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Visualizing the Color Line: Du Bois and Data Storytelling in 1900

(originally published on Medium on 02.02.2022)

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” — W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Infographic showing the demographics of where Black Georgians lived in 1890. Source: The Library of Congress

February is Black History Month in the United States.

I want to begin this month with acknowledging an often-overlooked piece of history in data visualization and statistical methods in social science: the visualizations and charts created by the great American scholar W.E.B Du Bois and the members of the sociology department at Atlanta University for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. These early data visualizations showed statistical information for Black Americans in the state of Georgia and the United States at large in 1900, with imagery and design reminiscent of early modernist art movements that came over a decade later, such as Russian constructivism, De Stijl, Italian futurism, and Bauhaus (see Battle-Baptiste and Rusert in the Recommended Readings below).

In this post, I’ll briefly introduce Du Bois and his life and work, and then discuss the visualizations and intentions of Du Bois and his collaborators. Note this work draws heavily on the work of W.E.B Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, The Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert (which I highly recommend if you are interested in Black history, American history, or the history of data visualizations).

W.E.B Du Bois

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”

W.E.B Du Bois in 1918. Source: Wikimedia Commons

W.E.B Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868. Recognized early for his intelligence, he graduated with honors from Harvard University in history in 1890 and in 1895 was the first Black American to receive a PhD from Harvard. As a historian and pioneering scholar in sociology, Du Bois’ singular genius was to combine data, storytelling, and lyricism to combat racism and horrific Jim Crow laws of early twentieth century America. Best known for his work The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois was also one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909, held multiple research positions at the organization, was a professor at Atlanta University, and held the position of organizer of the Encyclopedia Africana project when he died at the age of 95 in Accra, Ghana.

The 1900 Exposition Universelle

The Exposition Universelle, held in Paris from April to November 1900, was an event like the World’s Fair. Multiple countries were invited to showcase achievements and cultures, including the United States. As part of the American Pavilion, Du Bois was asked to collect factual information about the living conditions and demographics of Black Americans. He focused on the State of Georgia, where he was then based at Atlanta University, due to the state having the highest Black population by proportion at the time.

The work of Du Bois and the other members of the team who created the Exhibition of American Negroes for the Exhibition had to counter the message that most European countries shared: the justification of colonial enterprises by showing the inferiority of non-European cultures. By creating the counter-narrative with the infographics created from census data, surveys, and other government data sources, Du Bois and his team demonstrated the rapid gains in wealth and education Black Americans had made since emancipation despite Jim Crow, financial panics, and racist laws and practices in the United States, a message showing that Black Americans and non-white people generally were not the inferior people that pseudoscience of the time claimed.

The Images

“Only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understands, of the dark pupils of those schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn.” — The Souls of Black Folk

Three plates from the 1900 Exposition Display. The image on the far left displays the number of Black children enrolled in Georgia schools over time, the image in the center displays the number of Black teachers in Georgia public schools over time, and the image on the right shows the number of Black students by course of study, presumably from close to the date of the survey undertaken by Atlanta University shortly before the Exhibition. Source: The Library of Congress

These three images show the increase in educational access and attainment among Black Americans in Georgia during the latter 40 years of the 19th Century. While the gains in the first years after Emancipation and then during Reconstruction, which ended in 1878, are remarkable, the large gains in numbers after 1878 stand as a tribute to the dedication Black parents in Georgia had to educating their children before the passing of compulsory education laws in Georgia were enacted (the first Compulsory School Attendance law in Georgia was passed in 1916).

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” — The Souls of Black Folks

Three plates from the 1900 Exposition display. The image on the top left shows the age distribution of Blacks in Georgia in 1900 compared to France at the same period. The image on the bottom left compares the number of married to single individuals by age cohort between Black Georgians and Germans around 1900. The large image on the right shows the literacy rate of populations from multiple European countries and for Black Americans. Source: The Library of Congress

In showing demographic comparisons with the populations of European countries, Du Bois and the other sociologists at Atlanta University were normalizing the Black population of Georgia and the United States. This framing not only pointed out that Black Americans were not objects to be studied, but they were more literate as a population than the populations of many countries in Europe at the time.

“The keynote of the Black Belt is debt; continued inability on the part of the mass of the population to make income cover expense.”

The image above shows the relative numbers of Black Americans receiving assistance for poverty per 100,000 while the image below shows a sample of income to debt for 300 Black farmers in Georgia in 1898. Source: The Library of Congress

Despite the strides in education and gains in land ownership, most Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century remained in or near poverty.

“You are not and yet you are: your thoughts, your deeds, above all your dreams still live”

An infographic showing the yearly income and expenditures of 150 Black families in Atlanta around 1900. Source: The Library of Congress

For his efforts at the 1900 Exposition, Du Bois was awarded a Grand Prix, a gold medal recognizing the accomplishments of the team in gathering and displaying their work. This recognition for the innovations in data storytelling is a mostly unknown story among data scientists, one that deserves attention for its early use of visualizing data to tell a compelling and hard truth.


While data storytelling has become a trend and a buzzword in the last few years, we should remember to acknowledge its use and existence before the existence of computers. Data storytelling has deep roots in history and sociology, and in the hands of Du Bois and the sociology department at Atlanta University at the turn of the 20th Century, it was a tool for activism to bring the truth of their experience to the world, highlighting both the depravations due to racism and remarkable achievements of Black Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. During the month of February, we will be highlighting contributions of Black Americans to Data Science and the work of Black IBMers and thought leaders in data science to show the continuing work of Black Americans in data science.

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