Remarkable Photographs of Black Americans from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris

The Library of Congress has a collection of photographs, arranged by W.E.B. Du Bois, especially for Paris’ Exposition Universelle. The collection depicts the “history and present conditions” (circa 1900) of black Americans.

Dentistry at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900
Dentistry at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900

It’s a curious collection because nothing overt ties the photos together, except that everyone pictured is black and American. There are over 500 photographs of various subjects, ranging from dentists to cabinet photos, from piano lessons to candid group photos. They are interesting to me because they were all taken at the turn of the century, but the photos were current at the time. I wonder what effect they were intended to have. My theory, unsupported by anything except my imagination, is that W.E.B. Du Bois knew the media offered a 1-dimensional, negative representation of black America, and when he lived in Europe he realized there was no other, more realistic information out there.

If you haven’t heard of W.E.B. Du Bois, you almost certainly have heard of his legacy, which includes writing The Souls of Black Folk and in 1909 and co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1918
W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1918

William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois was a remarkable man of great energy and intelligence who devoted his career to bettering the condition of black Americans. Du Bois attended the Universities of Berlin and Harvard, and eventually received his doctorate. He became a professor at Atlanta University in Georgia, where the artifacts for the Paris exhibition were gathered.

The pictures are available on the Library of Congress’ website, in some cases with a little information about the subjects.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Young woman with a large hat and unusual sleeves circa 1900 - reproduction-number-lc-usz62-121111-bw-film-copy-neg.jpg
Young woman with a large hat and unusual sleeves, circa 1900

 

A gentleman, circa 1900, with an impressive mustache Reproduction Number- LC-USZ62-124670
A gentleman, circa 1900, with an impressive mustache
Reproduction Number- LC-USZ62-124670

 

Reproduction Number- LC-USZC4-10674 A formal photograph of a woman's profile, circa 1900
A formal photograph of a woman’s profile, circa 1900. If you look closely, you can see she is wearing ornate earrings. Possibly she is in mourning?
Reproduction Number- LC-USZ62-117947
Very Mae West!

 

Group, dressed to the 9s, poses on steps, circa 1900 loc-govloc-pnpppmsca-08764
Group, dressed to the 9s, poses on steps, circa 1900

 

Nursing student wearing a starched white uniform, seated in a rocking chair, reading. 1900 Reproduction Number- LC-USZ62-124811
Nursing student in a starched white uniform, reading in a rocking chair, circa 1900

 

A piano lesson in the parlor, circa 1899 Reproduction Number- LC-DIG-ppmsca-08779
A piano lesson in the parlor, circa 1899

 

The last photo has an interesting description attached to it: “Mrs. Frazer Baker and her children, family of the murdered postmaster at Lake City, SC, circa 1900”.  If I can find more information about this, I’ll write a separate post about it.

Mrs. Frazer Baker and her children, family of the murdered postmaster at Lake City, SC, circa 1900 LOC - Reproduction Number- LC-DIG-ppmsca-31558
Mrs. Frazer Baker and her children, family of the murdered postmaster at Lake City, SC, circa 1900
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