‘A Small Nation of People’
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
GWEN IFILL: In 1900, an ambitious international exhibition was held in Paris. As part of Exposition Universal, noted author and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois was asked to put together an exhibit of American Negroes.
DuBois assembled charts and graphs and 500 photographs of what he called typical Negro faces, only 35 years after the end of the Civil War. Now, the Library of Congress has organized these photographs into a book that captures a unique slice of America.
It’s called “A Small Nation of People, W.E.B. DuBois and African American Portraits of Progress.” Along with Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis, Deborah Willis, professor of photography and imaging at New York University, wrote one of its introductory essays.
DEBORAH WILLIS: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about this book. It’s very interesting to me that these pictures even existed. How did you know about it?
DEBORAH WILLIS: I heard … first heard about photographs when I was an underground student in the ’70s at the Philadelphia College of Art. I knew that DuBois had organized an exhibition, but did not know that the actual photographs still existed.
So it was really wonderful when the Library of Congress called me a couple of years ago to ask if I was interested in writing about the photographs — that they were processed, they were available, and the exposition photographs were put it all together in one category at the Library of Congress.
GWEN IFILL: They had all just been almost languishing there all these years?
DEBORAH WILLIS: They were in storage all of these years until someone decided to process the collection.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us about what you found. Who are the faces we see in these pictures?
DEBORAH WILLIS: Well, the wonderful aspect about the photographs, they’re mostly … most of the photographs are unidentified, but they tell a story about black life at the turn of the century.
They’re students, they’re families, they’re children, they’re business owners, as well as nuns, religious leaders. And so the story that DuBois wanted to tell about black life in Georgia, basically wanted to talk about the progress of black life, of young black people as well as older people after slavery, 25, 30 years after slavery.
GWEN IFILL: He was making kind of a very conscious political point about who these people were.
DEBORAH WILLIS: Yes, and I think he wanted to look at them as markers for the race. The turn of the century, the turn of the 20th century where progress in terms of industrial progress, he wanted to show how black people transformed from being enslaved to the new sense of the new Negro. The sense of education was very important, owned businesses and things like that.
GWEN IFILL: Was he trying to erase stereotypes?
DEBORAH WILLIS: I think he wanted to counter stereotypes. I don’t think that he could erase them at all. But I wanted … I think he really wanted to look … to show the stories that were untold through the visual medium, because there were so many newspapers, photographs that were made about black life that characterized black life as humorous and demeaning.
And I think his story he wanted to tell, that these are people who were concerned about fashion. As you can see in the book, there are women who were very fashionably dressed. They’re women who wanted to be desired as female figures. And there are also men who were very highly dressed in their bow ties and their suits and just wonderful playfulness with some of the portraits within the photographs.
GWEN IFILL: Who was taking these pictures? You’re a photographer. You must have been curious about who was behind the lens.
DEBORAH WILLIS: That’s the amazing part about this whole research is that I had just completed a book about black photographers and identified one of the photographers through the research.
Thomas Askew was a photographer who made a number of the photographs in the Georgia community, and he also photographed his family. What I found interesting about Askew also, that his wife was a seamstress. So I think that fashion was central to his photographing. I think that there’s something that he was really interested in documenting, the style of dress of the period.
GWEN IFILL: How did you know the photographs were his?
DEBORAH WILLIS: I had a chance to research at the Atlanta history center and the Auburn Ebony Research Center in Atlanta, as well as Atlanta University. And on the reverse of the photographs, they’re stamped Thomas Askew.
It was really wonderful looking at the photographs and there was a collector at Skip Mason in Georgia, who also had Thomas Askew photographs, so we were able to photograph the photographer, his face, his family, as well as some of the images.
GWEN IFILL: W.E.B. DuBois has a reputation of being someone who was interested in promoting the cream of black society, the talented tenth, and that’s what this book in many ways reflects. But is it representative, really, of where black Americans were at this point in history?
DEBORAH WILLIS: I don’t think it’s representative, but I think he wanted to counter some of the images that were in expositions at the time. Most of the images were stereotyped of black life, and he wanted to show that … let’s show this difference — show the different experiences of black life. And most of the people were — human displays were from Africa, West Africa and the Caribbean.
So that he wanted to show these are people who were outside of the imagination of some of the people who put together expositions, they couldn’t imagine that black life, that black people could attend college or were interested in owning businesses and things like that. So he wanted to show had the other side of black life that was not, you know, previously known.
GWEN IFILL: Which must have been a radical notion at a time. And if that’s the case, how was it received, say, in Paris, for instance?
DEBORAH WILLIS: In Paris, they were amazed that they won the gold medal for the exposition. He also won the grand prize for the exposition. There was press about it, but unfortunately, there was not a lot of white American press. The black American newspapers, journalists, they covered all of the expositions through the six months.
They wrote a number of praising … or articles, interesting articles about the exposition in terms of praising it, and the stories that were told through the photographs. The white American press did not cover it. They only covered the party, the event when Adam Clayton Powell Sr. attended and Mary Church Surell attended the grand opening. They only covered that because they were amazed at the people who attended the opening.
GWEN IFILL: But it didn’t really break through into mainstream society?
DEBORAH WILLIS: It didn’t break through, no.
GWEN IFILL: I know I’m getting you inside W.E.B. DuBois’ head, but was that kind of a disappointment for him?
DEBORAH WILLIS: I think not. I think that he was really interested in the stories that were told through the photographs, because the exposition in 1901 to Buffalo to the Pan American exposition, and it had a chance to show in this country. And the support of the club women who organized the exposition in Buffalo were really excited about the stories that are he told. And I think that he was really kind of … he was really looking at a way of just changing and introducing photography to the world fair in a different way.
GWEN IFILL: Was it ever put on display again after the Buffalo exhibit? Did it travel at all?
DEBORAH WILLIS: No. It was put on display one other place, one other exposition, I think it was Jamestown, but that was it. It did not … it was never on display again. This is an opportunity for people to see the photographs, just to imagine black life in 1900 in a different way.
These are women and children; women driving carriages that we, you know, we very rarely see; women standing on porches with their families; families at picnics, well-dressed; and women wearing kind of the new woman dress of the period, where they had skirts that they could ride bicycles with, and it was just kind of a fun experience for me as a researcher.
GWEN IFILL: It seems interesting that from that time and even through “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, that people were always remaking this image of the middle class black American, reminding people that they existed.
Did it leave any lasting … this sort of collection, leave a lasting message, do you think, a lasting impact that people could take from looking at this, especially at this book now?
DEBORAH WILLIS: I think so. I think the lasting impact is just to read photographs. How do we reread photographs of black people? And I think that that’s the impact to me, is to see that there was a diverse community, and to look at that diversity and to think about the changes that were made 35 years after slavery.
GWEN IFILL: Deborah Willis, thank you very much.
DEBORAH WILLIS: OK, thank you.