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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by E.M. Forster

Copyright 1909


Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.

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