The phrase the "New Negro" is most often associated with the post World War I literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance. In his 1925 anthology, The New Negro, Alain Locke celebrated black cultural, artistic, economic and political independence as a recent development. Yet both the term and concept of the "New Negro" date back some forty years. In an 1895 editorial lauding passage of the New York Civil Rights Law, the Cleveland Gazette recognized a "new class of people, the 'New Negro' has arisen since the War, with education, refinement and money"1 The editorial implied that the qualities of refinement and culture and the attainment of education and property warrant legal protection and voting rights for African Americans.

This political connection was central to the identity of the "New Negro" at the turn-of-the-century. In the post-Reconstruction era the United States purchased national reunion at the expense of black rights. Rulings of the judicial branch of the federal government are a fair representation of political activities and popular sentiment of the time. In a succession of findings in the late 1870's, the Supreme Court limited the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to the protection of citizens' rights from violations by state governments. The federal government, then, had no power to protect individuals from other individuals or organizations. African Americans' only legal recourse was to apply to state courts for justice. This left them extremely vulnerable in the face of widespread intimidation and violence. In 1883 The Supreme Court overturned key civil rights legislation of 1875 which had prohibited race-based segregation of public facilities. And in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, it upheld lower court rulings legalizing segregation. The federal government's refusal to guarantee the protection of black life, rights, and property and its support of segregation affected all aspects of life.





Many at the time saw this national abdication of equal rights as a result of racist portrayals in "plantation fictions, blackface minstrelsy, vaudeville and... psuedo-science."3 The "New Negro" was a deliberate construction meant to counteract prevailing racist constructions of blacks as alternately childlike and dangerous. If only the nation could see the "New Negro's" fundamental qualities of self respect, self discipline, ambition, diligence, and refinement, the thinking went, it would realize that black enfranchisement and access to education and employment represented national potential rather than a threat. The "New Negro" was a model citizen, worthy of the vote and other political, economic and educational opportunities. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. sums up the "New Negro's" ultimate objective, "to manipulate the image of the black was, in a sense, to manipulate reality. The Public Negro Self, therefore, was an entity to be crafted."4 It was an entity crafted for the public eye with the goal of changing the public mind.


"Evah Dahkey Is a King," 1902. Sheet music illustration. Published by Harry Von Tilter, Music Publishing Company.
Booker Taliaferro Washington (1865-1915). Gelatin Silver Print by C.M. Battey.




The "New Negro" was crafted for another, complementary purpose. In addition to counteracting racist constructions of blackness, it was meant as a model for other blacks, those who had not yet attained the attributes of "education, refinement, and culture" heralded in the Cleveland Gazette editorial. The figure of the "New Negro" was simultaneously an ambassador to the white world and a role model for the black world. Ideally, the two roles would work symbiotically; as the public perception of blacks improved, blacks would have more opportunities, which would lead to a larger black middle-class, which would improve public perceptions of blacks, which would lead to even greater opportunity.




This concern with changing black America's self image is evident in much of the writing at the time, and is explicitly illustrated in the 1900 work A New Negro for a New Century: An Accurate and Up-to-Date Record of the Upward Struggles of the Negro Race. Co-editors Booker T. Washington, Fannie Barrier Williams, and N.B. Wood chronicled and catalogued "both the individual achievements of black men and women as abolitionists, soldiers, and artists, and of the twentieth century's 'New Negroes', the 'progressive' classes of the race who were forming numerous self help institutions"6 with the aim of providing inspiration to and models of racial uplift.



As recent gains in legislatures across the South were wiped out in the backlash following Reconstruction, chances to affect change legislatively disappeared. Black leaders had few choices besides working to free the mind and spirit with the goal of subsequently improving political, economic and educational opportunities. A New Negro for a New Century worked to do this, in part, by providing its readers with some sixty portraits of black leaders and "New Negroes" again, as models. The work paid special attention to women who were working to educate black youth, illustrating the importance of women in the work of racial uplift. One reason for women's involvement and leadership in this field is that their gender kept them disenfranchised during the brief opportunities for political involvement immediately following Emancipation. Therefore, they would have focused their energies outside the explicitly political realm.

"Fannie Barrier Williams. Member of the Chicago Woman's Club, Newspaper Correspondent and Author."
--from A New Negro for a New Century
"Mrs. Booker T. Washington"
--from A New Negro for a New Century


"Ida Gray Nelson, D.D.S. The only Colored Lady Dentist in the Country. Graduate of Ann Arbor, Michigan: is very popular and has a lucrative practice in the City of Chicago."
--from A New Negro for a New Century
Mrs. Lulu Love. Prominent Teacher of Physical Culture in the Public Schools of Washington, D.C.
--from A New Negro for a New Century

Image and appearance are central to the project of racial uplift as personified in the figure of the "New Negro." The 1904 essay "Rough Sketches: A Study of the Features of the New Negro Woman" by Professor and artist John Henry Adams demonstrates the importance of image. This work appeared in the periodical Voice of the Negro. These women are "prototypes" after which other women might model themselves.

"This beautiful eyed girl is the result of careful home training and steady schooling. There is an unusual promise of intelligence and character rising out of her strong individuality. A model girl, a college president's daughter, is Lorainetta."
-- John Henry Adams
"In this face is an uncommon sweep of kindness and affection, linked with an industrious turn of mind, which have been the making of Lena."
-- John Henry Adams



"An admirer of fine Art, a performer on the violin and the piano, a sweet singer, a writer -- mostly given to essays, a lover of good books, and a home making girl, is Gussie."
-- John Henry Adams
"You cannot avoid the motion of this dignified countenance. College training makes her look so."
-- John Henry Adams
"We want men who have the proper sense of appreciation of deserving women and who are deserving themselves. This is a death knell to the dude and the well dresses run-around. You ought to write a book on that, Eva."
-- John Henry Adams






This concern with public image and appearance applied to men as well as women. The publication of "Rough Sketches: A Study of the Features of the New Negro Woman" was shortly followed by "Rough Sketches: The New Negro Man" again in Voice of the Negro





"Dr. J.D. Hamilton. Much has been added to the dental profession of Atlanta, in the person of Dr. Hamilton. He is rather socially inclined but knows the value of 'sticking to business.' His office shows the enterprise of the new Negro man."
-- John Henry Adams
Charles L. Harper, A.B. Mr. Harper is one of the strong young men in the government service of Atlanta. He is paving the way for himself for higher things in life.
-- John Henry Adams



Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observes that Adams makes "a correlation between the specific characteristics of the individuals depicted and the larger character of the race. Why is this so important? Precisely because the features of the race -- its collective mouth shape and lip size, the shape of its head....its black skin color, its kinky hair -- had been caricatured and stereotyped so severely in popular American art that black intellectuals seemed to feel that nothing less than a full face lift....could ameliorate the social conditions of the modern black person"8.








The resultant visual image -- this "New Negro" would have great potential for affecting change, or so these intellectuals hoped. This belief in the transforming potential of the visual image was by no means unique to the "New Negro." The portrait's power to change its viewer, depended upon its ability to convey an interior truth. That John Henry Adams assumed this ability is clear in his captions under his sketches of women. Their appearance, he claims, reflects their morality, education, artistic sensibility and upbringing. The "New Negro" did not value image over substance (as Adams demonstrates in his dismissal of the "dude" and the "well dressed run-around") but believed the image revealed the substance beneath. Literary critic Karen Halttunen calls this congruence between appearance and morality "sentimental typology of conduct" in which "all aspects of manner and appearance were visible outward signs of inner moral qualities9. Another critic, Susan Williams, develops this idea into what she calls the "typology of looking" whereby "one looks at idealized images in order to learn how to appear to others, thereby becoming a standard oneself"10. Photographer Marcus Aurelius Root mused on the transforming potential of displaying pictures of American heroes and leaders. A New Negro for a New Century and the work of John Henry Adams shares this faith in the power of image. These works are representative of much of the writing done by African Americans at the turn of the century. Their hope of transforming their readers and viewers into model middle class citizens -- in short, into "New Negroes," was a common one.






How successful was the figure of the "New Negro" in accomplishing these goals of transforming images of African Americans? It did not significantly change white perceptions of blackness; not until the Civil Rights era of the 1950's and 1960's were African American able to regain the footing they had lost after Reconstruction. It is difficult to gauge how black's images of themselves changed. The "New Negro" with his bourgeois ideals, is exclusive and elitist. In looking toward the future, and trying to distance himself from slavery, he turns his back on the past. He is seen primarily as a figure with very little popular currency, the realm of black intellectuals, the "talented tenth" and largely irrelevant to the majority of African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet the images in studio photographs reveal that, at least in photographic representations of themselves, people conformed to the bourgeois types of the "New Negro."



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