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:

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Chicago’s Iroquois Theater opened in 1903 on West Randolph Street. No expense was spared on the massive, L-shaped structure. From the soaring ceilings to the mahogany trim to the gilded accents, the theater was a work of art. It had three levels and could accommodate 1,700 people.

before pic
The magnificent Iroquois Theater

 

 

Owner Will Davis expected the theater to be complete mid-year, but the opening was delayed by labor disputes.

When fire-related safety concerns threatened to delay the opening yet again, Davis was irate. The deficiencies including iron gates blocking many of the exits – which were designed to keep people from sneaking in to the shows without buying a ticket – exits hidden by drapes, an absence of proper air flow, and the ubiquitous mahogany trim. The fire-fighting equipment was limited to an asbestos curtain that could be lowered onto the stage to smother out a fire and a half a dozen canisters of a bicarbonate soda compound used to snuff out residential kitchen fires. There were no fire alarms, extinguishers, sprinklers, or water connections; there was not even a telephone.

A gate blocking unpaid visitors - and escape
A gate blocking unpaid visitors – and escape

 

But corrupt city officials accepted bribes, including free tickets to upcoming events, and the howls of the Fire Department were ignored. The Iroquois Theater’s grand opening took place in November, to wide acclaim.

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March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was nearly ready to end work for the day. The Triangle Waist Company factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan.

factory
The Asch building in 1911

 That afternoon, the atmosphere was placid: it was Saturday, a short workday of just seven hours, and spring was in the air. At 4:45 p.m., a shout of “Fire!” caused a ripple of excitement among the Triangle workers, and they hastily pushed their chairs back from the long wooden tables where they worked, and mechanically headed toward the Greene Street doors.

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