Mixed messages : Thomas Calloway and the 'American Negro Exhibit' of 1900

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


In the last decade of the nineteenth century, African Americans faced growing hostility and disenfranchisement from the white majority, especially in the former Confederate states. African Americans were divided over the best strategy for dealing with their deteriorating circumstance, and after the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895, they lacked an established leader that could give voice to their concerns. To many, their best hope laid in the leadership and philosophy of an Alabama educator named Booker T. Washington. Washington taught that African Americans should not clamor for immediate recognition and equality, but instead work hard to become financially independent and important. He believed that once blacks earned and possessed what whites wanted, material wealth, then they would be accepted readily into American society. However, a significant group of blacks opposed Washington's teachings, asking how African Americans could prosper without the social and political means to promote their interests and ensure their safety and wellbeing. Although this alternative faction began to emerge more fully after the 1903 publication of W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, which contained a harsh critique of Washington, the tension between these two philosophies was captured earlier in the materials of the "American Negro Exhibit," a display at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. The exhibit was coordinated and compiled by Thomas Calloway. Calloway, an African American colleague of both Washington and Du Bois, hoped to integrate their strategies and show Europeans the true nature of the African American community. The materials he collected, as well as his arrangement of them, act as a record of the conflicting ideas embraced by the African American community at the turn of the century and as a testament to the debate over which images would have priority in defining African American racial identity and strategy. The collection was a huge success in the eyes of Europeans who visited the fair, but did little to impact the racial discourse in the United States when the display returned and went on view at two American fairs.




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