W.E.B. Du Bois in Paris: An Exhibition against Racist Clichés

In 1900, just thirty-five years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, the prominent sociologist worked with the Paris Exposition Universelle to showcase the newfound freedom and rapid progress of Black Americans. But Belle Epoque France was more interested in colonial expansion than social emancipation – which is the focus of an exhibition currently on display at the Cooper Hewitt in New York City.
W.E.B. Du Bois in New York City, 1946. © Carl Van Vechten

In 1999, as the century came to a close, the prospect of the new millennium stirred more anxiety than excitement. The threat of Y2K cast a shadow over the new year, and with it the risk of chaos in a computerized world. How different from a hundred years earlier, when more than 50 million people visited the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, an Art Nouveau extravaganza designed to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to show a world poised for future successes. (The most popular exhibition by far was the Palace of Electricity, complete with a coal-fired power plant and 6,000 light bulbs.)

Some forty nations had purpose-built pavilions designed to display their artistic, industrial, economic, and social advancement in an international setting. The U.S. pavilion was an imposing domed structure on the Quai d’Orsay, topped by a large golden eagle. But there was a second American presence along the Seine. Situated some distance from the main American building was a shared pavilion called the Palace of Social Economy and Congress, focusing mainly on different organizations dispensing human benevolence. There, tucked away between French mutual-aid societies, Germany’s state insurance, and the Red Cross Society, was The Exhibition of American Negroes.

Although approved and funded by Congress, this exhibition was supposed to have a venue separate rom the American pavilion right from the start. Thomas J. Calloway, an African-American attorney and one of the 12 U.S. commissioners at the Exposition Universelle, was in charge, but the exhibition’s real creator was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. This pioneering sociologist, who was already a prominent voice on racial issues, would go on to be one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Paris, an International Stage

W.E.B. Du Bois spoke French and seized upon the narrative of progress projected by the world’s fair to claim a place for Black Americans. His aim was to demonstrate to an international audience the social and economic advancement of a newly emancipated people through resilience and perseverance. In his words, “an attempt to give, in as systematic and compact a form as possible, the history and present condition of a large group of human beings,” adding that it had been “planned and executed by Negroes.” By implication, it rejected White racist attitudes, still widespread in the aftermath of the Civil War, the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and other forms of repression. More than a century later, the Black scholar and commentator Henry Louis Gates Jr. would call it “a declaration of war against racial stereotypes.”

The Exhibition of American Negroes at the Paris World’s Fair, 1900. © Library of Congress
A dentistry class at Howard University in Washington D.C., ca. 1900. © Library of Congress
Sisters of the African-American order of the Holy Family in New Orleans, ca. 1899. © Library of Congress
“City and rural population, 1890.” © Library of Congress
“Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia.” © Library of Congress
Calculus students at Fisk University in Nashville, ca. 1899. © Library of Congress
Teachers in training and their professors at Fisk University in Nashville, ca. 1890-1906. © Library of Congress
A Black-owned drug store in Commerce, Georgia, ca. 1899-1900. © Library of Congress

A photograph of the exhibition shows a corner space into which were packed 63 charts, 500 photographs, and numerous maps and plans. The photos showed a prosperous, well-dressed Black American bourgeoisie, attending college, learning dentistry, operating a microscope or a printing press, and playing baseball – “which hardly [squared] with conventional American ideas,” says Du Bois, referring to the then-widespread prejudice that all Black people lived in squalor and servitude. Shelves carried some 200 published books by Black scholars and authors, and copies of newspapers and periodicals published by and for the Black community. There were also, bound in leather, more than 350 patents awarded to Black inventors over the past three decades, and a copy of the Black Code of the State of Georgia, laws relating to African-Americans from colonial times to the end of the 19th century.

Central to the story are the infographics designed by Du Bois and his students from Atlanta University – hand-drawn diagrams on poster boards that used shapes, lines, and colors to create a statistical picture. One infographic about the United States shows the “City and Rural Population, 1890.” Another breaks down, in a multicolored, fan-shaped graphic, “Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia” – at the time the state with the largest Black population. It shows a close-to-even spread, with, for example, 62% of Blacks and 64% of Whites employed in the farming and mining sectors, and 1% of Blacks and 4% of Whites in the “professions.” Another uses vertical bars to show the significant growth in the number of African-American children enrolled in public schools between 1870 (10,351 children) and 1887 (180,565).

Several infographics have titles in both French and English, and even a few only in French. A breakdown of property taxes paid by African-Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia is labeled Propriétés contribuables des Nègres dans trois Etats des Etats-Unis, and the total is listed as 34,894,684 dollars, or 180,796,290 francs. A graphic of comparative illiteracy rates shows the Black American population well below Russia, Romania, and Serbia, but higher than Italy, Austria, and France. A recent book, Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Paris Exposition, compares “the vibrant palette of these compositions” with Fauvism and Orphic Cubism, abstract art movements from early 20th-century Paris.

A Mixed Reception

On display in Paris from April to November 1900, The Exhibition of American Negroes was a triumph, winning several medals for its innovative, multimedia display. But as an attention-getter, it was a disappointment. The first Black-led pavilion in a world’s fair received little press from the local media. In the United States, the mainstream newspapers hardly mentioned it at all. Only African-American publications recognized Du Bois’ achievement, adding to the reputation of its 32-year-old creator. (Cornel West, the African-American philosopher and political activist, recently called him “the greatest Black scholar in the history of the country.”) When the exhibition was dismantled, it toured a handful of American cities before being installed at the Library of Congress in Washington. Well planned and executed as it was, Du Bois’ creation was hardly a good fit in a setting that celebrated European colonialism. In addition to the French pavilion in Paris, there were separate exhibition spaces showcasing colonies such as Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, and Indochina.

A new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York underlines this point. Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair matches a selection from Du Bois’ 63 infographics with other objects exhibited at, or associated with, the Paris Exposition Universelle to show that the progressive image of the fair was inequitable: Nationalism and imperialism were the determinant forces behind its panoply of wealth and progress. While Du Bois’ objective was equal status for Black Americans, colonial pavilions emphasized historic settings and exotic populations. The Madagascar pavilion, to name but one example, featured a “human zoo” – nine huts shipped in from the island and 112 “natives.”

“Surrounded by exhibitions communicating the superiority of European nations and degrading the colonies of Africa and Asia as primitive societies, the producers of The Exhibition of American Negroes identified the Exposition Universelle as a competitive arena in which to garner attention and change minds and hearts about Black humanity,” write U.S. art historians Jacqueline Francis and Stephen G. Hall in the introduction of Black Lives 1900. Du Bois never strayed from this mission. His combative life ended in 1963, at the age of 95, in his adopted home of Ghana – the first African country to win independence from colonial rule.

Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair
, at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York through May 29, 2023.

Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Paris Exposition, edited by Julian Rothenstein, Redstone Press/D.A.P. Artbook, 2019.

Article published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.