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W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)

The Formative Years, Early Scholarship, The Crisis Years, After the Crisis, The Final Years

Scholar, educator, philosopher, and social activist, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois is among the most influential public intellectuals of the twentieth century. A pioneer of the civil rights movement, Du Bois dedicated his life to ending colonialism, exploitation, and racism worldwide. Experiencing many changes in the nation's political history, he served as a voice for generations of African Americans seeking social justice.

The Formative Years

Du Bois was born the only child of Alfred and Mary Burghardt Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In the period following the Civil War, Great Barrington was a small town with fewer than 50 African Americans among its 5,000 residents. Du Bois's father, of French and African descent, left home soon after William was born. His mother, of Dutch and African descent, encouraged Du Bois in his educational studies. Aunts, uncles, and close friends gave poverty-stricken Du Bois adequate clothing, food, and finances for schooling.

Attending an integrated grammar school, Du Bois had little direct experience with color discrimination; much of what he did learn came from the visible social divisions within his community as he discovered the hindrances that African Americans faced. Du Bois, however, was quite aware of his intellectual acuity. He excelled and outperformed his white contemporaries, receiving a number of promotions throughout his public schooling.

By the age of seventeen, Du Bois had already served as a correspondent for newspapers in both Great Barrington and New York. He was the first African American to graduate as valedictorian from Great Barrington High School. Influential community members arranged for Du Bois to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he began studies in 1885. While on a partial scholarship at Fisk University, Du Bois had far greater exposure to African-American culture. In the white South, Du Bois encountered firsthand the oppression faced by the sons and daughters of former slaves, whom he taught in country schools during the summer. As Du Bois witnessed politicians and businessmen destroy the gains of Reconstruction, and African Americans struggle against social, political, and economic injustice, he formed his stance on race relations in America. He began to speak out against the atrocities of racism as a writer and chief editor of the Fisk Herald, until his graduation in 1888.

After receiving his first baccalaureate, Du Bois entered Harvard University in 1888 as a junior. Two years later, he earned a second B.A. in a class of 300 and was one of six commencement speakers. In the fall of 1890, Du Bois began graduate work at Harvard. He studied under legendary professors William James, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, and Albert Bushnell Hart. His studies focused primarily on the subjects of philosophy and history and then gradually shifted into the areas of economics and sociology.

Du Bois acquired his master's degree in the spring of 1891 and chose to further his studies at the University of Berlin (1892–1894), observing and comparing race problems in Africa, Asia, and America. After two years in Berlin, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. His doctoral thesis, approved in 1895, was published in the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series as The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638 to 1870.

Early Scholarship

In 1896 Du Bois married Nina Gomer; they had two children, Yolande and Burghardt (who died at the age of three). After teaching Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University (1894–1896), Du Bois accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a research project in Philadelphia. For two years, Du Bois and his wife lived in the heart of Philadelphia's seventh ward, where the no-table work The Philadelphia Negro, A Social Study (1899) took form.

The Philadelphia Negro marked the first major study of American empirical sociology and represented Du Bois's quest to expose racism as a problem of ignorance. Du Bois personally interviewed several thousand residents, and his study documented the living conditions of poor African Americans enduring dilapidated housing, inadequate health care, disease, and violence. In this body of work, Du Bois contended that crime and poverty were manifestations of institutional and structural racism.

In 1897 Du Bois and his family moved to Atlanta, where he taught economics and history at Atlanta University. Here Du Bois witnessed racism, lynching, Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, race riots, and disfranchisement. To challenge these acts, he published papers in the Atlantic Monthly and other journals that explored and confronted discriminatory southern society.

A compilation of unpublished papers led to what many consider Du Bois's greatest work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In it Du Bois wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line" (p. 54). The Souls of Black Folk provided a philosophical framework by which Du Bois addressed the problem of race and the distressing realities of African-American life in America. Within its pages, he challenged the prominent African-American leader, Booker T. Washington. Du Bois firmly opposed Washington's policies of accommodation, calling instead for more social agitation to break the bonds of racial oppression. In addition to his writings, publications, teachings and public speeches, Du Bois served as secretary for the first pan-African congress in London in 1900. He would later go on to organize subsequent sessions in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1945.

In 1905, Du Bois took on the leadership role in organizing a group of African-American leaders and scholars in what became known as the Niagara Movement. The group was opposed to the conservative platform of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Machine. Despite the failure of the Niagara Movement, it would later serve as a model for another of Du Bois's initiatives in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The Crisis Years

Upon leaving his professorship at Atlanta University, Du Bois joined the central staff of the NAACP in November 1910. Having been instrumental in that group's formation, he became the only African American on its executive board, and, more importantly, director of publications and research. In that position, he assumed control of the Crisis, the official journal of the NAACP.

While the expanding economy provided former slaves with moderate economic and educational gains, discrimination, violence, and lynching were rampant. Black anger, impatience, and heightened consciousness, combined with expanding literacy, provided a growing audience for the Crisis. This journal expanded Du Bois's influence and audience beyond academia to the public. By 1913 its regular circulation reached 30,000.

The Crisis informed people about important events, offered analysis, and sowed themes of uplift and civil rights. Du Bois's voice dominated as though it were his own personal journal. His authoritative editorials spoke against injustice, discriminatory practices, lynching, miseducation, and the widespread mistreatment of African Americans. Du Bois was not hesitant to confront those whom he believed misled his people.

World War I was significant for Du Bois. He believed the enthusiastic participation of black soldiers would lead to returned favors from white America. He traveled to France in 1919 reporting the heroism of black soldiers to the Crisis directly from the front.

Du Bois was optimistic that the new generations of African Americans would advance the struggles for civil rights and racial justice. His magazine produced articles and pictures about young people. In 1920 he launched the short-lived Brownies Book, a Crisis- type publication for children.

Crisis came to be seen as an authoritative and informative resource by many in black America. Beyond ideological commentary, it published and supported black artistic expression. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke were among the core group of the "Harlem Renaissance" supported by the Crisis. Columbus Salley (1999) asserts that Du Bois deserves as much credit as anyone in giving birth to the Harlem Renaissance.

While editing the Crisis, Du Bois continued to write books and essays that explained his theories and fueled antagonism. In 1920 he examined global race issues and conflict in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. Over the years the internationalist and radical Du Bois clashed regularly with the leadership of the NAACP who were committed to gradualism and legalism. In 1934, under fierce pressure, Du Bois retired from the executive board and the Crisis.

After the Crisis

Du Bois lost his national platform in the midst of economic depression, international fascism, and political uncertainty. With no resources or base from which to operate, in 1934 he accepted and invitation to return to Atlanta University as chair of the sociology department.

Since his study of the Philadelphia Negro (1899), Du Bois was drawn to big research projects. He adhered to the new school of social science, arguing that knowledge of social problems could lead to social change. He proposed that his university along with others undertake large studies of black life including employment, education, family life, and so forth. Additionally, he was hopeful for the eventual publication of an Encyclopedia Africana. Lack of funds, changes in university administration, and a changing political climate all worked against Du Bois.

This period found Du Bois refining his views on pan-Africanism and Marxian socialism. He wrote Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Black Folk Then and Now (1939), Dusk of Dawn (1940), and Color and Democracy (1945). In 1940 he began Phylon, a journal of social science, published at Atlanta University.

Undermined by the new school administration, Du Bois retired from the faculty of Atlanta University in 1943. Declining offers at Howard and Fisk universities, he would never return to academia. As the nation's largest and most recognized civil rights organization, the integrationist NAACP was increasingly drawn into public dialogue. Its leaders, believing that Du Bois could be useful in their research activities, offered him the position of director of special research. Du Bois, fiercely independent and outspoken, challenged American capitalism, imperialism, racial inequality, and the legal system that supported privilege. His linking of pan-Africanism to socialism, and then to democracy, offered an interesting and provocative position. He was denounced by some as a bourgeois intellectual, and by others as a radical extremist.

Although pan-Africanists had gathered since the turn of the century, until 1945 those meetings did little more than unleash indignation from middle-class intellectuals. The 1945 fifth pan-African congress held in Manchester, England, was different. Revolutionary students and activists from throughout colonized sub-Saharan Africa gathered to confront the colonial masters. They resolved to "control their own destiny…. All colonies must be free from imperialist control whether political or economic…. We say to the peoples of the colonies that they must fight for these ends by all means at their disposal" (Lemelle and Kelley, p. 352). A "third world" movement for independence and social justice now accompanied the modern civil rights movement slowly emerging in the United States. By 1948, Du Bois's support of the Soviet Union, revolution in Africa, strident criticism of American apartheid, and support of Progressive candidate Henry Wallace in the United States alienated him from the NAACP leadership, especially its moderate chairperson, Walter White. He was dismissed from his position in 1948 leading to a final break with the organization.

The Final Years

Once again without funds or an organizational base, Du Bois continued his critique of American capitalism and racial inequality. At the end of World War II and the beginning of the cold war, the nation's political climate moved decidedly to the right. Du Bois's Africanist and prosocialist sentiment placed him at odds with the unfolding hysteria. His social circle now consisted of avant-garde intellectuals, internationalists, and left-leaning cultural workers such as Paul Robeson and Shirley Graham. Amid the new jingoism, Du Bois was drawn to the "peace" community. By 1950 he was chair of the Peace Information Center, drawing the antagonism of federal authorities.

In July 1950 Du Bois's first wife, Nina, died, and later that year he ran for the U.S. Senate in New York on the ticket of the American Labor Party. Surprisingly he received 210,000 votes–equivalent to 4 percent of the vote. In early 1951 Du Bois and his Peace Information Center were ordered by the Justice Department to register as foreign agents. Refusing, Du Bois was indicted and jailed but soon exonerated.

Now remarried to Shirley Graham, Du Bois was both vilified and celebrated during the difficult McCarthy period. He watched as friends, associates, and notables such as poet Langston Hughes, actress Lena Horne, Africanist Alphaeus Hunton, actor William Marshall, black professors Forrest Wiggins and Ira Reid, Harlem politician Benjamin Davis, and black Marxists Claude Lightfoot, Claudia Jones, and Henry Winston and others were discredited. Du Bois and his wife were also frequent targets of communist-baiters. As the hysteria escalated, so did Du Bois's defense of those victimized.

Du Bois continued to speak out against the cold war, capitalist exploitation, colonialism, and the international mistreatment of African people. He fore-saw a new period of socialistic pan-Africanism, writing in 1955, "American Negroes, freed of their baseless fear of communism, will again begin to turn their attention and aim their activity toward Africa"(p. 5). Denounced at home, Du Bois was regarded as a champion of human rights around the world.

As the civil rights movement began, Du Bois attended the Stockholm Peace Conference where he delivered an address. After visiting Czechoslovakia and Germany, the Du Boises spent five months in the Soviet Union. Having visited the Soviet Union on several previous occasions, Du Bois marveled at the country's continued progress in employment, housing, education, the status of women, and race relations. During this visit, he lobbied endlessly for increased Soviet interactions with Africans and for more research on that continent. Du Bois's visit to the People's Republic of China profoundly influenced him since China served as a reminder that people of color could successfully engage socialism. He noted that a majority of the world's people lived under socialism and declared that egalitarian socialism was the economic system of the future. He believed that African Americans, given their history of mistreatment, could benefit from this type of social system.

Upon returning to America, Du Bois expressed grave pessimism that black Americans could ever achieve economic and political justice under corporate monopoly capitalism, and continued to advocate connection with Africa. He now had a special relationship with Kwame Nkrumah and the revolution in Ghana.

In 1960 Du Bois had one longstanding unfilled objective, to publish his Encyclopedia Africana, which would explore every aspect of black life. He had contacted scholars, funding agencies, and anyone who would listen to him to accomplish this project. On October 1, 1961, Du Bois joined the U.S. Communist Party and made a statement that began "Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all…. this is the only way of human life…. In the end communism will triumph."(Manning, p. 212). Four days later he and his wife moved to Ghana. Working on his encyclopedia to the very end, Du Bois died one day before the famous March on Washington.


DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Boston: Ginn.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. Philadelphia: Saifer.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1939. Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race. New York: Holt.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1940. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New York: Harcourt Brace.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1945. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. New York: Harcourt Brace.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1955. "American Negroes and Africa." National Guardian February 14.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of its First Century. New York: International.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1969. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920). New York: AMS.

DU BOIS, W. E. B. 1995. The Souls of Black Folks: Essays and Sketches (1903). New York: Signet Classic.

LEMELLE, SIDNEY J., and KELLEY ROBIN D. G. 1994. Imagining Home: Class, Culture and Nationalism in the African Diaspora. London: Verso.

MARABLE, MANNING. 1986. W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Hall.

PATRICK, JOHN J. 1969. The Progress of the Afro-American. Winchester, IL: Benefic.

SALLEY, COLUMBUS. 1999. The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African Americans, Past and Present. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel.



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