W.E.B. Du Bois' African-American Portraits

Collection Depicts Life for Blacks 35 Years After Civil War

From the collection W.E.B. Du Bois presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

hide captionFrom the collection W.E.B Du Bois presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Library of Congress
Available Online

"Some foreigners will think we have nothing for the Negro but the bludgeon and revolver; we shall convince them otherwise." These are the words of B.D. Woodward, the assistant commissioner-general for the U.S.'s delegation to the 1900 Paris Exposition. He was referring to the "American Negro Exhibit," pulled together for the Paris Exposition by the young sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois.

Du Bois put on exhibit 500 photographs that symbolized black life in America 35 years after the end of slavery. And he chose with care. The photos, many of them portraits, show the trappings of middle- and upper-class life: ornate clothing, fancy hats, jewelry, confident poses. Du Bois intended the photographs to counteract stereotypes of blacks as poor, uneducated, or the victims of American racism.

Those photographs are now collected in a book, A Small Nation of People, published by the Library of Congress. Co-author and historian of photography Deborah Willis first heard about the photos during college. She didn't discover they still existed for years later. She says even today — in her 50s — she's still amazed by the stories the photos tell. NPR's Michele Norris, host of All Things Considered, talks with Willis about the collection.

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