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W.E.B. Du Bois Was A Master Of The Hand-Drawn Infographic

The activist, historian, and prolific author was also a skilled designer of infographics depicting black life post-Civil War.

The prominent civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was also a historian and sociologist—a background that led him to a firm belief in the revolutionary power of empirical data. In 1900, Du Bois showed that he also had a talent for visualizing that data—as seen in a series of experimental infographics he created for an exhibition at the World’s Fair in Paris.

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The hand-drawn infographics were part of “The Exhibit of American Negroes”—curated by Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and the lawyer Thomas J. Calloway—which set out to depict black life in America after the Civil War. The exhibition included 500 photographs and 200 books on display, as well as the more than 60 charts that Du Bois created with the help of his sociology students at Atlanta University (today known as Clark Atlanta University). The infographics have been in the public domain for years, thanks to the Library of Congress, which last year digitized a sizable chunk of the collection. They are divided into two different groups: one illustrating statistics on African-Americans across the United States, and the other focused solely on Georgia. According to a written statement from Calloway, detailed on the Library of Congress blog, Du Bois chose to highlight Georgia “because it has the largest Negro population and because it is a leader in Southern sentiment.”

There was also the fact that, for Du Bois and his students, Georgia was home. African-Americans living in Reconstruction-era Georgia were still faced with the threat of the Ku Klux Klan—which came up in Georgia in 1868—and lynch mobs, as well as the deliberate disenfranchisement of their voting rights. By 1900, African-American land ownership had grown by 13% since the end of the Civil War, but most remained sharecroppers. And while in 1869, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that African-Americans could hold office in Georgia, the last black member of the General Assembly, W.H. Rogers, would resign in 1907, and another would not be elected until 1963.

Out of that sociopolitical scene arose Du Bois’s set of charts that aimed to show the economic and social progress of African-Americans since emancipation. The brightly colored, geometric charts are progressive not just in substance but in style: They appear to anticipate American modernist graphic design by some 50 years. The diagrams distill data on the rising numbers of African-American teachers, land ownership, and even the value of furniture in African-American households in a series of bars, circles, maps, and spirals.

At the Paris Exposition, the charts offered a view of black life in post-antebellum South to a global audience, in a show that marked major progress in the fight for civil rights. And for a modern viewer? They prove Du Bois’s obsession with quantifiable facts was matched by his eye for beautiful graphic design.

Click through a selection of the infographics in the slide show above, or see all of the surviving charts here.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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