In 1900, sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois organized an exhibition of photographs entitled “The American Negro” for that year’s World’s Fair in Paris. He selected images that showed a refined, educated, and prosperous population of African Americans to exhibit their success after the abolition of slavery.

Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tenn., Normal class, 1899

Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tenn., Normal class, 1899

In three large albums, Du Bois included photographs that he called “typical Negro faces,” focusing on the accomplishments of African Americans. Some of the photos were formal studio portraits, but there were also more informal shots of groups of people, children playing in the streets, people working, family outings, images of houses and businesses and the interiors of homes.

Class in calculus, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1899

Class in calculus, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1899

Du Bois’ aim in exhibiting these photographs was to challenge the racial stereotypes and caricatures that were often the dominant mode of representing blacks in America.

Thomas Askew, Four African American women seated on steps of building at Atlanta University, Georgia, 1899

According to Dr. David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, “Blacks have been portrayed in popular culture as pitiable exotics, cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society.”

Portrait of a Young African American Woman, 1899

Portrait of a Young African American Woman, 1899

The connection between Jim Crow laws and racist material objects cannot be ignored. Dr. Pilgrim writes, “These anti-black depictions were routinely manifested in or on material objects: ashtrays, drinking glasses, banks, games, fishing lures, detergent boxes, and other everyday items. These objects, with racist representations, both reflected and shaped attitudes towards African Americans.”

Portrait of an African American man, 1899

Portrait of an African American man, 1899

Negative stereotypes were used to support and justify Jim Crow laws, which restricted the physical, social, and economic movement of African Americans. To quote Dr. Pilgrim again, “Jim Crow laws and etiquette were aided by millions of material objects that portrayed blacks as laughable, detestable inferiors. The Coon caricature, for example, depicted black men as lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, physically ugly idiots.” Distorted representations of black men, women, and children were everywhere.

Only Negro store of its kind in the U.S., at 2933 State St., Chicago, Ill.

Only Negro store of its kind in the U.S., at 2933 State St., Chicago, Ill.

Critic bell hooks says the camera “in black life [became] a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced. Photography was more fascinating to masses of black folks than other forms of image making because it offered the possibility of immediate intervention.” Photography gave African Americans a tool to view themselves in a different light.

Home of C.C. Dodson, Knoxville, Tenn.

Home of C.C. Dodson, Knoxville, Tenn.

Snapshots, postcards, portraits, and other typically private photographs became “galleries” of and for black Americans.

“The walls were fundamentally different from photo albums. Rather than shutting images away, where they could be seen only upon request, the walls were a public announcement of the primacy of the image, the joy of image making.

In opposition to […] internalized racism, these walls announced our visual complexity. We saw ourselves represented in these images not as caricatures, cartoonlike figures; we were there in full diversity of body, being, and expression, multimensional. […] Many of these images demanded that we look at ourselves with new eyes. ”

— bell hooks, “In Our Glory”
Thomas Askew, Home of an African American lawyer, Atlanta, Georgia, 1899

Thomas Askew, Home of an African American lawyer, Atlanta, Georgia, 1899

In 1900, mainstream American newspapers generally ignored the existence of the Negro Exhibit. Black periodicals like The Colored American wrote extensively about the project.  

Family portrait, 1899

Family portrait, 1899

Du Bois stated, concerning the exhibit, “we have thus, it may be seen, an honest, straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.”