I love old photographs, especially ones taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The African American Photographs Assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition is one of my favorite collections. The photographs, housed at the Library of Congress and available online, were commissioned by W. E. B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway, to show the world the progress of African Americans post emancipation.
Most of the images are individual and group portraits of what I like to call prosperous looking Negroes. Many of the individual portraits are of unknown men, women and children. The group portraits represent academia, business, and civic organizations and include a Howard University graduating law class; the Board of Directors of the Coleman Manufacturing Company; Claflin University’s Brass Band, and the Negro Officers of the Women’s League in Newport, R.I. just to name a few. There are beautiful images of churches, buildings at universities and homes of Black leaders. Of course the images of libraries at Fisk, Claflin, and Howard warm my heart, even if they have the appearance of being staged.
If I had to pick just one favorite of the nearly 500 images, it would have to be the one to your right, titled, “African American woman, three-quarter length portrait, seated with left arm over back of chair, facing front.” Why this one photo? One friend calls her my doppelgänger, another friend calls her my ancestress. I love the ring of ancestress and truly, she looks like she could be my great-grandmother. In truth, I have no idea who she is, other than the fact she lived in Atlanta, Georgia circa 1900. I discovered the photograph over five years ago and immediately saw a resemblance. The resemblance is so remarkable, my mother thought I had gone to a studio that specializes in period photographs! But, seriously I really like the photo and really the whole collection. I encourage you to peruse the collection at your leisure. Perhaps you’ll find your twin from 1900! You can search the collection or you can view by list, gallery, grid or slideshow.
Now, for you old school folks and lovers of books, selected images are included in A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress, published in 2003. The book, which includes essays David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis, is available in trade paperback and digitally by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. (Sadly, hardcover is out of print.) You can get a preview via GoogleBooks.
For more information about the photographs check out the C-SPAN video of Lewis and Willis discussing A Small Nation of People on October 28, 2003 and a NewsHour transcript of a January 8, 2004 Gwen Ifill interview with Willis.