk and Howard universities.
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The “American Negro Exhibit” was awarded a total of 15 medals by the judges of the 1900 Paris Exposition. Both W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas Callaway received gold medals for their collaborative efforts: Du Bois as curator of the exhibit, and Calloway for conceiving of and producing the overall exhibition. The entire exhibit was awarded a Grand Prix.
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Bazoline Estelle Usher, Atlanta University student. W.E.B. Du Bois, Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. (1900), vol. 1, no. 6.
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Portrait of the Rev. Henry Hugh Proctor, pastor of the First Congregational Church, Atlanta.