As a child in Ohio, Thomas Hunster dreamed of studying art in Paris. Upon graduating from Antioch College, he moved to Washington to earn enough money to go abroad. School Superintendent George F. T. Cook recognized his talent and hired Professor Hunster to teach art for the 1875-1876 school year and to develop an art department for the city's then-segregated African American public schools. The artist found his vocational calling, embarking on a forty-eight year career in which he crafted an innovative curriculum that taught art to students at every level, from kindergardeners to post-secondary teacher trainees.
In 1900, Professor Hunster's artwork appeared before an international audience at the Paris Exposition. Professor Hunster and his students created a nine-scene diorama depicting African American history that began with Emancipation and culminated in a model of the college preparatory M Street School. The diorama, which became known as the Hunster Tableaux, embodied its creator's pedagogy and activism.
As yet, no photographs of the diorama have been located, but several verbal descriptions exist. Stanton Lawrence Wormley, in a biographical sketch for a 1951 exhibition marking Professor Hunster's centennial at Howard University's Gallery of Art, wrote:
...Hunster’s exhibit of nine groups in high relief, showing the development of the public school system and its effects on Negro life after the Civil War, “attracted the attention of artists and scientists by the exquisite finish and truth for detail” that marked the work.
Art critics of the time were enthusiastic in their acclaim of the “historical accuracy of the buildings,” the “exquisite models of the human figures and horses,” the “faithful portrayal of artistic landscapes,” and the “correctness of every detail.”
The official federal report about the exhibition listed the artwork as "Washington Public Schools, Washington, D.C.: Miniature models from negro life." Washingtonian Thomas J. Calloway described the "Negro Exhibit" in the report:
In the vestibule was a long case of French plate glass, containing the nine models made by Professor Hunster and contributed by the Washington public schools. These models illustrated the various phases of negro life through which the Southern slaves have passed since their emancipation, and gave a clear insight into the advancement made with regard to domestic and educational life as a result of the new-born aspirations of the race.
In her companion biography to the Anacostia Community Museum exhibit, Anna J. Cooper: A Voice from the South, curator Louise Daniel Hutchinson notes that Anna Julia Cooper saw the exhibit in Paris with Calloway and W.E.B. Du Bois. (Dr. Cooper, principal at the M Street School where Hunster taught, arrived with the others from London, where they had participated in the first Pan-African conference, convened to protest apartheid in southern Africa.) Hutchinson writes of Dr. Cooper's experience of the Hunster Tableaux:
Leaving London, Anna Cooper and Dr. Du Bois both visited the Paris Exposition, and each agreed that one of the more interesting features was a small exhibit housed in a corner of the Social Economy Building that depicted the education and progress of the black race. Consisting of the work of Professor Thomas W. Hunster, the exhibit contained nine scenes, modeled from clay, that began with an emancipated black family with no resources, eking out an existence, and ended with a striking model of the M Street High School, thereby graphically showing the evolution of black Americans from 1865 until 1900. As Anna Cooper would note, the theme of the ninth scene was “the climax of the upward struggles of [her] people and show[ed] the chasm bridged in the second generation along the shadowy path . . . wither none but Omniscience could have foreseen.
Uniquely, Hunster had told the black American’s poignant story in a language all who visited the Paris Exposition could understand, and in spite of language barriers, Europeans showed considerable interest in the display, located in the corridor and opposite a sign that read "Exposition Des Nègres d’Amerique." Before it was sent to Paris, the exhibit had opened in the M Street School, and was the source of much community enthusiasm and pride. (132)
Dr. Cooper penned a first-hand account in The Colored American on August 25, 1900. (Dr. Du Bois's well-documented exhibit at the Paris Exposition featured colorful statistical charts, photographs of African Americans, and objects made by African Americans.)
In 1900, Calloway was already planning for another international exposition, the Jamestown Ter-Centennial in 1907. At the Paris Exposition, he tapped sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller to repair the Hunster Tableaux, which had been damanged in shipping. The Hunster Tableaux is credited for helping to inspire a fifteen-scene diorama by Warrick, which earned a gold medal at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial.
The Hunster Tableaux addressed ten requirements set out by exhibition organizers, as outlined by Thomas J. Calloway in the Commission's report:
It was decided in advance to try to show ten things concerning the negroes in America since their emancipation: (1) Something of the negro’s history; (2) education of the race; 3) effects of education upon illiteracy; (4) effects of education upon occupation; (5) effects of education upon property; (6) the negro’s mental development as shown by the books, high class pamphlets, newspapers, and other periodicals written or edited by members of the race; (7) his mechanical genius as shown by patents granted to American negroes; (8) business and industrial development in general; (9) what the negro is doing for himself through his own separate church organizations, particularly in the work of education; (10) a general sociological study of the racial conditions (463).
Cooper, Anna J. "The American Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition," The Colored American, 25 August 1900, p. 2.
Hutchinson, Louise Daniel. Anna J. Cooper: A Voice from the South. 1981, 1982. Smithsonian Institution.
Lewis, Morris. "Progress of the Afro-American Race: As Shown in the Paris Exposition Exhibit," The Appeal, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, 13 October 1900. Vol. 16, No. 41. p. 1.
Peck, Ferdinand Wythe. Report of the Commissioner-General for the United States to the International universal exposition, Paris, 1900. Vol. 2. Read, referred to the committee on printing, and ordered to be printed. Washington: GPO, 1901. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001511546