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W. E. B. Du Bois’s Modernist Data Visualizations of Black Life

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Assessed valuation of all taxable property owned by Georgia negroes,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)

For the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, African American activist and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois led the creation of over 60 charts, graphs, and maps that visualized data on the state of black life. The hand-drawn illustrations were part of an “Exhibit of American Negroes,” which Du Bois, in collaboration with Thomas J. Calloway and Booker T. Washington, organized to represent black contributions to the United States at the world’s fair.

W. E. B. Du Bois on an identification card for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (photo by Paul Nadar, via Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)
W. E. B. Du Bois on an identification card for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (via Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries) (click to enlarge)

This was less than half a century after the end of American slavery, and at a time when human zoos displaying people from colonized countries in replicas of their homes were still common at fairs (the ruins of one from the 1907 colonial exhibition in Paris remain in the Bois de Vincennes). Du Bois’s charts (recently shared by data artist Josh Begley on Twitter) focus on Georgia, tracing the routes of the slave trade to the Southern state, the value of black-owned property between 1875 and 1889, comparing occupations practiced by blacks and whites, and calculating the number of black students in different school courses (2 in business, 2,252 in industrial).

Ellen Terrell, a business reference specialist at the Library of Congress, wrote a blog post in which she cites a report by Calloway that laid out the 1900 exhibit’s goals:

It was decided in advance to try to show ten things concerning the negroes in America since their emancipation: (1) Something of the negro’s history; (2) education of the race; (3) effects of education upon illiteracy; (4) effects of education upon occupation; (5) effects of education upon property; (6) the negro’s mental development as shown by the books, high class pamphlets, newspapers, and other periodicals written or edited by members of the race; (7) his mechanical genius as shown by patents granted to American negroes; (8) business and industrial development in general; (9) what the negro is doing for himself though his own separate church organizations, particularly in the work of education; (10) a general sociological study of the racial conditions in the United States.

Georgia was selected to represent these 10 points because, according to Calloway, “it has the largest negro population and because it is a leader in Southern sentiment.” Rebecca Onion on Slate Vault notes that Du Bois created the charts in collaboration with his students at Atlanta University, examining everything from the value of household and kitchen furniture to the “rise of the negroes from slavery to freedom in one generation.”

Photograph of the "Exhibit of American Negroes" at the Paris Exposition, including W. E. B. Du Bois's charts (via Library of Congress)
Photograph of the “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris Exposition, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s charts (via Library of Congress)

Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr, a professor at the University of Miami, has an online reconstruction of the 1900 exhibit, which also featured 200 books by African Americans, and 363 photographs. Provenzo writes that the exhibit “provided Du Bois 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. ”

Looking at the charts, they’re strikingly vibrant and modern, almost anticipating the crossing lines of Piet Mondrian or the intersecting shapes of Wassily Kandinsky. But they are in line with innovative 19th-century data visualization, which included Florence Nightingale’s “coxcomb” diagrams on causes of war mortality and William Farr’s dynamic cholera charts. Du Bois himself used horizontal bar graphs in his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro.

The Library of Congress digitized the surviving data visualization images from the “Exhibit of American Negroes,” with some of these incredible early 20th-century infographics selected below. According to Du Bois, they were intended to be “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.”

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“City and rural population. 1890,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Occupations of negroes and whites in Georgia,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Number of Negro students taking the various courses of study offered in Georgia schools,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Negro property in two cities of Georgia,” graphed for Savannah and Atlanta, from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Slaves and free negroes,” graphed between 1790 and 1870, from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“Proportion of negroes in the total population of the United States,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
“The rise of the negroes from slavery to freedom in one generation,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
Diagram of routes of the African slave trade with the state of Georgia starred, from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900) (via Library of Congress)

View more of the data visualization by W. E. B. Du Bois for the 1900 Paris Exposition online at the Library of Congress.

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