By Alex Jones
INCREDIBLE photos from the turn of the 20th Century were included in a bold and spectacular Parisian exhibit designed to promote racial equality in the wake of the American Civil War.
120 years ago African American scholars, writers, and intellects faced a race against time to build and present a display which would been seen by tens of millions of people and had the potential to alter the course of history.
In 1899, African American lawyer Thomas Calloway had an idea for an exhibit for the upcoming 1900 Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in Paris.
Realising that eyes across the globe would be on the City of Lights – and the magnificent metal tower under construction by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel that would serve as its entrance – Calloway thought the grand event would be an ideal platform to showcase the virtues of African-American society nearly four decades after the end of lawful slavery.
With just four months to go before the start of the Exposition, Calloway demanded and received Congressional approval and $15,000 to create his vision. He immediately turned to Librarian Daniel Murray and his former university classmate and prominent intellectual activist W.E.B. Du Bois to help curate his much anticipated ‘Exhibit of American Negroes’.
A call for resources was announced and a huge amount of material – predominantly photographs – flooded Calloway’s office, each offering a small snapshot of life in the US for black citizens at the end of the 1800s.
The remarkable photographs included a class of smartly dressed black academics graduating at Howard University, Washington DC; a sisterhood of nuns outside a New Orleans church; and a group of hardworking journalists at the Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia.
In addition to photographs and portraits of a cross section of the African-American population, the exhibit included books written and patents held by black creators, and dozens of charts, graphs and drawings outlining the demographics and economic situation of black people in 1900.
A weighting was given to photos showing high achieving black Americans, as the exhibit makers wanted to promote their fellow ‘negroes’ as just as worthy and accomplished as their white peers. At the time, prevailing scientific thought suggested African Americans were inherently inferior to Anglo-Americans and Du Bois, Calloway and Murray were keen to dispel this prejudiced preconception. They also made it abundantly clear that a disproportionate amount of African Americans were in low-skilled and low-paid agricultural work where their intellectual prowess would often be wasted.
Despite the rush – and Du Bois almost unable to attend his own exhibition due to a lack of funds – “The Exhibit of American Negroes” opened in the Palace of Social Economy at the Exposition Universelle. In the course of its eight-month run, it was visited by over 50 million people and won numerous awards including a gold medal.
Although widely acclaimed by Exposition Universelle attendees and judges as a success, the exhibit only drew a small number of headlines in Europe and even fewer in the United States. The organisers admitted they were deflated their hard work had not been more widely recognised.
Race relations remained a core concern for many Americans throughout most of the 20th Century.
Today the Exhibit of American Negroes is housed at the Library of Congress in the USA.