Activist and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois created “The Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris in collaboration with Booker T. Washington, prominent black lawyer Thomas J. Calloway, the assistant librarian at the Library of Congress Daniel Murray, and students from historically black college Atlanta University.
While Du Bois’s legacy is cemented in American history, his data visualization remains relatively unknown. I’m passionate about Du Bois’s story and have been discussing it via a series of articles through the lens of a UX Designer working in data visualization. My hope is that these posts inspire more academics, designers, and data visualization specialists to explore this work further in order to place the work into the proper historical significance.
The word “Negro” will appear frequently in this series. It’s not a word I take lightly. It is the term Du Bois references throughout this phase of his career and I think it’s best to honor and contextualize his use of language for this article.
Understanding the sequence of the charts
There are sixty-three of Du Bois’s charts from “The Exhibit of American Negroes” in the collection of the Library of Congress and there are a number of reasons why understanding the sequence of the charts is important. If we learn the order that each chart was created, it would help us to understand why Du Bois developed the unique forms and methods that underlie the entire series. Then, by considering the order in which Du Bois displayed these works to the viewer, we can understand how he communicated his complex data story.
Even with the publishing of the new book “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America,” which seeks to tell the story of the exhibit and briefly touches on the individual charts, this body of work remains under-researched. Since there is little historical documentation, not much is known about how the charts were created and the exact sequence of the charts will probably never be known.
We know that the charts were created in less than four months, and we know that after the Paris Exposition, the exhibit was displayed in Buffalo, NY, and Charleston, SC. Since the exhibit was created in collaboration with Daniel Murray, assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, Du Bois had known the works would eventually be part of their collection. In my correspondence with the Library of Congress (LoC), they assumed that the order of the charts was likely established by Murray himself, which does lend the sequence quite a bit of credence.
As I’ve written in previous posts, Du Bois set off on a 10-year study of “The Negro Problem” which began with the publishing of “The Philadelphia Negro” in 1899. Encouraged by the positive reaction, he immediately continued his research in both Virginia and Georgia.
Du Bois was already planning to craft a high-level overview as part of his larger body of research. So when “The Exhibit of American Negroes” was organized at the end of 1899, Du Bois naturally took the opportunity to use the exposition to expand the scope of his sociological work. As a result, he then organized the statistical charts to explore data on three levels: international, national, and local.
The charts themselves are split into two groups: “The Georgia Negro” which focuses on the “typical” state of Georgia, which had the second-largest African-American population at the time (Virginia was the largest), and the highest Negro to White ratio. It contains charts #1–36.
The other section is called “A Series of Statistical Charts Illustrating the Condition of the Descendants of Former African Slaves Now in Residence in the United States of America”, which focuses on the national and international view of the data. It contains charts #37–63.
Doubts about the sequence of the charts
As discussed in my last article, the chart “Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta GA, USA,” which is #31 in the LoC sequence, is actually displayed on the top of a stack of the charts and acts as a “key” to the larger exhibition. It is shown in conjunction with the two “title” charts for each series – but I’ve always thought it was odd that the 31st work in the series was shown as the key to understanding the rest of the works.
Another aspect of the sequence that has perplexed me is how the works are titled. For most of the second series, the titles are printed and pasted onto the card while the first series labels are all hand-lettered. This is important because it suggests that the second series would have been done first in order to get the titles confirmed in time for the printing. Of course, on further examination of the second series, that’s not entirely true as 8 of the 27 works are hand-titled. Then, if we consider the time it took to conduct the research for “The Georgia Negro” and then hand-draw the thirty-five 24″ x 27″ charts in that series, it seems likely that this group of charts would have to be crafted after the other series.
I propose that the two series were actually created in the opposite order. I believe Du Bois and his students crafted the second series while the research was being conducted for The Georgia Negro. Then, after both series were created, Du Bois added additional hand-titled works to the second series in an effort to complete the storyline in both series. I believe the “key chart” (“Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta GA, USA”) was actually among the last of the charts created, as it seems to situate the statistical charts to the larger exhibit.
Below is an image of all the charts in the two sequences. Looking at the entire sequence in this way shows how visually different the two series are, and also displays how innovative the charts are across both series.
The mystery of William Andrew Rogers
Yet another mystery is the relationship between the creation of the work and a graduate student named William Andrew Rogers.
Listed on the official Atlanta University record (above) as a non-resident graduate student residing in Virginia, Rogers was first rediscovered by Shawn Michelle Smith in her amazing book Photography on the Color Line. In an article from the Atlanta Journal from 1900, Rogers is cited as “drawing and coloring” all the charts, but the documentation for the newspaper article has been elusive and my continued attempts to learn more about Rogers have been fruitless.
While it certainly makes sense that a single student oversaw the organization and drafting of the charts, there is not currently any footprint of Rogers’ work (or identity) outside of this mention. While the credit on each chart is listed as “Done by Atlanta University”, and the charts are understood to be created in collaboration with his students, I think Du Bois’s lifetime of innovation and thought leadership justifies him to be the author of this series of charts.
Discovering a previously unknown chart
As you can tell, I’ve been interested in the sequence of the charts since the beginning of my research. As I looked for clues about their sequence, I returned to the original exposition photograph to get an understanding of what the team prioritized as important.
What I found was shocking.
While the two “cover” charts are on display, as well as “Taxpayer Property of Negroes in Three United States”, I realized that the top-right chart was not part of the original Library of Congress collection.
From here I enlarged the image and played with the contrast levels to try to learn more about the chart.
I could see it was indeed a unique new piece that had not been studied before but the resolution was not high enough to understand it. So I emailed the librarians at the Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and much to my delight, they responded with a high-res image in just a few hours. I was then able to zoom in on the missing chart. Much to my surprise, the entire work was now legible:
This previously unknown work was hidden in plain sight.
“The Decrease of Illiteracy Among the Black Freedmen of the United States” is a lost work now understood to be part of the second series. The quality of the image is high enough to decipher the text, and for the purpose of this article, I was also able to re-color the work based on the corresponding grey scales in the image.
The chart shows the 36% percent drop in the illiteracy of Freedmen over a 30-year period. The steady decrease statistically proves the voracious appetite for education among African-Americans and defies the racist stereotype of the typical American Negro as an ignorant slave. The newly discovered chart creates a correlation between freedom and education. This chart shows just how systematic Du Bois was in crafting his message and reinforcing it throughout the entire series of statistical charts.
The newly discovered chart acts as a missing link between the 3 views of data for both Illiteracy and the proportion of Freedmen.
Lastly, a footnote on color before moving on.
Since Du Bois employed a limited palette, the grey scale in the photograph could only suggest certain color combinations. Since we know that the newly discovered chart was on display in the exhibit, we know it was meant to be a strong visual. The options below display a few of the possibilities, but I think the green/black combo creates a clear relationship to the other charts in the series.
Systems Thinking in the “Exhibit of American Negroes”
While the discovery of this chart is extremely exciting, it underscores the importance of storytelling in this series of statistical charts. Exploring the relationships between the charts and the cumulative effect of knowledge building that results is ultimately an endeavor to understand how Du Bois considered the persuasive impact of his work.
In November of 1900, Du Bois wrote “The American Negro at Paris” as a report on the exhibition as well as a summary of the events in Paris. In it, he states: “The history of the Negro is illustrated by charts and photographs; there is, for instance, a series of striking models of the progress of the colored people, beginning with the homeless freedman and ending with the modern brick schoolhouse and its teachers. There are charts of the increase of Negro population, the routes of the African slave trade, the progress of emancipation, and the decreasing illiteracy…”
The relationship between freedom to education was one of the most important stories for Du Bois. It’s even more striking that one of the main charts focusing on illiteracy is missing from our historical understanding of his work. By discovering this chart, we gain further insight as to how Du Bois sought to change the perception of African-Americans in Western society.
A lot more work to do: some thoughts on my research
It’s been a remarkable journey. When I began back in March, I thought it would be a fun exercise to learn more about these charts. I was hungry to learn more and couldn’t find anything substantial about them at the time. As I began writing the first article I realized there was so much to be discussed that I expanded my focus to a series of four articles. In the second article, I learned more about the background of the exhibit and began to correspond with several Du Bois scholars, including Eugene F. Provenzo and Silas Munro (one of the authors of the new book). With their encouragement — and a lot of support from the community — I continued to explore Du Bois’s work and eventually was granted a visit to the Library of Congress. I still had more to learn, so the series expanded again to six articles.
There are still many unanswered questions about Du Bois’s data visualizations: Why did they draw the maps in the first series? How are Du Bois’s themes manifested across the entire series? Are more charts missing from the Library of Congress? What role did William Andrew Rogers play and did he create other data visualizations? How was this work received in the exhibits in Buffalo, NY, and Charleston, SC?
Now, at the end (?) of my research, I’m proud to think that I’ve made some contributions to the understanding of Du Bois’s data visualizations. With the release of the new book “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America,” and with my own work, there is a great deal of new excitement about this previously less-considered work. By exploring Du Bois’s work at the Paris Exposition, a new generation of historians can leverage Du Bois’s charts in the study of African-Americans in US history. By understanding Du Bois’s sociological methods, we gain inspiration in using data to fight prejudice in today’s world.
There are strong indicators that Du Bois’s work will finally be written into the history of data visualization as well. Several leading voices in the data visualization community, like Mona Chalabi, RJ Andrews, and Bill Shander regularly refer to Du Bois’s achievements with hopes that others will follow. While Du Bois’s impact on statistical chart-making may have been overlooked, perhaps his story and ideas can at least be shared within the timeline.
Our understanding of history is changing
We find our global culture at a critical nexus; caught between an embattled version of history that was crafted by the consensus of few, and a more nuanced version of history discussed by many. What began with the crowd-sourcing of knowledge in Wikipedia, now compels us to challenge historical accounts in search of a more diverse approach.
Notable personages are emerging in many disciplines, upending our conventional understanding of timelines and movements. Hilma af Klint’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is radically challenging the previous understanding of modernism. The publishing of the little-known book “Color Problems” by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel in 1901 challenges the terminology and methods for evaluating color relationships. The history of computing now references Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton while Katherine Johnson’s contribution to space exploration was turned into a major motion picture in “Hidden Figures.”
The history of data visualization is also far from complete. The amazing book “The Minard System” by Sandra Rendgen presents the collected works of Charles-Joseph Minard, but where is the detailed research on Florence Nightingale? Manual Lima’s remarkable Book of Trees and Book of Circles uncover a wealth of historical visualizations, but who is examining the individual works for their systems and techniques? By exploring the data visualizations of the past, we gain inspiration on how to create new forms of visual communication in the present and future.
I’ll end this series as I did in my presentation at the Tapestry Conference a few weeks ago. I’ve discovered so much on my journey this year. The opportunity to explore the unexplored history of data visualization is manifest. Interest in historic data visualization is growing, our community is supportive, and the global conversation on what is data and how to understand it is a cultural imperative.
So I ask you. What other stories are out there to be found and re-told?
Thank you, thank you, thank you
In each article, I thank the people who have helped me edit and discuss this work — but since this is the last of the series, it’s important to say a few more words to say just how important they have been in encouraging me.
My colleagues at McKinsey’s People Analytics and Measurements team: Rebecca Anderson, Tyler Curtis, Rachel Ramsay, and Lauren Rebagliati for their amazing attention to detail, persistence, and support across 6 articles and 22,000 words
To Bhavna Devani who inspired me to really dig in and explore this work. Who counseled me on writing on race-related issues at the beginning and continued to support and champion me along the way.
To RJ Andrews, Elijah Meeks, and Martin Telefont who always write me back on Twitter and continue to inspire me with their amazing work day after day.
To the Du Bois scholar Eugene F. Provenzo and Silas Munro, who wrote about the charts in the recent “Data Portraits” book, for answering loads of Du Bois questions and sharing their passion and curiosity with me.
To my wife, Jen Ray, for entertaining my endless conversations about 19th-century history and reading each of these long articles a bunch of times.
I also want to send my heartfelt gratitude to the data visualization community which has been so encouraging, especially those attending the Tapestry Conference. I feel like I found my “tribe” this year and I endeavor to contribute to the discussion of our work. It’s gonna be fun!
*Lastly, thanks to Peter Dalgaard for some French corrections on the new image above!
The six-part series:
W. E. B. Du Bois’ staggering Data Visualizations are as powerful today as they were in 1900
An introduction to the 1900 Paris Exposition, and context for a few charts on history and population growth.
II. Data Journalism and the Scientific Study of “The Negro Problem”
Places this body of work within Du Bois’ larger sociological focus and continues the exploration of many of the charts from the exposition with a focus on education, literacy, and occupation.
III. Exploring the Craft and Design of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Data Visualizations
A detailed examination of how Du Bois drafted his charts, a consideration of this work as a precursor to modernism, and a discussion of his more artistic charts on land ownership and value.
IV. Style and Rich Detail: On Viewing an Original Du Bois Chart
Discoveries on viewing an original chart and further exploration of Du Bois’ more innovative designs dealing with occupation, business, and mortality.
V. Du Bois as Social Scientist and the Legacy of “The Exhibit of American Negroes”
Discusses Du Bois’s body of work and his frustrations with social science despite widespread attention.
VI. The Exhibition as a Whole: an Exciting Discovery
To close out the series I present a previously unknown chart from the series, and discuss the importance of understanding the sequence of the works.
This article originally appeared in Medium but in moving to NightingaleDVS.com, I edited the original text mostly to update some grammar and language substitutions, January 2023.
Jason Forrest is a data visualization designer and writer living in New York City. He is the director of the Data Visualization Lab for McKinsey and Company. In addition to being on the board of directors of the Data Visualization Society, he is also the editor-in-chief of Nightingale: The Journal of the Data Visualization Society. He writes about the intersection of culture and information design and is currently working on a book about pictorial statistics.