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How W.E.B Du Bois Used Data Visualization to Debunk Social Darwinism and Tell A Story of Resilience

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a well-known writer, sociologist, historian, and civil-rights activist.  He was born on Feb 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. He completed his graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard — becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate. Commonly known as W.E.B. Du Bois, was also a data visualization pioneer. While he is known for his collection of essays, Souls of Black Folks, he also architected the nation’s most sophisticated quantitative research on race and the black population. I wasn’t aware of this research until a few years ago when I was looking to honor a data visualization expert for Black History Month. The revolutionary graphics, now about 121 years old, depict how far the African-American community had advanced in less than half a century following the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1863. It’s a data narrative of resilience and perseverance. 

Du Bois was a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. He established a sociology program in 1897, now recognized as the first school of American sociology. It was here that he led a team of students to produce 60 full-color charts, graphs, maps, and tables on what had changed for African Americans since slavery. This collection was generated from a mix of existing records and empirical data collected by his sociological laboratory. The visualizations stressed one narrative; that the African American community had made progress.  The colorful, hand-drawn illustrations showed that literacy rates for African Americans were rising and that African American ownership of property and land was increasing. African American businesses were growing and so were the number of patents for inventions. 

This data visualization shows that land ownership by African Americans had been steadily increasing over time.


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