feature: “the year was 1900 & there was an exhibition titled, “the exhibition of american negroes.”

September 29, 2015

Dear, 1900: The Exhibition of American Negroes premiered in 1900 at the tip of a brand new century. Yes, the word “Negro” can scout out an inquisitiveness from a modern foundation, which would offer the mind into trying to stipulate what this particular exhibition was all about.  Well-known author, sociologist & civil-rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois (Feb. 23, 1868-Aug. 27, 1963) was recruited by an attorney named Thomas Calloway (chief creator for this exhibition) & the author/historian Daniel A.P. Murray (1852-1925) to formulate a body of photographs that would fulfill an accurate portrayal of Negroes living in the United States. Du Bois was not responsible for taking these photographs, (Thomas Askew who was a Black photographer had a healthy portion of his photography used during this exhibition), his task consisted of accumulating photographs that explained a visual representation of showing Blacks in America productively living while owning their own businesses, as well as showcasing institutions of higher learning that embraced intelligent minds fostering completed educations by way of a high-school diploma or a college degree.

By Shaun La, AFROPUNK Contributor


Sewing class at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, Augusta, Georgia – 1899


For seven straight months (April to November), The Exhibition of American Negroes was on open display to the public, where millions of visitors ventured away from the other exhibits that was a part of Exposition Universelle & its message to reflect on the past century with enthusiasm needed to greet the new 20th Century to seeing Blacks who represented a normal life outside of the encirclement of ignorant stereotypes. Specifically, The Exhibition of American Negroes was a consolidation of tangible materials such as scholarly literary work from Black Americans, as well as official paperwork that displayed inventions coming from Black inventors–these achievements in this exhibition were comparable to the 500 plus photographs that supported the intention of visually sharing how Black Americans were being extensive in education, entrepreneurship & a part of the living heart-rate that was thriving successfully in the Black communities.


As ambitious as the organizers (Du Bois, Calloway, & Murray) may have been with The Exhibition of American Negroes, there is an impervious effect that rested on the 19th Century’s disrespect to Blacks in America. At the tip of a new 20th Century, history reminds us that this was during a time where the hooks of racism was still digging into the political skin of the so-called Reconstruction Era which happened 20 plus years earlier, in the previous century. Political provisions did not do anything for Blacks who in the eyes of a white controlled system lived under the cruel control of oppression–legally or illegally enforced. As with anything that has political benefits, mingled in with an oppressive motive, the power of stereotyping a race, or religion will become a resultant for the minority to deal with, while the majority controls the pace of what, how, & where a minority (in this case, Blacks in the United States) are to be told when & where to sit or stand up under their so-called cultural instructions that is tucked under controlling a population of people.


A perception that was beyond generalizing: There was a valiant examination that designed a sociological course of action with the photographs that Du Bois selected; furthermore, he was offering intelligent photographs of Blacks in the United States & applying a form that was visually inviting to European societies that thought of themselves as the cultural deciders of what they deemed civilized or uncivilized. This kind of cultural climate stretched back into the European modes of colonialism which would germinate while spreading all over the world—amplifying its influences from nations such as England, France, Spain & Portugal. Du Bois going into France with The Exhibition of American Negroes was more complex than just showing visitors photographic prints from cameras with a grateful thank you donated in the direction of a fresh medium labeled photography—a medium that was fairly new in terms of its invention’s age, which happened some 60 years before this exhibition went down in France.


Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, La., which was possibly photographed in 1899. 


Du Bois delivered to France, a prominently, cultural sign of Black success that was often discarded by a white America who dissolved the mere idea that Blacks were anything outside of the stereotypes that consisted of being idiots, lazy, chicken & watermelon lovers, uncivilized space takers that needed their white guidance. Blacks in the United States were fully valid in leading themselves as intellectuals with the highest achievements in education (some of the photographs displayed at The Exhibition on American Negros were of professors & students who at the time, were attending Howard, Frisk Universities & Morris Brown College—just to name a few) business owners (Leigh Street Pharmacy in Richmond, E.J. Crane Watchmaker & Jeweler, all which was located in Richmond, V.A., Uncle Paul’s Pawn Shop in Augustus, Georgia, Chas F Gardner Electrician & Locksmith business, Chicago Ill).

There were other photographs in The Exhibition of American Negroes that showed the candidness of Blacks living on farms or residing in an inner city, clean & casually dressed. Faithful church members who were fashionable in their dresses & head-wear. The portraits of Black Americans, some with respectable military ranks neatly placed on their military uniforms, & other portraits show Black professionals in their careers, covered in an eminence as the vibes in their poses is all about being prideful of their Black race. You cannot explain a race of people in one exhibit, no matter how many photographs you present to an audience. However, a photograph can tell at least a thousand words & to particularize the successful progress that Blacks were crafting for themselves in the United States during the latter part of the 19th Century could certainly be a platform of providence that is progressive in the future of the 20th Century believing in the foundations that was built before them & for their contributions to add onto Black legacies.

Sgt. William Carney, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.Possibly photographed in 1899.

Interior view of grocery store in Georgia, which was possibly photographed in 1899 or 1900.


Two Centuries melting into one country with unresolved racist issues: Later on down the line of history, the 20th Century would be the host to a different kind of fighting that was not from the Civil War that met the 19th Century lens of Mathew Brady & Alexander Gardner. The battles for freedom that Blacks conducted during the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement was humanely required for the sake of putting together steady protesting & its torching heat on the frozen promises from the Reconstruction Period in order to achieve the potentials in unfreezing opportunities some 50 plus years after the governmental paperwork was drafted. The photographs from The Exhibition of American Negroes in 1900 has various dynamics of Black pride that spiraled down into the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s & 60’s. Blacks showing self-love in the 20th Century, photographically tightens up the caliber of displaying Blacks fighting for justice in the 1960’s or sitting down in a classroom in 1899, with the momentum set on improving their minds, despite the mainstream media’s preconceived stereotypical image of the Black man, woman or child being a societal burden that white America tolerated.

A society that tolerated racism in the 19th & 20th centuries did not condone Blacks to be observed in a civilized manner, yet alone validate Blacks in America being photographed accurately or in a cultural uniformity that merged with the so-called white American success being photographed. When I write of society in this sense, it is to explain that it was a system with a pitfall that put the Black race along with their achievements into a cycle of being routinely ignored by a racist rhythm. Of course, for the whites in the United States who ignored anything that was not about their cultural superiority—such an insipidness that numbed out their cultural tastes for ignoring Blacks had no merit in any capacity. The fact that Blacks on a worldly level were highly educated, productive members of societies along with being business owners who constructed jobs by hiring fellow Blacks, which solidified a qualified economy in their own communities was evidence for being productive with a concrete purpose.


Mr. Dodson, jeweler in Knoxville, Tenn., possibly photographed in 1899.

The Visual Power & trying to balance it out: Blacks were photographed professionally & candidly in vibrant environments by Black photographers; also, there were the tough realities for some Blacks who were struck by the dangers of racism. Unemployment, drugs & alcohol laced some Black communities, which could be linked to the lack of the United States government committing fully to accepting & providing Blacks in America with a foundation where if hard times came down on a community, the resolutions would center on providing aid, rebuilding with programs to get an economy back on its feet. During this time, being poor & Black was considered the debris of society; whereas being poor & white was indicative of catching tough times, & voting for a new politician may be a voice that could help the lower white class see or believe in easier times. The outcomes (written out on U.S. Constitutional paper only) of the Reconstruction Period spoke of Blacks fitting into the so-called citizenship category in the United States. Yet, having the right to vote, & the actuality of this growing into a reality that was trusted by Black Americans did not happen until some 50 or 60 years after Du Bois presented his collection of photographs at The Exhibition of American Negroes. Therefore the politics for Blacks & their civil rights were often dropped into a campaign rhetoric more than it was faithfully practiced as a reward for being an American citizen.

The vast differences in how Black & white races was accepted on a biased level in the media, which at the time, newspapers served as an assuring resource to reinforce the voices of citizenship being based off of the judgement of a white America, even if you were not a natural U.S. born citizen. Jacob Riis, who was a pioneering photojournalist, documentarian, & a vital human-rights activist who championed for adequate housing for European (he himself was born & raised in Denmark) immigrants living in New York, City, articulates a Black & white mentality that was a common understanding & which can be read in a passage from one of his journalistic pieces for The Sun (New York) dated, Feb.12, 1888: “The dive is one of the places known as ‘Black and Tans,’ because it frequenters are colored men and white women of the most degraded sort. The man who is lounging on the barrel is an ignorant, worthless black of a capacity equal to work as a day laborer were it not that the energy for such occupation can only be supplied by the pressure of the most dire necessity. The woman shown is white as to complexion, but a dissolute life and the effects of drink have dragged her down to the level of the man, if, indeed, she is not beneath it.”

Modernity, the politics of the past riding it out a current wave: Today, if Du Bois made this attempt with a collection of photographs with successful Blacks living in the United States, the pacifying implications that would hang over such an exhibition would meet an absolute resistance from some portions of the Black community who would find that their cultural contributions does not need a validation from a society that commended slavery & inequalities for non-whites. This measurement of pacifying has always been an uncertainty that an opposer of Du Bois & his counter-punching towards racism have pointed out. Yet, it is uncontradictable to remember that Du Bois was applying an approach that would mentally challenge the minds of the oppressor. As confounding as this may sound to some people in the Black community, the balance of his activeness outdoes the pause in inactivity that would display not doing anything at all.


Four African American women seated on steps of building at Atlanta University, Georgia, possibly 

photographed in 1899. Photographer Thomas Askew.


In the conscience of RIGHT NOW: Retrospectively, one has the choice to like, love, hate or dislike The Exhibition of American Negroes. The basis of being able to digest the ambitions of Du Bois, Calloway & Murray may hold a sense of presenting an accomplished feeling in the minds of some of those who enjoy looking back at Black History & seeing the pride of Blacks in America being layered out inside of a European nation that has always been a contributor to the European stronghold on the so-called New World that connects North, Central, & South America. It is a stronghold that has the grips with the wear & tear of using wars, slavery, & colonialism on its mighty hands of oppression. To realize that the oldest photograph to ever be taken has the birthplace of France as its origin, then to view this retrospective compass point as a way to seeing accomplished Blacks in a massive amount of photographic prints exhibited in France, a place that helped with inventing photography—there is a quiet intellectual jab that came from Du Bois & his efforts to culturally fight back with photographs while wearing sociological gloves.

The overall benefit that Du Bois, Calloway & Murray contributed to trying to shape a visual empowerment for Blacks in the United States has traveled down & into many artistic movements & entertainment brackets after its presentation in the year of 1900—these movements exercised a balance of choices for Black artists & entertainers along with strengthening their skills & talents that could keep them away from falling into demoralizing roles that would position a Black performer to wear black-face or enunciate their words in a minstrel show that would be a bright token of stereotypical affection congratulated by a white racist world.

Think about The Harlem Renaissance being fruitful with masterpiece works that would corroborate the Black mind confining pure genius. Du Bois was a clasp in such a Renaissance that came some 19 or 20 years after his collection of photographs met France with The Exhibition of the American Negroes. Cinematic wise, the efforts & attempts to portray Blacks as humans, can energetically be linked back to this exhibition in France. The LA. Rebellion that hosted a group of thought-provoking Black filmmakers during the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s were a visual weapon that confidently used the motion-picture narrative as a way to speak directly to the Black communities—giving the Black communities an alternative against the Blaxploitation films that were flying out of the sizzling pan of stereotypes with a mainstream endorsement; furthermore, the L.A. Rebellion did their filmmaking without caring about Hollywood or white America accepting their storytelling. Lengthening this motion-picture power into the 1980’s & 1990’s, what Spike Lee did for Blacks in his films by being a successful Black filmmaker, along with helping to mark out a pathway for Black actors, actresses & film crews, so that they could travel on a chance to enliven their abilities by being a part of a film project can go right back into a flowing vein starting with Du Bois, Calloway & Murray going with the progressiveness that had them placing Blacks in photographs with dignity on the walls of a foreign country at the tip of a new century.

Being able to see that the power in a photograph or a motion-picture movie can be an unconditional lesson that absorbs the most righteous realization is a priceless cultural award. Blacks taking the power of their communities & applying it to still-photographs or motion-picture films are definitive beyond stereotypes. Blacks were geniuses, educators, artists, families, business-owners & above all else, human-beings that refused to let the visual propaganda in racism prove that they were anything less than their own civilized, cultural greatness that was forever captured in a sovereign medium titled Photography. 


Kindergarten at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, Augusta, Georgia. Possibly photographed in 1899. 


CLICK HERE to view more photographs from The Exhibition of American Negroes. 

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