The Exhibit of American Negroes
Introduction • The Georgia NegroBlack CollegesBlack Life and CultureBlack Literature

Introduction and Overview of The Exhibit of American Negroes

The Exhibit
The Exhibit of American Negroes
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line."
—W. E. B. DuBois
These words are among the most prophetic in American history. They were written by the historian and sociologist W. E. B. DuBois for The Exhibit of American Negroes. They are words whose force has echoed throughout this century.
This digital archive/exhibit is an attempt at an historical reconstruction. It tries as much as possible, within the limitations of the documents that have survived, to recreate and interpret The Exhibit of American Negroes at the 1900 Paris World's Fair—an exhibit that was on display for a few brief months at the dawn of the twentieth century. The reconstruction attempted here is by definition imperfect. Although the great majority of the material from the exhibit survives, important parts were lost—particularly the physical artifacts of the exhibit.

The Exhibit of American Negroes was a collaborative creation of black colleges and universities and the Library of Congress. The driving force behind the exhibit was the black sociologist and historian William Edgar Burghardt DuBois, who described the materials sent to Paris as: honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves. In a way this marks an era in the history of the Negroes of America.

Part of Group XVI (Economie Sociale Congres), the exhibit was displayed in a large, plain, white building along the banks of the Seine, opposite the Rue des Nations. According to DuBois, the building and its exhibits were intended to "...have housed the world's ideas of sociology." Instead, according to DuBois, most of the exhibits were a miscellany of different aspects of philanthropy and programs intended for social improvement: "As a matter of fact, any one who takes his sociology from theoretical treatises would be rather disappointed at the exhibit: for there is little here of the 'science of society.'"

Group XVI included exhibits on the building and mutual aid societies of France; the working-man's circles from Belgium; the city governments of Sweden; the Red Cross; and Germany's state insurance program. In the United States section of the building there were models of tenement houses, a small exhibit of the American Library Association, as well as various exhibits related to industrial regulation.

In the right hand corner of the American exhibit, just as one entered, was The Exhibit of American Negroes. Perhaps more than any other display in Group XVI, it reflected an attempt to develop an exhibit of scientific sociology. The intention of the exhibit, as described by DuBois, was " give, in as systematic and compact a form as possible, the history and present condition of a large group of human beings." The exhibit was "planned and executed by Negroes, and collected and installed under the direction of a Negro special agent, Mr. Thomas J. Calloway."

The purpose of the exhibit was fourfold: in addition to showing the history of the "American Negro," it attempted to describe "his present condition, his education, and his literature."

The exhibit in Paris was important for a number of reasons. It provided DuBois with an important opportunity to not only advance the sociological study of blacks, but to begin to bring into focus the intellectual and social accomplishments of black Americans, as well as their social, cultural, and political experience. At the same time, it represented an important stage in DuBois's work as an empirical sociologist. In the exhibit—particularly in DuBois's study entitled The Georgia Negro—are found the fundamental components a new sociology of African Americans, as well as a review of the social, cultural, literary and political experience of African Americans from the Civil War period to the year 1900. For contemporary historians and sociologists, it provides an extraordinary snapshot of the conditions of black culture and society in the United States at the turn of the century.


Related Entries:
DuBois, W. E. B.

Copyright © 2005 by Facts On File, Inc., and Eugene Provenzo.
African-American History & Culture. Copyright © 2005 by Facts On File, Inc.