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W. E. B. Du Bois at 150: Intellectual, Activist, Curator

On the 150th anniversary of Du Bois's birth, FOTO looks back at the exhibit he curated for the 1900 Paris Exposition.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whose contributions to American history are hard to overstate, was born 150 years ago this week, on February 23, 1868. A gifted intellectual and activist, Du Bois not only grasped that "the problem of the Twentieth Century" would be "the problem of the color-line," he devoted his life to studying and addressing that problem on a global scale. He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, a co-founder of the NAACP, and an early organizer of the Pan-African Congresses. He wrote such landmark works as "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) and "Black Reconstruction" (1935), and edited the influential magazine "The Crisis" for nearly 25 years. And — on at least one significant occasion — he curated photographs.

Portrait of W.E.B. DuBoisLibrary of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In December 1899, as a 31-year-old professor of history and economics at Atlanta University, Du Bois began working with his former classmate Thomas Calloway, a black journalist and lawyer, on a “Negro Exhibit” for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Du Bois and Calloway spent months feverishly compiling “charts, statistics, models, and photographs” that would, in Du Bois’ words, “give … the history and present condition of … American Negroes,” and, in Calloway’s, “furnish evidences of the marvellous progress of the colored people.”

World Fair of 1900, Paris. The park of Champ-de-MaND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

The exhibit opened in the U.S. installation at the fair’s Palace of Social Economy in July 1900. It foregrounded African-American achievements in education, industry, military and religious organizations, and literature. Photographs — hundreds of them, in total — played a key role.

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morning prayers fisk university nashville tenn published 1900 as picture

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To show how far African-Americans had come since the Antebellum era, when slavery kept the black illiteracy rate as high as 99 percent, Du Bois and Calloway exhibited samples of student work and “miscellaneous views of school life” from Fisk, Howard, and Atlanta universities and the Hampton and Tuskegee institutes, among others. Pictured above: a “Ministers’ class” from Roger Williams University (L) and morning prayers at Fisk University (R).

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Underscoring African-Americans’ place in the industrial economy, Du Bois and Calloway displayed images of factories and shops “owned or operated by negroes,” or “in which they have employment.” Pictured above: a portrait of Warren C. Coleman of Coleman Manufacturing Co., a North Carolina cotton mill “operated by negroes” (L), and women sorting tobacco at T.C. Williams & Co. in Virginia (R).

Company D, 8th Illinois Volunteer Regiment. Images collected by W.E.B .Du Bois and Thomas J Calloway for the 'American Negro Exhibit' at the Paris Exposition of 1900. (Exposition Universelle internationale de 1900).Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Like many areas of American life, the U.S. armed forces were racially segregated at the time of the 1900 Paris Exposition. (They would remain so until 1948, when President Harry Truman integrated them by executive order.) Du Bois and Calloway emphasized African-Americans’ valor — and their service to a country that treated them as second-class citizens — with photos of black soldiers and accounts of the heroism of black medal-of-honor recipients. Pictured above: Company D, 8th Illinois Volunteer Regiment.

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Du Bois and Calloway also displayed images of black churches — vital educational and community organizations. Pictured above: the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans (L) and people posed outside of a church in Georgia (R).

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the summit avenue ensemble 1900 photographer thomas askews twin sons picture

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Du Bois had a deep appreciation of the arts, especially literature. (A historian by training, he wrote numerous poems, plays, and novels over the course of his career, as well as historical essays.) He and Calloway exhibited more than 200 volumes by African-American authors. They also included several photographs of subjects reading or holding books, and — perhaps nodding to the performing arts — a few of musicians. Pictured above: a portrait of girl with an illustrated book (L) and the Summit Avenue Ensemble at the home of photographer Thomas Askew in Atlanta (R).

income and expenditure of 150 negro families in atlanta georgia usa picture

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In addition to helping Calloway curate the photographs for the exhibit, Du Bois and a team of assistants conducted a special census in Georgia — then, as now, the state with the largest African-American population, and “a leader in Southern sentiment” — producing 31 charts that conveyed “sociological statistics” in “artistic coloring.” Pictured above: chart of “Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta” (L) and map of “Land Owned by Negroes in Georgia” (R).

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african american man headandshoulders portrait facing front types of picture

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Mixed in with these pictures of group life were a dazzling array of individual portraits that reflected the diversity of African-Americans. In a statement about the exhibit, Du Bois wrote that these “typical Negro faces … hardly square with conventional American ideas.” This was their point — to dispel the noxious illusions of racial caricature with photographic clarity.

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The artist, historian, and curator Deb Willis observes in her study of the exhibit that the “scholar, minister, entrepreneur, mother, father, brother, sister, nursemaid, student, musician, homeowner, surrey driver, and even the femme fatale are represented” in these portraits, many of which were taken by black photographers.

african american woman halflength portrait published 1899 or 1900 picture

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african american man headandshoulders portrait facing slightly left picture

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"They offered a provocative challenge to the blatantly stereotypical images of African Americans as inferior, unattractive, and unintelligent," Willis explains. They showed “that black Americans were as multifaceted as anyone else.”

african american man headandshoulders portrait facing types of and picture

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african american man headandshoulders portrait facing front types of picture

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Judges awarded the exhibit a Grand Prix, and honored Calloway and Du Bois with Gold Medals. After the Paris Exposition closed, the exhibit traveled to Buffalo and Charleston. It's now archived at the Library of Congress.


By using photography to advance the cause of racial justice, Du Bois hearkened back to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of the 19th century, who also believed that photographic representations could shake “conventional American ideas” about racial difference, and Sojourner Truth, who sold carte de visites of herself to finance her speaking tours. Pictured below: daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (L) and carte de visite of Sojourner Truth (R).

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At the same time, Du Bois pointed forward to the NAACP’s campaigns against prejudice and harmful stereotypes, and to its efforts to increase the visibility of African-American artists through programs like the Image Awards, now in its 50th year. A century and a half after his birth, Du Bois and his “honest, straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves,” continue to exemplify the power of self-representation.