The claim: Louis Vuitton sponsored racist human zoos in the 19th and 20th centuries
In observance of Black History Month, many Americans are reflecting on Black people's triumphs against racism through history. Some are using social media to call out past injustices. One viral post makes the unproven claim that fashion brand Louis Vuitton sponsored 19th- and 20th-century "human zoos" that put people of color on display for entertainment.
The post describes human zoos that displayed Black people as “exotic creatures” in New York, St. Louis, Australia and other countries at the turn of the century.
The claim is accompanied by two black and white photos: one of a building decorated with the Louis Vuitton moniker and a large piece of African art and another of a Black child and a crowd of white onlookers separated by a fence.
Artist Trey Songz bolstered the claim when he posted it on Instagram on Feb. 17. His post included the same two images and also referenced human zoos in France.
Songz credited the post to clothing brand Cointel, though there is no record of the post on its Instagram account.
Before Songz, radio and TV host Lady Joi posted the claim on Facebook Feb. 13. She removed that post after USA TODAY contacted her for comment.
Human zoos did exist in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and the United States. The BBC reported 35,000 people were part of the displays and most were paid. The last one closed in 1958 in Belgium.
USA TODAY could find no evidence the couture brand Louis Vuitton sponsored them.
None of the posters USA TODAY reached out to for comment replied.
Louis Vuitton: 'This allegation is completely false'
A spokesperson for the company said in an email to USA TODAY that the claim was "completely false."
Louis Vuitton's official statement provided by the spokesperson on the claim read: “This allegation is completely false. In fact, Louis Vuitton used booths at exhibitions to showcase products in the 1920s and 30s. The first photograph is of Louis Vuitton’s booth at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris in 1931 in which the brand showcased trunks and beauty cases, among other objects. We have made this clear in the past and we are doing so again now in the strongest possible terms. The second photograph has absolutely no affiliation with our brand whatsoever.”
French blog causes confusion
A 2011 French blog post on the website Brand Memory described how Louis Vuitton exhibited products at several world fairs. The blog was originally published in French and can be translated to English through Google, leaving room for confusion.
It described Louis Vuitton’s African-influenced designs, which it presented at the 1931 World's Fair in Paris. Louis Vuitton presented products like leather trunks and ivory objects at the colonialism-themed event. The blog post does not say the fashion brand sponsored human zoos, although human zoos were part of separate exhibits.
The same image of the Louis Vuitton building and African structure is featured in the article. Snopes identified the building in the image widely shared with the claim as the pavilion from that 1931 fair.
Louis Vuitton had exhibit at 1931 fair
The 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition featured an exhibit that displayed naked and semi-naked human beings in cages. According to Ferris State University, the exhibit had 34 million attendees in six months.
The fair sought to celebrate colonialism and stimulate the French public’s interest in its colonial empire.
Gaston Louis Vuitton, the grandson of Louis Vuitton’s namesake founder, presented an African-influenced mask collection in a separate Louis Vuitton pavilion at the exposition. The Globe and Mail reported that Gaston Vuitton had a "very public love for old-school colonialism and French fascism."
While Louis Vuitton did participate in the fair and present products that appropriated African culture, there is no evidence the fashion brand sponsored the human zoo separately exhibited at the fair.
Our rating: False
We rate the claim that Louis Vuitton sponsored racist "human zoos" in the 19th and 20th centuries FALSE because it is not supported by our research. A company spokesperson confirmed the claim is not true. Louis Vuitton exhibited products that appropriated African culture at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, where Black people in cages were displayed at a separate exhibit. However, there is no evidence Louis Vuitton sponsored this separate exhibit or another human zoo at a different event.
Our fact-check sources:
Snopes, Mar. 15, 2019, "Did Louis Vuitton Sponsor ‘Human Zoos’ in the 1800s and Early 1900s?"
BBC News, Dec. 27, 2011, "Human zoos: When real people were exhibits"
NPR, Oct. 9, 2006, "Looking Back at the Strange Case of Ota Benga"
USA TODAY, Feb. 22, email with Kristine Westerby, Louis Vuitton's senior vice president of communications
Brand Memory, Feb. 7, 2011, "Voyage en Capitale : Louis Vuitton et Paris au Musée Carnavalet"
Ferris State University, October 2006, "Human Zoos"
JStor, Patricia A. Morton, June 1998, "National and Colonial: The Musée des Colonies at the Colonial Exposition, Paris, 1931"
The Globe and Mail, Feb. 18, 2015, "Louis Vuitton’s ‘tribal mask’ bag of unsavoury, colonialist tricks"
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Claims Louis Vuitton sponsored human zoos are unproven