A few days ago, I stumbled across a fascinating collection of hand-drawn infographics by W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American activist and scholar who co-founded the NAACP in 1909. The series of 60 hand-drawn data visualizations was digitized by the Library of Congress in 2014, and has recently resurfaced in the media in honor of Black History Month. Dated circa 1900, each graph, chart, and map in the collection offers a data-driven portrait of a different aspect of black life in America. Covering a wide range of topics, including population, employment, literacy, and land ownership, Du Bois’ work was completed with the help of his students at Atlanta University and focused largely on the black community in Georgia. The series was displayed as part of the “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
As many readers know, there is a long and rich history of data visualization at Scientific American. Upon discovering the Du Bois collection, I wondered what sorts of graphics Scientific American might have produced on similar topics around the same time. While the magazine rarely covered social science, the Scientific American Reference Book, various editions of which were published around the turn of the century, attempted to address the topics that readers were curious about, but which were not necessarily covered thoroughly in the magazine. Thanks to my colleague, an avid collector of curios from the Scientific American archive, I managed to get my hands on the 1913 edition. As the editors explain in the introduction, the 500-odd-page book is “a compendium of useful information,” spanning subjects such as “the Atlantic region, the Panama route, shipping, navies, armies, railroads, population, education, patents, submarine cables, wireless telegraphy, manufactures, agriculture, mining, mechanical movements, astronomy and the weather.”
While these documents from Du Bois and Scientific American are obviously and necessarily divergent in content, function, and tone, it is nonetheless interesting to look at some of their respective graphics side by side. If nothing else, the clear Euro-centric focus of the data in the Reference Book highlights why Du Bois’ work was so crucial.
The two examples below explore mortality data from two very different perspectives. The Scientific American graph highlights mortality caused by consumption (tuberculosis), which was the leading cause of death in America at that time. Notably, this was the only visualization I found in the “Population and Social Statistics” section of the book that included race as a variable. Clearly, the disease claimed the lives of people of color at disproportionate rates, although its effects were felt across virtually all demographics.
In a distinct yet related approach, Du Bois chose to look at mortality and urban living conditions, a social factor that was felt more dramatically among African-Americans than the population as a whole. Incidentally, crowded, unsanitary living conditions were a major factor in the spread of tuberculosis in Philadelphia and other cities featuring large non-white communities, so the two datasets are undoubtedly linked.
In another interesting parallel, both groups of visualizations include a comparison of urban and rural populations. The pair of maps below from Scientific American shows overall shifts in each U.S. state, toward urban and rural areas respectively.
Meanwhile, Du Bois’ visualization shows the distribution of African-Americans, from large cities to very rural areas—the latter group being remarkably larger than the others. Unlike Scientific American’s maps, Du Bois’ graph does not offer a straightforward visual comparison, but rather uses diagonal and curved lines to engage viewers with a dynamic composition. (As a side note, could anyone alive today manage to draw such a perfectly circular swirl by hand? I seriously doubt it.)
Finally, a juxtaposition of racially-themed graphics from these two sources reveals some important insights. The Scientific American pie chart below claims to encompass “the races of mankind.” Legitimate graphic critiques aside, the decision to represent only European groups speaks volumes.
Du Bois’ map below provides an essential (if somber) counterpoint, focusing on people of African descent and emphasizing the rather staggering influence of the slave trade in their distribution across the globe.
I encourage you to view the entire collection of Du Bois’ infographics, as well as the accompanying series of photographic portraits, which depict the dignity and individuality of contemporary African-Americans. Like any foray into the Scientific American archive, exploring these works proves just as much a historical and sociological journey as a visual one.