Over the course of seven months in 1900, 50 million people swarmed Paris to attend a world’s fair known as the Exposition Universelle, enjoying attractions that ranged from electric light shows to a Champagne Palace.
Behind these amusements, though, the fair bristled with geopolitical contest, as 47 countries competed to promote their natural resources, manufacturing and culture.
The United States in particular was “looking to take hold of the fair as a kind of a launching point,” says Devon Zimmerman, co-curator of the new exhibition “Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. The U.S. had easily defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War two years earlier, gaining control of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico as a result, and had annexed Hawaii. With its growing military and economic might, the burgeoning global power broker had new ambitions.
The American urge to grab a larger space on the world stage took an almost absurdly literal turn when U.S. representatives demanded, and eventually won, a bigger and more prominent site on the exhibition fairgrounds, alongside the major countries of Europe.
Many European nations eagerly showed off resources they had acquired through the often brutal exploitation of their African and Asian colonies, but the U.S. government’s image-making was different.
“There was this constant push to keep the United States from the mention of colonialization—even though they were at the time occupying the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba,” Zimmerman says. It had been not much more than a century since the American colonies themselves broke free of Britain, and many well-known Americans, from Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain, condemned the United States’ expansion as imperialism.
The Paris exposition was a “careful dance,” Zimmerman says, in which “the United States is trying to navigate itself as equal to but different from European powers.”
Against this backdrop, and held in an out-of-the-way pavilion, was a small but powerful display called the “Exhibit of American Negroes.”
Organized by a group of Black American scholars including W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, lawyer and journalist Thomas J. Calloway and Daniel A.P. Murray of the Library of Congress, it laid out in multimedia form the economic and social progress of Black Americans in the 30-plus years since the end of slavery.
That progress was under severe threat in 1900. Lynchings had reached a sickening peak in the previous decade, the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson had codified segregation as “separate but equal,” and Jim Crow laws were spreading widely throughout the South.
And in Europe, lurid press reports were painting an ugly portrait of Black Americans to white readers.
Calloway, as lead organizer of the “Exhibit of American Negroes,” had written to Booker T. Washington: “How shall we answer these slanders? Our newspapers they do not subscribe for, if we publish books they do not buy them, if we lecture they do not attend. To the Paris Exposition, however, thousands upon thousands of them will go.”
The organizers seized the chance to speak to the fair’s vast audiences, calling attention to the unrecognized contributions Black Americans were making. They gathered up hundreds of books and periodicals by Black writers, patents held by Black inventors, and examples of craftsmanship from the Tuskegee Institute. They displayed photographs of college students and war heroes, libraries and laboratories, dentists, government clerks, shopkeepers and nuns.
Du Bois and his students from Atlanta University saw another way to drive home the argument, presenting an array of visually arresting and innovative graphics to depict Black American advances, and captioning their charts in French as well as English in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. Data gathered by Du Bois and others, in Georgia and nationwide, showed trends across a wide range of topics, including soaring school enrollment, rising literacy and the growing values of taxable property owned by Black Georgians.
Many of these colorful images are on view for the first time since 1901 at the Cooper Hewitt. The fragile hand-drawn diagrams, on loan from the Library of Congress, will be rotated throughout the course of the exhibition. In one diagram, Du Bois and his students show the increased blending of races between 1800 and 1900, with ever-widening blurred bands of brown and gold representing the growing biracial population. As a visual polemic, the graphic was an effective attack on the flawed concept of the sharp distinction between races, and the racist systems that have depended on it.
The charts made clear that if Black Americans populated their own country, that nation in 1900 would have held a populace larger than that of Belgium. Marriage rates would have been equal to or higher than those of Germany, and literacy would have been greater than in Russia or Romania.
At the same time, the images did not shy away from the violence and economic oppression that Black Americans had to overcome in order to achieve their successes. One graph etched the economic harms wrought by Jim Crow laws and the violence of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan. Another spelled out the near-impossibility for a tenant farmer of turning a profit under the sharecropping system.
In some ways these charts could be seen to support the official American narrative that the United States was equal to but more egalitarian than Europe. Du Bois, however, had been working out a pointed counterargument—one that specifically linked segregation in the United States to colonial oppression and exploitation around the world.
En route to Paris for the fair that summer in 1900, Du Bois stopped in London to attend the first Pan-African Conference, organized by an influential cast of global leaders from the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and the United States, as well as Africa.
There, the future co-founder of the NAACP drafted the historic speech “To the Nations of the World,” which included what became one of his best-known quotations: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” a sentence that was also inscribed on one of his data visualizations for the Paris exposition. In the speech, he went on to urge Europeans and Americans to end colonialism and racial oppression—against Africans and Black Americans alike.
The “Exhibit of American Negroes” went on to win several awards at the exposition. Mainstream American newspapers largely ignored it, Zimmerman says, but in the Black press it was “closely covered and hailed as a triumph.”
Later that year, Du Bois looked back on what he considered its success: It was “an honest, straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss,” he wrote, “and above all made by themselves.”
He and his Black colleagues had answered the slanders of others with truth, and rebutted ugly lies with beautiful data.
“Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair” is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City through May 29, 2023.