Du Bois, W. E. B. 1868–1963

views updated May 18 2018

W. E. B. Du Bois 18681963

Social scientist, political activist, author, editor, educator

At a Glance

Disagreed with Booker T. Washington

Led the Niagara Movement

Cofounder of the NAACP

Joined the Communist Party

Selected writings



From the late 1890s through the 1940s, W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the leading black intellectuals and the foremost champion of equal rights for blacks in the United States. At a time when many black Americans sought to improve their status by adapting to the ideals of white society and tolerating discrimination and segregation, Du Bois was a tireless proponent of unconditional equal and civil rights for all blacks. As a social scientist, he was also a pioneer in documenting historical and social truths about blacks in the United States. In eloquent and forceful writings in a variety of genres, he was the first to write of a distinct black consciousness, which he described as the peculiar two-ness of being both a black and an American. Du Boiss legacy has served as the intellectual foundation of the modern-day black protest movement. He is regarded by many as a prophet, whose words inspire oppressed people throughout the world in their struggle for civil rights.

A partial list of Du Boiss career accomplishments gives testimony to his varied gifts as political scientist, organizer, author, educator, and inspirational figure. Du Bois was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, a black protest organization that pressed for equal rights in the early 1900s. He was later a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and an editor for over thirty years of the associations journal, the Crisis. An early proponent of Pan-Africanism (the idea of self-government for oppressed blacks around the world), he organized several Pan-African conferences in Europe and the United States. As a highly prolific scholar and writer, Du Bois produced a vast number of monographs, essays, memoirs, poems, novels, and plays, all of which gave eloquent testimony to his life and various political beliefs. A professor of classics, economics, history, and sociology, he was also a frequent lecturer throughout the world.

Du Bois (pronounced du boyce) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, a descendant of French Huguenot, Dutch, and black ancestry. By the time he was fifteen, he was a correspondent for two black newspapers, the Springfield Republican and New York Globe, reporting on local community news. After graduating from high school in 1884, he received a scholarship to all-black Fisk University in Nashville. There he edited the Fisk Herald and studied classical literature, German, Greek, Latin, philosophy, chemistry, and physics. During summers, Du

At a Glance

Born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (surname pronounced du boyce), February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, MA; emigrated to Ghana, c. 1960, naturalized citizen, 1963; died August 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana; buried in Accra; son of Alfred and Mary Silvina (Burghardt) Du Bois; married Nina Gomer, May 12,1896 (died July 1, 1950); married Shirley Graham (an author), February 14, 1951 (died, 1977); children: (first marriage) Burghardt Gomer (died, c. 1903), Nina Yolande (deceased), David Graham (stepson from second marriage). Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1888; Harvard University, B.A. (cum laude), 1890, M.A., 1891, Ph.D., 1895; attended University of Berlin, 1892-94. Politics: Joined Communist party, 1961.

Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, OH, professor of classics, 1894-96; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, assistant professor in sociology, 1896-97; Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, professor of history and economics, 1897-1910, professor and chairman of department of sociology, 1934-44; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), New York City, director of publicity and editor of Crisis, 1910-34, director of special research, 1944-48; Peace Information Center, New York City, director, 1950. Founder, 1897, and vice-president of the American Negro Academy; vice-chairman of Council of African Affairs, 1949; candidate for U.S. Senate (NY), American Labor Party, 1950.

Awards: Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1932; elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1943; Lenin International Peace Prize, 1958; Knight Commander of Liberian Human Order of African Redemption; Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary conferred by President Calvin Coolidge; numerous honorary degrees.

Bois taught school in a small town in eastern Tennessee, where he was profoundly influenced by the dismal social and economic conditions endured by rural blacks. At Fisk, Du Bois solidified his goals for improving the status of blacks and came to believe that higher education was an important means of combating racial oppression.

After graduating with a B.A. from Fisk in 1888, Du Bois enrolled at Harvard University, where he excelled as a student. He became acquainted with some of the leading intellectuals of the day, including William James, George Palmer, George Santayana, and Albert Bushnell Hart, and was encouraged to direct his studies toward history and the social sciences. At his Harvard commencement in 1890, he was one of five students selected to deliver an address. Du Boiss speech on Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the issue of slavery in the United States gained him national attention, including a prominent review in the Nation. Graduating cum laude in philosophy, Du Bois was accepted into graduate school in political science as Harvards Henry Bromfield Rogers Fellow and began work on his dissertation, which was on the suppression of the African slave trade. After being awarded his masters degree in 1891, he received a Slater Fund grant, which allowed him to study and travel overseas from 1892 to 1894. Du Bois studied history, economics, politics, and political economy at the University of Berlin and completed a thesis on agricultural economics in the American South.

Du Boiss European travels allowed him to more fully comprehend the racially based social structure of the United States. On the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, he composed a journal entry that set forth his commitment to pursuing intellectual endeavors in the service of his race. As quoted by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Du Bois wrote of himself as either a genius or a fool, and declared his intention to make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus to raise my race. Or perhaps to raise a visible empire in Africa thro England, France, or Germany.

Du Bois returned to the United States and began a prolific career as a writer and scholar. He accepted a teaching position as professor of classics at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he also met his first wife, Nina Gomer. In 1895, he became the first black to ever receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His doctoral thesis, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published by Longmans, Green as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Monograph Series. In 1896, Du Bois was named assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and was hired by the university to conduct a sociological study of the black population of Philadelphia. Published in 1899, The Philadelphia Negro was the first in-depth analysis of a black community. According to Elliot Rudwick in an essay in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Du Bois at this point in his career passionately believed that social science would provide white Americas leaders with the knowledge necessary to eliminate discrimination and solve the race problem.

As a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910, Du Bois supervised a series of studies on urban blacks. One of his most influential books, The Souls of Black Folk, was published in 1903. A collection of fourteen essays, The Souls of Black Folk explores not only the damaging effects of racism, but also the strength and endurance of black people in the United States. In the essay Of Our Spiritual Strivings, Du Bois provided one of the first depictions of a distinct black identity: [T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. One ever feels his two-ness,an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. Between 1898 and 1914, Du Bois also edited and annotated reports on such subjects as black business, education, health, crime, family life, and the church. However, these reports were virtually ignored, prompting Du Bois to conclude, as Rudwick noted, that only through agitation and protest could social change ever come.

Disagreed with Booker T. Washington

Du Boiss activism stood in sharp contrast to the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington, a black leader of international prominence who supported vocational education for blacks, rather than higher education, and who held that a gradual assumption of economic power was the pathway for blacks to attain the rights of full citizenship. Washington was widely accepted by whites as the principal spokesman for the black community and commanded the support of wealthy white philanthropists, political figures, and members of both the black and white press. Du Bois was highly critical of Washingtons position, maintaining staunchly that full and equal civil rights were the birthright of every American and demanding that full political rights be granted to all blacks. He envisioned an elite corps of black leadersthe Talented Tenthwho, through higher education, would be prepared to further the welfare of their race. The rift between Washington and Du Bois began a profound division of the black protest movement into two factions. In 1904, the two leaders and their supporters attempted to resolve their differences at a conference at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Washington and Du Bois, along with Hugh Browne (a Washington supporter), were selected to form a Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the Negro Race. Du Bois, however, later resigned in protest of what he claimed was Washingtons pervasive control of the committee.

Led the Niagara Movement

Failing to reconcile differences with the Washington faction and unable to tap the wealthy white financial backers who supported Washington, Du Bois set out on a different course. In 1905, he organized a meeting of black leaders who shared an uncompromising goal of full economic and political rights for blacks. On July 11, 1905, this group met in Fort Erie, Ontario, to organize what became known as the Niagara Movement, thus effectively splitting the black movement into two major camps. Washingtons Tuskegee Machine favored elementary and industrial education as the means for blacks to become economically productive and, hence, eligible for full equality as citizens. Leaders of the Niagara Movement, as Herbert Aptheker noted in Afro-American History: The Modern Era, held for an unequivocal rejection of racism and insistence upon the fundamental equality of mankind. Holding meetings for the next five years, the Niagara Movement vigorously denounced white America for the Negro problem and held that protest was the only means to confront the roots of oppression.

However, the practical advantages of the Tuskegee groupits influence over the black press, backing by white financiers, Washingtons skills as a tacticiancoupled with fragmentation within the Niagara movement itselfhelped bring about the demise of Du Boiss group in 1910. Some critics contend that the Niagaras failure was inevitable because of the overwhelmingly racist beliefs of American society at that time. The movements basic problem, according to Rudwick, was the nations virulent racism that had catapulted a leader like Washington into power. Even if Du Bois had demonstrated superlative leadership skills, Niagaras program of uncompromising protest for equal treatment was too far ahead of white public opinion, and this fact damaged the movements public opinion.

Cofounder of the NAACP

Assessing the failures of Niagara, Du Bois became convinced that an interracial organizationone that could also draw the support of prominent whites who disagreed with Washingtons policieswas essential to the success of protests against racial discrimination. In 1910, he became the leading black founder of the interracial NAACP, which aimed to fight discrimination through court litigation, political lobbying, and nationwide publicity. Du Bois, as Director of Publications and Research, became editor of the Crisis, the NAACPs official publication. He edited the Crisis for nearly twenty-five years, during which time the journal became widely influential among blacks for its frank and eloquent discussions of racial issues in the United States.

At the same time, the views Du Bois expressed in the Crisis often ran afoul of official NAACP positions, causing friction between him and the organizations board of directors. One such conflict was in the area of racial segregation. Although Du Bois supported desegregation during World War I, he later began to see segregation as a favorable means of allowing blacks to exert power in areas such as economics and education, which were dominated by whites in the larger society. His views, expressed in the Crisis, came into direct conflict with the NAACP board and many black leaders, who believed, as Taylor Branch noted in Parting the Waters, that his comments would bolster the old white racist argument that Negroes fared better under segregation. Under intense criticism, Du Bois resigned from his editorship of the Crisis and returned to Atlanta University as chairman of the department of sociology.

Throughout Du Boiss career, he was often criticized for having an arrogant personality and elitist views, which, coupled with his seemingly wavering positions on a variety of political issues, brought him into continual conflict with other black leaders. Rudwick, however, depicts Du Boiss varying positionssuch as his changing views on the issue of segregationas understandable responses to the racial climate in the United States. Given the persistent and intransigent nature of the American race system, which proved quite impervious to black attacks, noted Rudwick, Du Bois in his speeches and writings moved from one proposed solution to another, and the salience of various parts of his philosophy changed as his perceptions of the needs and strategies of black America shifted over time. Aloof and autonomous in his personality, Du Bois did not hesitate to depart markedly from whatever was the current mainstream of black thinking when he perceived that the conventional wisdom being enunciated by black spokesmen was proving inadequate to the task of advancing the race.

Pan-Africanism was another major focus of Du Boiss political career. Beginning in 1905, he organized a series of Pan-African conferences, the first in Paris, with subsequent conferences in Lisbon, Brussels, and Paris (1921), London and Lisbon (1923), and New York City (1927). In these conferences, Du Bois put forth his ideas of self-government for oppressed black people under colonial powers. Ideological and personal differences led to acrimonious debate between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader who strove to constructthrough economic enterprise and mass educationa unified empire of people of African descent. Du Bois rejected many of Garveys policies and mounted a campaign to expose corruption and mismanagement of Garveys famous Black Star Shipping Line (a black cross-continental trade venture).

Joined the Communist Party

In his later years, Du Boiss political views came to align him increasingly with socialist forms of government, and, at the same time, distance him from the mainstream U.S. civil rights movement. A series of visits to the Soviet Union and China led him to publicly praise those countries Communist governments and to urge African nations to seek Communist support in their drive for self-government. In 1951, Du Bois was tried in U.S. federal court on the charge that he was an unregistered agent of a foreign power. Although he was eventually acquitted, Du Bois and his second wife, writer Shirley Graham, were denied travel visas from the U.S. State Department. This ban was lifted in 1958, and the couple conducted additional tours of Africa and the Soviet Union. In the early 1960s, Du Bois officially joined the Communist party and moved to the West African country of Ghana, of which he became a citizen in 1963. Regarding his application to the Communist party, Du Bois wrote in a public statement: I have been long and slow in coming to this conclusion, but at last my mind is settled. Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all.

Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana, in 1963, on the eve of the historic civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Although the popularity of his political philosophies had waned among American blacks, he had come to be revered in his former country as a prophet who had presaged the modern black protest movement. His writings found a new audience in a generation of blacksled by Martin Luther King, Jr.who had come to see protest as the only legitimate means to press for social change and the end of oppression. Upon his death, the NAACP journal Crisis proclaimed the former leader the prime inspirer, philosopher and father of the Negro protest movement.

Selected writings


The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, Longmans, Green, 1896.

The Philadelphia Negro: A Special Study, University of Pennsylvania, 1899.

The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, A. C. McClurg, 1903.

John Brown (biography), G. W. Jacobs, 1909.

The Negro, Holt, 1915.

Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil, Harcourt, 1920.

The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America, Stratford Co., 1924.

Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, Harcourt, 1935.

Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race, Holt, 1939.

Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, Harcourt, 1940.

Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace, Harcourt, 1945.

The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History, Viking, 1947.

In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday, Masses and Mainstream, 1952.

An ABC of Color: Selections from Over Half a Century of the Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, Seven Seas Publishers (Berlin), 1963.

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, edited by Herbert Aptheker, International Publishers, 1968.

The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, edited by Julius Lester, Random House, 1971.

The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, University of Massachusetts, edited by Aptheker, Volume 1: 1877-1934, 1973, Volume 2: 1934-1944, Volume 3: 1944-1963, 1978.


The Quest of the Silver Fleece, A. C. McClurg, 1911.

Dark Princess: A Romance, Harcourt, 1928.

The Ordeal of Mansart (first novel in trilogy), Mainstream Publishers, 1957.

Mansart Builds a School (second novel in trilogy), Mainstream Publishers, 1959.

Worlds of Color (third novel in trilogy), Mainstream Publishers, 1961.

The Black Flame (contains The Ordeal of Mansart, Mansart Builds a School, and Worlds of Color), Kraus Reprint, 1976.


Haiti (play), included in Federal Theatre Plays, edited by Pierre De Rohan, Works Progress Administration, 1938.

Selected Poems, Ghana University Press, c. 1964.

Editor of over fifteen monographs published in conjunction with the Annual Conference for the Study of Negro Problems, Atlanta University Press, 1896-1914. Columnist for newspapers, including Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News, and San Francisco Chronicle. Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly and Worlds Work. Editor, Crisis, 1910-34; founder and editor of numerous other periodicals, including Moon, 1905-06, Horizon, 1908-10, Brownies Book, 1920-21, and Phylon Quarterly, 1940. Editor-in-chief, Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1933-46. Director, Encyclopaedia Africana. Author of several pageants.

Works translated into numerous foreign languages.



Aptheker, Herbert, Afro-American History: The Modern Era, Citadel Press, 1971.

Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, Library of America edition, Vintage Books, 1990.

Du Bois, W. E. B., The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois, International Publishers, 1968.

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, editors, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Norton, 1982.

Marable, Manning, W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Rampersad, Arnold, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, Harvard University Press, 1976.


Crisis, October, 1963.

Michael E. Mueller

Du Bois, W. E. B.

views updated May 23 2018

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1868-1963


William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a leading public intellectual whose extensive body of research, social analysis, and cultural critique helped to establish the foundations for the social sciences, the study of race relations, and Africana studies in the United States. Widely recognized as a historian and sociologist, he also engaged anthropological discourse on race during the era of Franz Boas (18581942) (Baker 1998; Harrison 1992). His influence on African American anthropologists W. Allison Davis (19021983), St. Clair Drake (19111990), and Irene Diggs (19061998), who studied with both him and Fernando Ortiz (18811969), is particularly significant. Beyond his work in the social sciences, his immense interdisciplinary breadth encompassed autobiography, philosophy, journalism, and creative writing. In his two earliest novels, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Dark Princess: A Romance (1928), he explored important political and economic themes, situating them in the context of romance and dramatic psychosocial plots featuring female protagonists in complex settings. Novels represented one of the many genres in which Du Bois expressed his evolving vision of the possibilities of antiracist and anticolonial agency.

Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In 1884 he graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class. In 1885 he went to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the historically black Fisk College (now University). During his summers in Tennessee, he taught in segregated rural schools. That experience gave him a close look at the poverty and racial discrimination that African Americans faced in the South. It also exposed him to their dynamically expressive cultural life. Memories from that period inspired some of his later writings, namely, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). After three years, he graduated from Fisk with a BA. With a scholarship, he continued his studies at Harvard, where he was classified as a junior because of the presumed inferiority of his education at Fisk. He studied with philosophers William James (18421910) and George Santayana (18631952), and with economist Frank William Taussig (18591940), completing his bachelors degree in philosophy cum laude in 1890. He remained at Harvard for graduate training in history and political science, earning his MA and PhD in 1891 and 1895, respectively. Historian Albert Bushnell Hart (18541943) encouraged his research on the transatlantic slave trade.

Financed by a Slater Fund Fellowship, Du Bois spent 1892 to 1894 at the Friedrich-Wilhelm III Universität at Berlin, known also as the University of Berlin, where he concentrated in history and political economy, and developed a scientific approach to the study of social problems. He took courses from political theorist Rudolph von Gneist (18161895) and economist Adolph Wagner (18351917). He also attended lectures by Max Weber (18641920), whose temporary lectureship at Berlin coincided with Du Boiss second year there. The most significant aspect of his graduate studies in Germany was his training in economics and sociology under the tutelage of Gustav von Schmoller (18381917), the leader of the younger German historical school that revealed economics interrelations with the other social sciences. This school of thought also questioned theories of universal laws, emphasizing that economic behaviors were contingent upon historical, social, and cultural contexts. Schmollers methodology valorized the use of induction to accumulate historical and descriptive facts. In his view, the goal of social science was the systematic, causal explanation of social phenomena (Green and Driver 1978, p. 6). He also believed that methodologically rigorous social scientific research could be used as a guide to formulate social policy (p. 6). This empirical approach strongly influenced Du Boiss early career as a social scientist who applied sociological techniques to study the problems presented by the color line.

Du Boiss experiences in Europe expanded his thinking considerably. He realized that the racial discrimination he had encountered in the United States was not universal and that racisms scope was larger than the problems in the United States. American racism, colonial oppression in Africa and Asia, and Europes political-economic development were all components of the same set of interrelated problems. Du Bois also gained greater exposure to Marxism and socialist analysis from attending meetings of the Social Democratic Party. The maturation of thinking that began to emerge in Germany was reflected many years later in Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945) and, even before that, in Black Reconstruction (1935). In the latter book, he innovatively used Marxist categories and anticipated Gramscian and poststructural approaches to hegemony and discourse in his analysis of the socioeconomic, political, and ideological conditions that prevailed in the U.S. South after the Civil War (18611865) (Nonini 1992). Contrary to the Dunning schools notion that freed blacks were incapable of exercising the rights of citizenship, Du Bois posited that African Americans played a major role in building democracy after emancipation. He further argued that the racism and ambivalent allegiance of poor whites to the white elite could be attributed to a public psychological wage. These ideas were controversial but seminal in influencing later generations of scholars, such as those who study the social construction of whiteness (e.g., Roediger 1991).

Although he intended to complete his doctorate in economics in Germany, Du Bois had to return to the United States. Despite Schmollers and Wagners strong support for his exemption from the doctoral programs four-semester rule, a professor of chemistry was adamant against it. However, even more of an obstacle was the paternalistic Slater Fund. It refused to renew his fellowship for only one more semester because of the higher priority it gave to channeling African Americans into elementary and industrial education. Du Bois was urged to devote [his] talent and learning to the good of the colored race (Lewis 1993, p. 146). A comparative study of the household economies and quality of life among German peasants and rural African Americans in Tennessee was not viewed as a suitable goal for an educated black person.

The following year, while teaching at the African Methodist Episcopal Churchaffiliated Wilberforce University in Ohio, he earned his PhD from Harvards Department of History and Government, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate from that university. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 16381870, was published as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Studies series (1896). Representing a new historiography of interpretation, the dissertation provided thorough documentation for the argument that due to an interregional bargain [between the North and South] sealed by profits, the United States continued to participate in the slave trade after it was internationally abolished in 1807 to 1808 (Lewis 1993, pp. 156, 160). Despite federal and state laws codifying suppression, a clandestine nonenforcement persisted for half a century.

In 1896 Du Bois assumed a temporary position as assistant instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, which created a position beneath its lowest rank to accommodate hiring a Negro. Du Boiss charge was to conduct research on the cause of urban problems in the predominantly African American seventh ward of Philadelphia. The citys reforming elites had commissioned the research, which Du Bois conducted over fifteen months, collecting survey and demographic data, and conducting interviews with five thousand people (Lewis 1993, p. 180). The result was The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), an exemplary treatise that was the first large-scale empirical study in U.S. sociology and the first scientific investigation of African Americans (Green and Driver 1978, p. 113; Lester 1971, p. 26). Given many of the projects substantive concerns as well as the centrality of participant observation, The Philadelphia Negro may also be placed in the context of the history of urban anthropology (Harrison 1992). In a social and intellectual climate dominated by social Darwinism, Du Boiss analysis demonstrated that the problems of poverty and crime were not caused by innate black inferiority. They were instead symptoms of institutionalized racial inequality. Although his empirical results challenged conventional thinking, his elitist disposition, nonetheless, led him to play into the moralizing judgments of his patrons. Despite the intellectual and public policy significance of this research, Du Bois was not retained in either a temporary or permanent position at the University of Pennsylvania, where white classmates of lower rank became full professors (Du Bois 1968, p. 199).

After Philadelphia, Atlanta University appointed Du Bois professor of economics and history with the responsibility of directing the Sociological Laboratory and the Atlanta University Conference. The latter was a series of annual conferences to report the results of the laboratorys research on the impact of urban problems on black Americans. The emphasis, especially during the earlier years, was on the collection of factual evidence on social conditions rather than on social reform, which was believed to be possible only after ignorance was countered by knowledge. The goal of the research was the careful search for truth that would offer an empirical alternative to the speculative theories and vindictive ignorance of much of the social science of that time (Green and Driver 1978, p. 14). Du Bois published the results of this research program in the monograph series that made up the Atlanta University Publications (18961914). The studies addressed a wide range of issues: health and physique, housing, black businesses, education, artisans, the black church, crime, economic cooperation, the family, morals, and manners. In Health and Physique of the Negro American (1906), for example, Du Bois offered a critique of early physical anthropologys biological determinism and scientific racism. Using craniometric and public health data, he documented the adverse effects of social conditions on the black body.

Du Boiss tenure at Atlanta University ended in 1910 when he shifted his focus from that of a detached social scientist to an activist, following the path of sociology as an inseparable part of social reform (Green and Driver 1978, p. 20). Convinced at this point that knowledge and truth were insufficient for promoting social change, he became editor of the newly established NAACPs magazine, The Crisis. This transition into the life of an activist intellectual followed his antiracist activism of three years earlier in cofounding the Niagara Movement, which had a short life. Du Bois served as Crisis editor until 1934, when friction over his editorial independence from the NAACPs executive secretary, Walter F. White (18931955), and board led him to resign. During the twenty-four years of his editorship, he became the most influential black public intellectual in the United States, educating the public on the plight of African Americans and others in the African world, articulating a vision for civil and human rights and black empowerment (one that was often more radical than that of the NAACP), and providing an outlet for talented young writers and scholars.

A prolific scholar, Du Bois published across a wide interdisciplinary terrain. His most widely read book was The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays, some autobiographical, written in a compellingly lyrical, poetic style. Positing that the color line was the problem of the twentieth century, the book redefined the meanings of black identity and lived experience, illuminating the dilemmas of double consciousness as well as the enhanced social vision that could potentially emerge from it. The book also offered a poignant view of the South, including an examination of everyday life in the Black Belt and the limits of Booker T. Washingtons (18561915) accommodationist stance. Souls is also invaluable for its pioneering excursion into the sociology of music (Lewis 1993, p. 286), religion, education, and politics.

In 1934 Du Bois began his second tenure at Atlanta University, serving as head of the Department of Economics and Sociology. During this phase, he focused his scholarship on comparison and synthesis informed by his commitment to social action and politicization within an international context. Among his publications were Black Reconstruction (1935) and Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race (1939)an expansion of The Negro (1915). He also started to work on the Encyclopedia Africana, which he had initially envisioned early in the century. He established Phylon, a journal devoted to critical studies of race and culture, and in the early 1940s he worked to revive the Atlanta University Conference. The conference held in 1943 featured a number of prominent black and white sociologists, including E. Franklin Frazier (18941962), Charles S. Johnson (18931956), Howard W. Odum (18841954), and Edgar T. Thompson (19001989).

Despite his success, the university administration, wary of his radicalism, forced Du Bois to retire. He accepted an offer from the NAACP to serve as its director of special research, a position he held for only four years. He sought to revitalize the Pan-Africanist movement, help define international human rights standards for the newly established United Nations, and examine the global scope of racism. His radical anticolonial views, however, were not consistent with the NAACPs policies. After his second tenure with the NAACP, Du Bois went on to leadership positions with the Council on African Affairs and the Peace Information Center, which led him to become involved in controversial international affairs related to the cold war. His participation in the leftist peace movement and his travels to the Soviet Union and China during the 1940s and 1950s were viewed as un-American as McCarthyist anticommunism held sway. In 1951 Du Bois was indicted on charges of being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal. Although acquitted of the crime, the prosecution stigmatized Du Bois, alienating him even further from the mainstream civil rights leadership.

Du Bois devoted much of his life to building international networks and deepening anticolonial convictions among activist intellectuals from Africa and the African diaspora. He organized a series of Pan-African Congresses over the first half of the twentieth century. In the last years of his life, he accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah (19091972) to work on the Encyclopedia Africana with support from the government of postcolonial Ghana. Du Bois moved to Accra and became a Ghanaian citizen. His encyclopedia unfinished, he died on August 27, 1963, the day before the historic March on Washington.

SEE ALSO African American Studies; Anticolonial Movements; Boas, Franz; Drake, St. Clair; Frazier, E. Franklin; Garvey, Marcus; Gramsci, Antonio; Hurston, Zora Neale; James, William; Marxism; Marxism, Black; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Nkrumah, Kwame; Ortiz, Fernando; Pan-African Congresses; Pan-Africanism; Poststructuralism; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Slave Trade; Slavery Industry; Social Science; Veil, in African American Culture; White, Walter



Du Bois, W. E. B. 1896. The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 16381870. New York: Longmans, Green.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1899] 1967. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York: Schocken.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1903] 1990. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. New York: Vintage.

Du Bois, W. E. B., ed. 1906. Health and Physique of the Negro American. Atlanta University Study, no. 11. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1911] 2004. The Quest of the Silver Fleece. New York: Harlem Moon.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1915] 1970. The Negro. New York: Oxford University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1928] 1995. Dark Princess: A Romance. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1935] 1992. Black Reconstruction in America, 18601880. New York: Atheneum.

Du Bois, W. E. B. [1939] 1970. Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race. New York: Octagon.

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

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 Publishers.


Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 18961954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Green, Dan S., and Edwin D. Driver, eds. 1978. W. E. B. Du Bois on Sociology and the Black Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harrison, Faye V. 1992. The Du Boisian Legacy in Anthropology. Critique of Anthropology 12 (3): 239258.

Lester, Julius, ed. 1971. The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois. New York: Vintage.

Lewis, David L. 1993. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 18681919. New York: Holt.

Lewis, David L. 2000. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 19191963. New York: Holt.

Nonini, Donald. 1992. Du Bois and Radical Theory and Practice. Critique of Anthropology 12 (3): 293318.

Roediger, David R. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso.

Faye V. Harrison

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1868–1963)

views updated May 21 2018

DU BOIS, W. E. B. (18681963)

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 (18921894), 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 (18941896), 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 votesequivalent 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.

See also: Multicultural Education; Race, Ethnicity, and Culture.


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, 18601880. 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.

William H. Watkins

Horace R. Hall

Du Bois, W.E.B.

views updated Jun 11 2018

W.E.B. Du Bois

Born February 23, 1869 (Great Barrington, Massachusetts)
Died August 27, 1963 (Accra, Ghana)

Civil rights activist, educator, writer

"At the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause."

NAACP leader Roy Wilkins

W.E.B. Du Bois was the most celebrated African American leader of the firsthalf of the twentieth century. A prolific writer who produced twenty books and more than one hundred articles and essays, he was one of the first to speak out in favor of full and unconditional rights for blacks. During the Roaring Twenties Du Bois played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance, the period of cultural expression and achievement that was centered in New York City's African American community. As editor of The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois provided a place for the talented young writers and artists of the period to publish their work. In addition, he made The Crisis into an important forum for black journalism and often used it to express his own intellectual and political views about the ongoing struggle for equality. During the 1920s, Du Bois clashed with Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), the dynamic leader of the United Negro Improvement Association, whose approach to black progress differed from his own. He also disapproved of the way some Harlem Renaissance writers insisted on portraying African American life in all its gritty, harsh reality.

A brilliant student

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a mostly white town that had, nevertheless, a strong tradition of racial tolerance and abolitionism (the belief that slavery should be illegal). His father was Alfred Du Bois, a barber of mixed French and African racial descent who left his family soon after his son's birth. His mother, Mary Salvina Burghardt, supported herself and her son by working as a maid. Du Bois contributed to the family income by doing odd jobs such as delivering groceries, mowing grass, chopping wood, and even writing articles for several newspapers.

During his school years Du Bois was one of very few black students, but he impressed both teachers and classmates with his intelligence and willingness to work hard. When he graduated from high school, he was chosen as his class's valedictorian (who delivers the farewell address at graduation). Du Bois wanted very much to attend college, and Harvard University was his first choice. His high school education, however, had not provided the kind of preparation he needed for Harvard.

Du Bois's advisors, including his high school principal, recommended that he attend Fisk University, a black school in Nashville, Tennessee. Du Bois received a full scholarship to Fisk, where he studied a variety of subjects that included classical literature and languages, philosophy, chemistry, and physics. He also edited the school's literary magazine.

Broadening his perspective

For the first time in his life, Du Bois was living in the South, where relations between blacks and whites were very different from those in his native New England. Following the American Civil War (1861–65) and the Reconstruction Era (1865–77), a system of legalized segregation (separation of the races) had been put into place through the so-called "Jim Crow" laws. African Americans living in the southern states were forced to attend separate and inferior schools and could not use the same public facilities—such as restaurants, restrooms, and drinking fountains—as whites. Not surprisingly, Du Bois found life under these circumstances very difficult. He responded by avoiding segregated places like movie theaters and streetcars, spending most of his time on campus. He also developed a shy, aloof manner that was often interpreted as coldness or arrogance.

During his college years, Du Bois spent his summers teaching in black schools in rural eastern Tennessee. This proved to be a life-changing experience, for Du Bois witnessed firsthand the hardships and suffering endured by poor African Americans living in a racist society. Yet Du Bois also gained new insight into the richness of his heritage and resilience of his people through his exposure to the spirituals (religious songs) he heard. His awareness of the ways in which blacks used music and other means to lift their spirits and endure their circumstances made him feel both proud and hopeful.

In 1888 Du Bois graduated from Fisk, and he immediately entered Harvard. He majored in philosophy and earned another bachelor's degree in 1890, and he was one of only five students chosen to speak at his graduation ceremony. Du Bois stayed at Harvard another year to earn a master's degree in history and economics. Then he spent two years abroad, studying sociology and economics at the University of Berlin in Germany. During this period he also visited Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Poland, gaining a broader, more global perspective. Du Bois's money and time ran out before he could earn a degree, however, and he returned to the United States in 1894.

Recognized as a scholar

After a year spent teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he met and married Nina Gomer, who would be his wife until her death in 1950, Du Bois returned to Harvard to complete his PhD. He wrote his dissertation (a long essay, written to fulfill the requirements of a university degree) on the African slave trade, and in 1896 he became the first black student to receive a PhD from Harvard.

In 1896 and 1897 Du Bois worked as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania while conducting an extensive study of the African American community in Philadelphia. Du Bois personally interviewed thousands of people, producing an extremely detailed report that exposed the poverty, violence, and crime that marred his subjects' lives. No such study had ever been done before, and the published version, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), was widely recognized as a major accomplishment.

In 1898 Du Bois accepted a position as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, a black institution. For the next eleven years, he would be busy not only teaching but also directing a series of annual conferences titled Studies of the Negro Problem. The conferences focused attention on issues affecting African Americans, and they brought Du Bois more recognition as a leading black scholar. In 1899 Du Bois and his wife were saddened by the death of their toddler son, Burghardt, of an intestinal illness.

As time went on, Du Bois found himself more and more impatient as he waited for white society to grant equality to African Americans. He grew increasingly convinced that a passive approach was useless in the face of racism and discrimination and that blacks should use protest and activism to achieve their goals. In 1900 Du Bois attended a Pan African Conference in London, England, where black leaders from all over the world met to discuss their common interests. This marked the beginning of Du Bois's lifelong interest in forging ties between all people of African descent, whether they lived in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, or Africa itself.

A new kind of leadership

A major milestone in Du Bois's career occurred in 1903 with the publication of The Souls of Black Folk. This book of fourteen essays collected Du Bois's writings on such topics as the devastating effects of racism, the remarkable resilience of black people, and the confusing sense of double consciousness experienced by those who considered themselves both black and American. The book would prove very influential, and it would also drive an even larger wedge between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), another important African American leader of the early twentieth century.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Washington had emerged as the most prominent black leader in the United States. The founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a school where blacks received training in a number of trades and crafts, Washington advised African Americans to endure segregation and racism quietly. They should focus, he stressed, not so much on things like higher education and voting rights as on learning how to support themselves. Economic progress would come first, and other types of equality would eventually follow.

Du Bois had neither the time for nor any faith in Washington's program. He felt that African Americans should demand all of their rights immediately and unconditionally, and that any kind of compromise with white people seeking to limit black freedom would prevent further progress. He urged what he called the Talented Tenth, meaning the small minority of blacks who were well educated and economically successful, to lead the way.

African Americans were divided in their loyalties, with some remaining faithful to the familiar and beloved Washington and others agreeing with Du Bois's activist approach. A definite split came in 1905, when Du Bois and others who felt as he did formed the Niagara Movement. The group met in Ontario, Canada, to express support for the complete integration of blacks into U.S. society, with the same rights and privileges granted to other citizens. Washington and his supporters, who some called the "Tuskegee Machine" due to the power they wielded, opposed the movement and applied what pressure they could to weaken it.

Founding the NAACP

The Niagara Movement lasted for only about four years, when its members broke off to join other civil rights organizations. The most prominent and longest-lasting of these was the NAACP (still in existence in the twenty-first century), which Du Bois formed along with a number of white supporters. Du Bois hoped that the participation of whites would increase the organization's impact; in fact, he was the only black member of its board of directors. In late 1920 Du Bois left his job at Atlanta University and moved to New York City, the headquarters of the NAACP, to become its director of publications and research.

Du Bois immediately founded the journal The Crisis, which would serve as an important forum for African American voices and viewpoints. Subscription numbers grew quickly as African American readers eagerly looked to The Crisis for news, information, and opinions on matters of importance to the black community. From the beginning, the always outspoken Du Bois had many conflicts with the other board members, who considered him excessively radical in his views. They felt Du Bois should proceed more cautiously, while he thought the NAACP should take more aggressive steps to demand equal rights for blacks. In any case, by 1913 the journal's circulation had grown to thirty thousand and it was the nation's leading black publication.

When World War I (1914–18) began in Europe, Du Bois was initially opposed to the United States becoming involved. Once the United States entered the war in 1917, though, Du Bois strongly spoke out to encourage young black men to volunteer for military service. This was a way, he declared, to show the depth of African American loyalty to the nation that had been their home for more than three hundred years. When whites saw that blacks were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the freedom of others, for the conflict was commonly known as a war "to make the world safe for democracy," they would be sure to grant African Americans the equal rights, acceptance, and expanded opportunities they desired.

Several hundred thousand black soldiers did serve in the war, and in 1919 Du Bois traveled to France to chronicle their experiences. The issue of The Crisis in which his report appeared sold a record 106,000 copies. After the war ended, Du Bois urged the returning soldiers to continue the fight for equality in their own country. This kind of talk was not welcomed by whites who were already worried about the threat of economic competition and social disruption they felt blacks posed. During the summer of 1919, a number of bloody race riots broke out in several major U.S. cities, and some blamed Du Bois's strong words for helping to cause the violence.

Elder statesman to the Harlem Renaissance

During the Roaring Twenties Du Bois served as a kind of elder statesman to the younger writers, artists, and musicians who made up the Harlem Renaissance. This outpouring of cultural expression and achievement, from the jazz-inflected poetry of Langston Hughes (1902–1967) to the African-influenced murals of Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) to the innovative music of Louis Armstrong (1901–1971; see entry), showcased the rich culture and talent that Du Bois had long heralded. Under the direction of literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961), herself an accomplished novelist, The Crisis provided readers with their first look at many works produced by Harlem Renaissance writers.

Nevertheless, relations were not smooth between Du Bois and all segments of the Harlem Renaissance. Du Bois disagreed with some of them on how they should portray the lives of black people. He sensed that the world was watching, and he wanted whites to see only the most upright, respectable aspects of African American life. That was the best way, Du Bois believed, to gain respect from whites and thus make them more inclined to grant blacks equality. Writers like Hughes and Claude McKay (1890–1948), however, disagreed. They wanted to convey the real sights, sounds, smells, and circumstances of the world around them. Therefore Hughes, for example, filled his poems with urban black dialect and nightclub scenes, while McKay's novel Home to Harlem (1928) includes characters who are prostitutes and drug users.

Du Bois also carried on a running battle with Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), a Jamaican immigrant who had gained a huge following through his calls for black pride and for a separate black state. The leader of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey dressed in an elaborate military uniform and plumed hat, and he seemed to have much more appeal to ordinary blacks than the distant, intellectual Du Bois. Through articles in The Crisis, Du Bois tried to portray Garvey as a dangerous fake, while Garvey fought back in the pages of Negro World, the publication of the UNIA. Eventually, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sent back to Jamaica, which seemed to confirm to Du Bois that he had been right about him all along.

Du Bois's interest in the mutual concerns shared by all people of African descent led him to organize four Pan African Congresses between 1919 and 1927. Leaders and activists gathered from all over the globe to discuss ways to improve the status and circumstances of black people. Among the most important issue of the years following World War I was what,

Marcus Garvey: A Different Kind of Black Leader

While W.E.B. Du Bois was a shining light to African American intellectuals and activists, Marcus Garvey appealed to many workingclass and poor blacks with his outspoken racial pride and his efforts to improve the lives of those with African descent. Frequently at odds with Du Bois, Garvey's flamboyant style and mass appeal did not win him approval from other black leaders of the day.

Born in a small town in Jamaica in 1887, Garvey had little schooling but an intense interest in politics and an awareness of the poverty and prejudice faced by blacks around the world. This led him to found the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. The organization was dedicated to helping people of African descent, no matter where they lived.

In 1916 Garvey traveled to the United States. He had long admired the work of Booker T. Washington, the African American leader who had established the Tuskegee Institute, an Alabama school where blacks learned vocational skills and trades. Garvey hoped to raise money to start a similar school in Jamaica. He would spend most of the next decade in the United States, where his magnetic personality, outspoken racial pride, and plans for a glorious black future gained him a devoted following.

Garvey soon founded a magazine called Negro World, which he used to express his views about how black progress could best be promoted. Garvey's essays urged people of African descent to be proud of their heritage and to reject racist views of their inferiority. At the center of his beliefs was the idea that black people should join together to reclaim Africa from the European nations that had colonized the continent in earlier centuries. This concept was known as pan-Africanism.

Garvey customarily dressed in a medaladorned military uniform and a plumed helmet. He appointed himself "Provisional President" of the all-black African nation he envisioned. On August 1, 1920, the UNIA held a convention in New York City that featured a large parade through Harlem. That evening, Garvey spoke to a crowd of twentyfive thousand followers at Madison Square Garden.

Garvey's appeal to a mass audience was not matched with similar admiration from other black leaders. Du Bois in particular resented Garvey, whom he considered to be an unrealistic and dangerous fake. Garvey and Du Bois carried on a battle of words in articles that appeared in Du Bois's The Crisis magazine and Garvey's Negro World. No one was more relieved than Du Bois when, in 1922, Garvey was convicted of defrauding people, many of them poor, who had invested in his failed shipping company. After several years in jail, Garvey was sent back to Jamaica. He died in 1940.

in the wake of Germany's defeat, would be done with that nation's African colonies. Although those in attendance pushed for these colonies to become independent nations, in the end they were treated as spoils to be divided among the European countries that had been victorious in the war (Great Britain, Italy, and France).

Disillusioned with the U.S. system

Witnessing the widespread hardship of the 1930s, when the economic downturn known as the Great Depression (1929–41) brought unemployment to millions, Du Bois became increasingly unhappy with the U.S. economic and social system. His ideas became more and more radical as he began moving away from the idea that African Americans should depend on white society for help. Instead, Du Bois began to advocate for black social, economic, and educational institutions. To the NAACP's board of directors, this sounded dangerously similar to segregation, which they had always strongly opposed. In 1934, after serving for twenty-four years as the editor of The Crisis, Du Bois was forced to retire from his position.

Du Bois returned to Atlanta University as chair of the sociology department and editor of a sociology journal called Phylon, with a special focus on the effects of racism. He also began traveling abroad to countries that offered different perspectives, such as Communist Russia and China. In 1943 he was forced into retirement from Atlanta. He then returned to the NAACP as director of special research. It is likely that the board of directors expected this to be an essentially ceremonial position for Du Bois, who was then seventy-seven years old. But that is not how he treated it, returning once again to his outspoken advocacy of extreme positions.Once again, in 1948, he was forced out.

Du Bois made an unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat as the candidate of the American Labor Party in 1950. Throughout the 1950s he was involved in exploring alternatives to capitalism (a system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private interests, for profit), especially communism (where all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to his or her ability and needs) and socialism (where the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community as a whole).

At this time in U.S. history, many people were concerned about the growing power of Communist countries like Russia and China. The fear that the United States itself could be invaded by Communists led to an atmosphere of suspicion and even paranoia, most dramatically demonstrated in the congressional hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957).

Du Bois's Communist leanings and activism got him into trouble with the U.S. government. In November 1951, after Du Bois had circulated a petition to ban nuclear weapons, he was charged with failing to register as an agent of a foreign country. Du Bois was acquitted (found not guilty), but he became even more disillusioned with the United States. At around the same time, the passports of Du Bois and his wife Shirley Graham (his first wife had died in 1950) were seized, which meant they could not travel outside the United States; the documents were not returned until 1958.

A citizen of Ghana

As soon as he had his passport again, Du Bois began a period of travel to Russia, China, and Africa. In 1961 he was invited by President Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) to move to Ghana, a West African country that had recently won its independence. Du Bois accepted the invitation, but before he left he made the pointed gesture of officially joining the Communist Party. He also gave up his U.S. citizenship to become a citizen of Ghana, where he began work on a history of Africa called the Encyclopedia Africana.

Du Bois died in 1963, one day before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This historic event was attended by more than two hundred thousand people, who gathered to call for full equal rights and opportunities for African Americans. As the news of Du Bois's death passed through the crowd, those assembled acknowledged his role in the struggle for civil rights. As quoted in Manning Marable's W.E.B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat, NAACP head Roy Wilkins (1901–1981) reminded the crowd that "At the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause." In Ghana, Du Bois was given a hero's funeral and buried on the grounds of the state house.

For More Information


Hamilton, Virginia. W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography. New York: Crowell, 1972.

Lewis, David Leavering. W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

Marable, Manning. W.E.B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Rudwick, Elliott. W.E.B. DuBois: Voice of the Black Protest Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Stafford, Mark. W.E.B. DuBois. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Web Sites

Hynes, Gerald C. A Biographical Sketch of W.E.B. DuBois. Available online at http://www.duboislc.org/html/DuBoisBio.html. Accessed on June 22,2005.

Reuben, Paul R. "Chapter 9: Harlem Renaissance—A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature. Available online at http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/9intro.html. Accessed on June 22, 2005.

Du Bois, W.E.B.

views updated Jun 11 2018

W.E.B. Du Bois

Born February 23, 1868

Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Died August 27, 1963

Accra, Ghana

Sociologist, civil rights activist, writer, and editor

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line."

(W. E. B. Du Bois as quoted in W. E. B. Du Bois by Mark Stafford)

W.E.B. Du Bois is considered the greatest African American intellectual and civil rights activist of the twentieth century. He was among the first to call for full and unconditional equal rights for people of color. A social scientist by education and training, Du Bois carefully documented the historical and social truths of black people's lives as well as the realities of the harsh conditions they endured. But he did not limit himself to social science, for he was also notable as a writer (of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry), an editor, and the organizer of several Pan-African Congresses that highlighted the common interests of all people of African descent. Du Bois played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance by providing guidance, inspiration, and real opportunities for talented young blacks: he opened the pages of the Crisis, the influential magazine he edited, to the work of the period's most promising young authors and artists.

A bright, hardworking student

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced du-BOYCE) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a predominantly white town with a small but long-established African American community. Du Bois's ancestors were of mixed European and African ancestry, but his family had always identified itself as black. His father, Alfred Du Bois, left soon after his son's birth, and his mother, Mary Salvina Burghardt, struggled thereafter to support herself and her son on wages she earned as a maid. But Willie (the nickname given to Du Bois by his mother) helped out with money he earned by doing odd jobs such as delivering groceries and selling newspapers. By the time he was fifteen years old, Du Bois had also become a reporter, contributing articles on Great Barrington's black community to two black newspapers, the Springfield Republican and the New York Globe.

The only African American in his high school class of fifteen, Du Bois was a brilliant student. Soon after his high school graduation, his mother died. Du Bois received a scholarship to Fisk University (one of the nation's leading black colleges) in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he studied a variety of subjects, including classical literature, German, Greek, Latin, philosophy, chemistry, and physics, and he edited the university's literary magazine, the Fisk Herald. At Fisk, for the first time, Du Bois experienced the brutal realities of southern racism and the Jim Crow laws (which enforced segregation or separation of blacks and whites) that kept African Americans from becoming full citizens. Du Bois reacted by rarely leaving the Fisk campus and avoiding places like movie theaters and streetcars where blacks had to sit in separate seating. Some of his friends later said that during this period of his life, Du Bois became more reserved and withdrawn—qualities that would later make him seem cold and distant.

While he was studying at Fisk, Du Bois spent his summers teaching at schools in rural black communities in eastern Tennessee. His experiences strongly influenced the course of his life. Working in schools that lacked even the most basic supplies and witnessing the harsh conditions in which the people around him lived, Du Bois developed a greater awareness of African Americans' problems and suffering. At the same time, he recognized their strength in withstanding troubles, and he appreciated the people's rich cultural tradition of songs (especially spirituals or religious songs) and stories.

A brilliant career begins

After graduating from Fisk in 1888, Du Bois went on to Harvard University, studying history and social sciences. He earned a bachelor's degree (with honors) in 1890 and a master's degree in 1891. At his 1890 commencement, Du Bois was one of only five students in the graduating class to be chosen to deliver a speech. His excellent academic record earned him a scholarship to study overseas, and he spent two years (1892–1893) at the University of Berlin in Germany, focusing on history, economics, and politics. Du Bois's money ran out before he could finish a degree, but he managed to travel throughout Europe and returned to the United States with a more global perspective than he had had before.

In 1894 Du Bois became a professor of classics at Wilber-force University, a black institution in Ohio. He stayed only a year, but during that time he met and married Nina Gomer, who would be his wife for fifty-three years (until her death in 1950). Then he returned to Harvard to complete his doctoral degree in sociology, writing his dissertation on "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, 1638-1870." In 1896 Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. The next year he became an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

While teaching at Pennsylvania, Du Bois produced a major work called The Philadelphia Negro, one of the first scientifically conducted social studies ever done in the United States and the first in-depth analysis of a black community. Du Bois studied the conditions of poverty, violence, and crime that plagued Philadelphia's African Americans, and he interviewed thousands of people, creating a stunningly detailed report.

Gaining fame as a scholar and activist

Among those impressed by The Philadelphia Negro was Horace Bumstead, the president of Atlanta University (a black institution), who offered Du Bois a job. Du Bois was to teach sociology and also direct a series of annual conferences on issues important to African Americans. Entitled Studies of the Negro Problem, the series was a great success and helped make Du Bois a nationally known figure.

Du Bois had long believed that if the realities of racially based hatred, discrimination, and injustice were exposed, whites would quickly take steps to end them. As time went on, however, he became more and more convinced that exposing the problem would make no difference—that only protest and activism would produce results. He was also developing a philosophy of "pan-Africanism," the belief that all people of African descent had common interests and should work together to help each other. In 1900 (not long after the tragic death of his only son, three-year-old Burghardt, of an intestinal ailment) Du Bois attended the first meeting of the Pan-African Association in Europe, at which a group of over thirty activists discussed goals similar to his. The group disbanded after two years, but Du Bois continued to believe in the tenets (principles, beliefs, or teachings) of pan-Africanism.

The Souls of Black Folk

The event that catapulted Du Bois to the forefront of African American politics and thought was the 1903 publication of his influential book The Souls of Black Folk. A collection of fourteen essays (some of them previously published in other places) that highlights Du Bois's intellectual brilliance as well as his passionate ideals, the book describes the damaging effects of racism, celebrates the resilience of black people, and captures what it was like to be an African American at a time when violence and discrimination against blacks had increased to astonishing levels. Du Bois described blacks as having to struggle with a kind of double consciousness: "One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

The Souls of Black Folk had another important aspect: it stated in bold terms the difference of opinion between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (1865–1915), who had been the most prominent black leader of the post-Civil War period. The founder of the Tuskegee Institute, where blacks were taught practical skills to help them support themselves, Washington encouraged African Americans to put up with discrimination while slowly making economic advances. Racial equality would come not through protest and higher education, Washington argued, but through vocational training and patience. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed that blacks should demand full equal rights, and he called on the "Talented Tenth"—the best educated and most successful members of African American society—to lead the way. Compromising with whites who want to restrict black freedoms, Du Bois insisted, would never end racism and could even hold up racial progress.

This philosophical difference split the black community into two factions: many blacks remained loyal to Washington, while those with higher ambitions and less patience sided with Du Bois. In 1905 Du Bois and other like-minded activists founded the Niagara Movement, a group committed to demanding full equal rights for blacks. But Washington's influence was too great, and the Niagara Movement fell apart after four years, as its former members joined other groups.

The birth of the NAACP and the Crisis

One of these other groups would turn out to be the strongest and longest-lived African American organization of the twentieth century. In 1910 Du Bois joined with a group of white social workers and reformers (having decided that an interracial approach was best, to attract white financial backers) to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Still in existence today, the organization set out to fight for equality by trying race-related legal cases, lobbying legislators (talking to senators and members of Congress to persuade them to support or block particular laws), and providing public information. The only black member of the NAACP's board of directors, Du Bois was named director of publicity and research, and he immediately founded and became editor of The Crisis, a magazine that would be the group's mouthpiece.

Du Bois set to work to make Crisis a forum for African American ideas. It served as a place for many voices to proclaim the arrival of a new spirit of pride and a new determination to resist injustice. His own writings in the magazine were bold and forceful as he led the way toward what would soon be called the New Negro movement. By 1913 the circulation of Crisis had grown to thirty thousand, and readers eagerly awaited the publication of each issue.

When the United States entered World War I (1914–18), which was supposedly being fought in defense of global democratic ideals, African Americans were divided in their opinions about it. Some felt that blacks should refuse to participate in the conflict since they had been denied democratic rights in their own country, while others felt that taking part would show how loyal blacks were to the United States. At first Du Bois was opposed to the war and thought the United States should stay out of it altogether, but when the United States did become involved, he urged blacks to join the fight. He hoped that if African Americans showed they were willing to die for their country, their country would grant them the rights they had long been denied. In 1919 Du Bois traveled to France to report on the heroism of some of the thousands of black soldiers who had fought there. The issue of Crisis in which this story appeared sold a record-breaking 106,000 copies.

At the end of the war, the African American soldiers who had risked their lives in defense of democracy returned to a country in which racism and discrimination continued to exist. Violence against blacks—especially in the form of lynchings (or mob-type hangings of blacks)—had actually increased during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Du Bois used the pages of Crisis to urge returning soldiers and other blacks to continue the fight they had begun—the fight for equality. When the summer of 1919 brought a bloody series of race riots (see Chapter 1) as blacks reacted to earlier violence perpetrated against them, some blamed Du Bois for stirring up anger with his passionate and defiant words.

An important role in the Harlem Renaissance

With the 1920s came the cultural explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance, a period of great creative achievement that Du Bois, through his insistence on black pride and accomplishment, helped to begin and continued to nurture. In addition to simply inspiring the young black writers, artists, and performers of the Harlem Renaissance through his example and his eloquent words, Du Bois gave them material support and, in many cases, personal encouragement. He opened the pages of Crisis to their work, hiring a sharp young writer and editor, Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961; see biographical entry), as literary editor and providing a place where new writings and art could be seen by a wide audience. Du Bois also took part by founding a theatrical group, the Krigwa Players, and wrote a novel called Dark Princess: A Romance (1928).

The 1920s were years not only of accomplishment but of conflict for Du Bois. He often clashed with the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance writers and artists who did not share his views. Du Bois and his Talented Tenth felt that black literature, entertainment, and art should portray blacks only as accomplished and respectable; the younger members of the movement insisted on a broader representation of African American life, even if it meant exposing Harlem's seamy underside of drinking, sex, and violence.

Du Bois also carried on a battle of words with Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), the Jamaican-born black nationalist leader who had built a huge following among ordinary African Americans. Garvey delivered a strong message of black pride and championed the establishment of a separate black state. Du Bois considered Garvey a dangerous fake, so he was no doubt among those greatly relieved when Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and forced to leave the United States.

Working on pan-Africanist goals

Part of the tension between Du Bois and Garvey was probably due to a major difference in the men's personalities and public appeal. Garvey's flamboyance (he normally wore fancy military uniforms and plumed hats) made him popular with common people, while the usually unsmiling Du Bois was seen by many as an arrogant, condescending elitist. (Elitists are people who act snobbish or superior because of their advanced education or influential position.) Du Bois's closest friends claimed that he could be warm—and even funny—but he never showed this side of his personality to strangers. His perceived coldness kept Du Bois from gaining as many followers as Garvey or Booker T. Washington.

All through the 1920s Du Bois continued to work on his pan-Africanist goals, organizing four Pan-African Congresses between 1919 and 1927. These meetings brought together black leaders from the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. At the first one, held soon after the end of World War I, Du Bois and the others pushed for the independence of the African colonies that had been ruled by Germany; since Germany had lost the war, the fate of these colonies was unresolved. Ultimately, the ideas of the Pan-African Congress were ignored, and the colonies were divided between the European winners of the war.

A break with the NAACP

Over the years Du Bois grew more and more disappointed as all his efforts to promote racial progress and equality seemed to fail. Meanwhile, he found himself in frequent conflict with the mostly white leadership of the NAACP, who often felt he expressed his views too strongly. He was slowly moving away from integrationism (the idea that blacks and whites must live together, with the same rights and responsibilities) and eventually expressed his belief that African Americans should depend on each other more than on white people, both economically and socially. To the NAACP, it now sounded like Du Bois was promoting segregation, and this conflicted with the group's goals. In 1934 Du Bois was forced to resign from the NAACP and to give up his editorship of Crisis.

That same year Du Bois returned to Atlanta University as chairman of the sociology department. In addition to teaching, he founded and edited Phylon, a social science journal that focused on race relations. In 1936 Du Bois took a trip abroad and had a chance to compare U.S. society with those of other countries. He was especially impressed with the communist (in which all property is owned by the community as a whole) government and socialist (in which the means of producing and distributing goods are shared by citizens of the country or owned by the government) values of the Soviet Union. Du Bois was beginning to see this kind of political system as the only kind that could overcome poverty and racism.

In 1946 the NAACP unexpectedly offered Du Bois a chance to take over his old position. The organization's leaders may have assumed that the seventy-seven-year-old Du Bois would take a less active role than he had before, but this was not the case. Instead, he quickly became as outspoken as ever, and by 1948 the NAACP voted to force his resignation. Two years later Du Bois ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as the candidate of the American Labor Party.

In conflict with the U.S. government

Throughout the 1950s Du Bois repeatedly ran into trouble with the U.S. government because of his ties to groups thought to have communist sympathies. At this point in American history, anticommunist sentiment intensified in response to the growing strength of communist countries like the Soviet Union and China; some people were afraid that the United States might be threatened by a communist takeover. In November 1951 Du Bois was tried in a U.S. federal court for failing to register as the agent of a foreign country; this charge stemmed from his having circulated a petition to ban nuclear weapons. He was found innocent, but the experience left him with an even more negative feeling about the United States. In addition, because of his links to communist groups, Du Bois's passport—along with that of his second wife, writer Shirley Graham, whom he had married in 1951—was seized, and he was not allowed to leave the country until 1958. When his passport was finally returned, Du Bois traveled to Russia, China, and Africa.

In 1961 Du Bois decided to accept an invitation from Ghana's president, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), to move to that newly independent West African country, where he would begin work on a history of Africa to be called Encyclopedia Africana. Before he left the United States, however, Du Bois made one last dramatic gesture: he joined the Communist Party. In his application to the organization, Du Bois stated, "I have been long and slow in coming to this conclusion, but at last my mind is settled.... Capitalism [the economic system of the United States, in which property and means of production are privately owned] cannot reform itself, it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all."

A citizen of Ghana

Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in 1963, and he died there the next year at the age of ninety-five. Revered in that country as a hero of black people, he was given a grand state funeral and buried on the grounds of Ghana's government house. The day after his death happened to be the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when more than two hundred thousand people gathered in the U.S. capital to peacefully demand progress for African Americans. The news of the great black leader's death spread quickly throughout the crowd, and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins made note of Du Bois's contribution to African American history, reminding those present that "at the dawn of the twentieth century, his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause."

For More Information


Hamilton, Virginia. W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography. New York: Crowell, 1972.

Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

Moore, Jack B. W.E.B. Du Bois. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Rudwick, Elliott. W.E.B. Du Bois: Voice of the Black Protest Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Stafford, Mark. W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Web sites

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 9: Harlem Renaissance—W.E.B. Du Bois." PAL:Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide. [Online] Available: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/dubois.html (accessed on March 23, 2000).

Du Bois, W. E. B.

views updated Jun 27 2018

Du Bois, W. E. B.

February 23, 1868
August 27, 1963

Historian, sociologist, novelist, and editor William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His mother, Mary Burghardt Du Bois, belonged to a tiny community of African Americans who had been settled in the area since before the American Revolution; his father, Alfred Du Bois, was a visitor to the region who deserted the family in his son's infancy. In the predominantly white local schools and Congregational church, Du Bois absorbed ideas and values that left him "quite thoroughly New England."

From 1885 to 1888 Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville, where he first encountered the harsher forms of racism. After earning a B.A. (1888) at Fisk, he attended Harvard University, where he took another B.A. (1890) and a doctorate in history (1895). Among his teachers were psychologist William James, philosophers Josiah Royce and George Santayana, and historian A. B. Hart. From 1892 to 1894 he studied history and sociology at the University of Berlin. His dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States," was published in 1896 as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies.

From 1894 to 1896 Du Bois taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he met and married Nina

Gomer, a student, in 1896. The couple had two children, Burghardt and Yolande. In 1896 he accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania to gather data for a commissioned study of blacks in Philadelphia. This work resulted in The Philadelphia Negro (1899), an acclaimed early example of empirical sociology. In 1897 he joined the faculty at Atlanta University and took over the annual Atlanta University Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems. From 1897 to 1914 he edited an annual study of one aspect or another of black life, such as education or the church.

Appalled by the conditions facing blacks nationally, Du Bois sought ways other than scholarship to effect change. The death of his young son from dysentery in 1899 also deeply affected him, as did the widely publicized lynching of a black man, Sam Hose, in Georgia the same year. In 1900, in London, he boldly asserted that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." He repeated this statement in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), mainly a collection of essays on African-American history, sociology, religion, and music, in which Du Bois wrote of an essential black double consciousness: the existence of twin souls ("an American, a Negro") warring in each black body. The book also attacked Booker T. Washington, the most powerful black American of the age, for advising blacks to surrender the right to vote and to a liberal education in return for white friendship and support. Du Bois was established as probably the premier intellectual in black America, and Washington's main rival.

Du Bois's growing radicalism also led him to organize the Niagara Movement, a group of blacks who met in 1905 and 1906 to agitate for "manhood rights" for African Americans. He founded two journals, Moon (19051906) and Horizon (19071910). In 1909 he published John Brown, a sympathetic biography of the white abolitionist martyr. Then in 1910 he resigned his professorship to join the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York, which had been formed in response to growing concern about the treatment of blacks. As its director of research, Du Bois founded a monthly magazine, The Crisis. In 1911 he published his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, a study of the cotton industry seen through the fate of a young black couple struggling for a life of dignity and meaning.

The Crisis became a powerful forum for Du Bois's views on race and politics. Meanwhile, his developing interest in Africa led him to write The Negro (1915), a study offering historical and demographic information on peoples of African descent around the world. Hoping to affect colonialism in Africa after World War I, he also organized Pan-African Congresses in Europe in 1919, 1921, and 1923, and in New York in 1927. However, he clashed with the most popular black leader of the era, Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Du Bois regarded Garvey's "back to Africa" scheme as ill considered and Garvey as impractical and disorganized.

Du Bois's second prose collection, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), did not repeat the success of The Souls of Black Folk but captured his increased militancy. In the 1920s The Crisis played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance by publishing early work by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and other writers. Eventually, Du Bois found some writers politically irresponsible; his essay "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926) insisted that all art is essentially propaganda. He pressed this point with a novel, Dark Princess (1928), about a plot by the darker races to overthrow European colonialism. In 1926 he visited the Soviet Union, then nine years old. Favorably impressed by what he saw, he boldly declared himself "a Bolshevik."

The Great Depression increased Du Bois's interest in socialism but also cut the circulation of The Crisis and weakened his position with the leadership of the NAACP, with which he had fought from the beginning. In 1934 he resigned as editor and returned to teach at Atlanta University. His interest in Marxism, which had started with his student days in Berlin, dominated his next book, Black Reconstruction in America (1934), a massive and controversial revaluation of the role of the freedmen in the South after the Civil War. In 1936 Du Bois commenced a weekly column of opinion in various black newspapers, starting with the Pittsburgh Courier. He emphasized his continuing concern for Africa with Black Folk: Then and Now (1939), an expanded and updated revision of The Negro.

In 1940 Du Bois published his first full-length autobiography, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, in which he examined modern racial theory against the major events and intellectual currents in his lifetime. In 1944 his life took another dramatic turn when he was suddenly retired by Atlanta University after tension grew between him and certain administrators. When the NAACP rehired him that year, he returned to New York as director of special research. In 1945 he was honored at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England, and published a bristling polemic, Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. A year later, he produced a controversial pamphlet, "An Appeal to the World," submitted by the NAACP on behalf of black Americans to the United Nations Commission on Civil Rights. In 1947 came his The World and Africa, an examination of Africa's future following World War II.

By this time Du Bois had moved to the left, well beyond the interests of the NAACP, which generally supported the Democratic Party. In 1948, when he endorsed the Progressive Party and its presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, he was fired. He then joined Paul Robeson, who was by this time firmly identified with radical socialism, at the Council on African Affairs, which had been officially declared a "subversive" organization. In 1950 Du Bois ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from New York on the American Labor Party ticket. Also that year, in another move applauded by communists, he accepted the chairmanship of the Peace Information Center, which circulated the Stockholm Peace Appeal against nuclear weapons.

W.E.B. Dubois

"One even feels his two-nessan American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

the souls of black folk. chicago: a.c. mcclurg and co., 1903.

Early in 1951 Du Bois and four colleagues from the Peace Information Center were indicted on the charge of violating the law that required agents of a foreign power to register. On bail and awaiting trial, he married Shirley Lola Graham, a fellow socialist and writer (his first wife had died in 1950). At the trial in November 1951, the judge heard testimony, then unexpectedly granted a motion by the defense for a directed acquittal. Du Bois was undeterred by his ordeal. In 1953, he recited the Twenty-third Psalm at the grave of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed as spies for the Soviet Union. For such involvements, he found himself ostracized by some black leaders and organizations. "The colored children," he wrote, "ceased to hear my name."

Returning to fiction, he composed a trilogy, The Black Flame, about the life and times of a black educator seen against the backdrop of generations of black and white lives and national and international events (the trilogy comprised The Ordeal of Mansart, 1957; Mansart Builds a School, 1959; and Worlds of Color, 1961). After the government lifted its ban on his foreign travel in 1958, Du Bois visited various countries, including the Soviet Union and China. In Moscow on May 1, 1959, he received the Lenin Peace Prize.

In 1960 Du Bois visited Ghana for the inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah as its first president. He then accepted an invitation from Nkrumah to return to Ghana and start work on an Encyclopedia Africana, a project in which he had long been interested. In October 1961, after applying (successfully) for membership in the Communist Party, he left the United States. He began work on the project in Ghana, but illness the following year caused him to go for treatment to Romania. Afterward, he visited Peking and Moscow. In February 1963 he renounced his American citizenship and officially became a citizen of Ghana. He died in Accra, Ghana, and was buried there.

See also Communist Party of the United States; Council on African Affairs; Cullen, Countee; Great Depression and the New Deal; Harlem Renaissance; Hughes, Lang-ston; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Niagara Movement; Pittsburgh Courier ; Universal Negro Improvement Association; Robeson, Paul; Washington, Booker T.


Aptheker, Herbert. Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus-Thomson, 1973.

Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 18681919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976; New York, Schocken Books, 1990.

Willis, Deborah. A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

arnold rampersad (1996)
Updated bibliography

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

views updated Jun 27 2018

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a major African American scholar, an early leader in the 20th-century African American protest movement, and an advocate of pan-Africanism.

On Feb. 23, 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Mass., where he grew up. During his youth he did some newspaper reporting. In 1884 he graduated as valedictorian from high school. He got his bachelor of arts from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1888, having spent summers teaching in African American schools in Nashville's rural areas. In 1888 he entered Harvard University as a junior, took a bachelor of arts cum laude in 1890, and was one of six commencement speakers. From 1892 to 1894 he pursued graduate studies in history and economics at the University of Berlin on a Slater Fund fellowship. He served for 2 years as professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children.

In 1896-1897 Du Bois became assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. There he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois's place among America's leading scholars.

Du Bois's life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority.

As Racial Activist

In 1905 Du Bois was a founder and general secretary of the Niagara movement, an African American protest group of scholars and professionals. Du Bois founded and edited the Moon (1906) and the Horizon (1907-1910) as organs for the Niagara movement. In 1909 Du Bois was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and from 1910 to 1934 served it as director of publicity and research, a member of the board of directors, and editor of the Crisis, its monthly magazine.

In the Crisis, Du Bois directed a constant stream of agitation—often bitter and sarcastic—at white Americans while serving as a source of information and pride to African Americans. The magazine always published young African American writers. Racial protest during the decade following World War I focused on securing antilynching legislation. During this period the NAACP was the leading protest organization and Du Bois its leading figure.

In 1934 Du Bois resigned from the NAACP board and from the Crisis because of his new advocacy of an African American nationalist strategy: African American controlled institutions, schools, and economic cooperatives. This approach opposed the NAACP's commitment to integration. However, he returned to the NAACP as director of special research from 1944 to 1948. During this period he was active in placing the grievances of African Americans before the United Nations, serving as a consultant to the UN founding convention (1945) and writing the famous "An Appeal to the World" (1947).

Du Bois was a member of the Socialist party from 1910 to 1912 and always considered himself a Socialist. In 1948 he was cochairman of the Council on African Affairs; in 1949 he attended the New York, Paris, and Moscow peace congresses; in 1950 he served as chairman of the Peace Information Center and ran for the U.S. Senate on the American Labor party ticket in New York. In 1950-1951 Du Bois was tried and acquitted as an agent of a foreign power in one of the most ludicrous actions ever taken by the American government. Du Bois traveled widely throughout Russia and China in 1958-1959 and in 1961 joined the Communist party of the United States. He also took up residence in Ghana, Africa, in 1961.


Du Bois was also active in behalf of pan-Africanism and concerned with the conditions of people of African descent wherever they lived. In 1900 he attended the First Pan-African Conference held in London, was elected a vice president, and wrote the "Address to the Nations of the World." The Niagara movement included a "pan-African department." In 1911 Du Bois attended the First Universal Races Congress in London along with black intellectuals from Africa and the West Indies.

Du Bois organized a series of pan-African congresses around the world, in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927. The delegations comprised intellectuals from Africa, the West Indies, and the United States. Though resolutions condemning colonialism and calling for alleviation of the oppression of Africans were passed, little concrete action was taken. The Fifth Congress (1945, Manchester, England) elected Du Bois as chairman, but the power was clearly in the hands of younger activists, such as George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah, who later became significant in the independence movements of their respective countries. Du Bois's final pan-African gesture was to take up citizenship in Ghana in 1961 at the request of President Kwame Nkrumah and to begin work as director of the Encyclopedia Africana.

As Scholar

Du Bois's most lasting contribution is his writing. As poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, sociologist, historian, and journalist, he wrote 21 books, edited 15 more, and published over 100 essays and articles. Only a few of his most significant works will be mentioned here.

From 1897 to 1910 Du Bois served as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, where he organized conferences titled the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problem and edited or coedited 16 of the annual publications, on such topics as The Negro in Business (1899), The Negro Artisan (1902), The Negro Church (1903), Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans (1907), and The Negro American Family (1908). Other significant publications were The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), one of the outstanding collections of essays in American letters, and John Brown (1909), a sympathetic portrayal published in the American Crisis Biographies series.

Du Bois also wrote two novels, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Dark Princess: A Romance (1928); a book of essays and poetry, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920); and two histories of black people, The Negro (1915) and The Gift of Black Folk: Negroes in the Making of America (1924).

From 1934 to 1944 Du Bois was chairman of the department of sociology at Atlanta University. In 1940 he founded Phylon, a social science quarterly. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935), perhaps his most significant historical work, details the role of African Americans in American society, specifically during the Reconstruction period. The book was criticized for its use of Marxist concepts and for its attacks on the racist character of much of American historiography. However, it remains the best single source on its subject.

Black Folk, Then and Now (1939) is an elaboration of the history of black people in Africa and the New World. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945) is a brief call for the granting of independence to Africans, and The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (1947; enlarged ed. 1965) is a major work anticipating many later scholarly conclusions regarding the significance and complexity of African history and culture. A trilogy of novels, collectively entitled The Black Flame (1957, 1959, 1961), and a selection of his writings, An ABC of Color (1963), are also worthy.

Du Bois received many honorary degrees, was a fellow and life member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was the outstanding African American intellectual of his period in America.

Du Bois died in Ghana on Aug. 27, 1963, on the eve of the civil rights march in Washington, D.C. He was given a state funeral, at which Kwame Nkrumah remarked that he was "a phenomenon."

Further Reading

Indispensable starting points for an understanding of Du Bois's life are his autobiographical writings (the dates are of the most recent editions): The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decades of Its First Century (1968); Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1968); Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1969); and The Souls of Black Folk (1969). Two critical biographies are Francis L. Broderick, W.E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis (1959), and Elliott M. Rudwick, W. E. B. Du Bois: A Study of Minority Group Leadership (1960; 1968). Also of importance is the W. E. B. Du Bois memorial issue of Freedomways magazine (vol. 5, no. 1, 1965). This was expanded and published in book form as Black Titan: W. E. B. Du Bois (1970). Arna Bontemps, 100 Years of Negro Freedom (1963), has a biographical sketch. Meyer Weinberg, Walter Wilson, Julius Lester, and Andrew G. Paschal edited Du Bois readers. Philip S. Foner edited W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks (1970), two volumes of speeches and addresses. □

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt

views updated May 23 2018


W. E. B. Du Bois was an African American intellectual, sociologist, poet, and activist whose fierce commitment to racial equality was the seminal force behind important sociopolitical reforms in the twentieth-century United States.

Although Du Bois may not have the same name recognition as frederick douglass or martin luther king jr., he is regarded by most historians as an influential leader. King himself praised Du Bois as an intellectual giant whose "singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people." Reflecting on Du Bois's legacy, playwright Lorraine Hansberry noted that "his ideas have influenced a multitude who do not even know his name."

Born February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, during the Reconstruction period following the u.s. civil war, Du Bois was of African, French, and Dutch descent. His tremendous potential was apparent to his fellow townspeople, who raised money in the local churches to send him to Tennessee's Fisk University, a predominantly African American school. Du Bois earned a bachelor of arts degree from Fisk in 1888. He then attended Harvard University, where his professors included George Santayana and william james. An outstanding student, Du Bois received three degrees from Harvard: a bachelor's in 1890, a master's in 1891, and a doctor's in 1895.

Du Bois traveled extensively in Europe during the early 1890s and did postdoctoral work at the University of Berlin, in Germany. It was there that he pledged his life and career to the social and political advancement of African Americans. When Du Bois returned to the United States, he accepted his first teaching position at Ohio's Wilberforce University. He later taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Atlanta University.

Du Bois made his mark as an accomplished sociologist and historian, publishing groundbreaking studies on African American culture. In The Philadelphia Negro (1899), he interviewed 5,000 people to document the social institutions, health, crime patterns, family relationships, and education of African Americans in northern urban areas. In his 1903 book The Souls of BlackFolk, he published a beautifully written collection of essays on the political history and cultural conditions of African Americans.

Although his success in academe was well recognized, Du Bois chose to cut a bolder swath as a passionate social activist. He became a symbol of principled social protest on behalf of African Americans. Du Bois combined his scholarly endeavors with the profound outrage he felt over racial injustice and the South's discriminatory jim crow laws. He used his position as a respected intellectual to decry the unequal treatment of African Americans and to push for fundamental change. According to King, Du Bois knew it was not enough to be angry. The task was to organize people so that the anger became a transforming power. As a result, King said, "It was never possible to know where the scholar Du Bois ended and the organizer Du Bois began. The two qualities in him were a single unified force."

Du Bois was a contemporary of booker t. washington, the head of Alabama's famed Tuskegee Institute and the undisputed leader of the African American community at the turn of the twentieth century. A former slave, Washington was a powerful figure who favored the gradual acquisition of civil rights for African Americans. He believed that the best route for African Americans was agricultural or industrial education, not college. Although Du Bois agreed with some of Washington's ideas, he eventually lost patience with the slow pace and agenda of Washington's program.

To Du Bois, Washington's Tuskegee Machine was much too accommodating to the white power structure. Du Bois favored a more militant approach to achieving full social and political justice for African Americans. Because of Du

Bois's talent as a writer, he became an effective spokesperson for the opponents of Washington's gradualism. He became the unambiguous voice of indignation and activism for African Americans. Du Bois insisted on the immediate rights of all people of color to vote; to obtain a decent education, including college; and to enjoy basic civil liberties.

"The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression."
—W. E. B. Du Bois

His beliefs led to the creation of the Niagara movement in 1905. This organization was formed by like-minded African Americans to protest Washington's compromising approach to the so-called Negro problem. Du Bois preached power through achievement, self-sufficiency, racial solidarity, and cultural pride. He came up with a plan called the Talented Tenth, whereby a select group of African Americans

would be groomed for leadership in the struggle for equal rights. The Niagara movement lasted until 1910 when Du Bois became involved in a new national organization.

In 1910, Du Bois helped launch the biracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp). He became the group's director of research and the editor of the NAACP publication The Crisis. Du Bois's work on The Crisis provided a wide audience for his views on racial equality and African American achievement. His writings influenced scores of African Americans who eventually made their demands for full citizenship heard in the nation's legislatures and courtrooms. Du Bois was a guiding force in the NAACP until 1934 when his interest in communism led him to leave the organization.

On September 9, 1963, the NAACP Board of Directors recognized Du Bois's contributions to the civil rights movement in the following resolution: "It was Dr. Du Bois who was primarily responsible for guiding the Negro away from accommodation to racial segregation to militant opposition to any system which degraded black people by imposing upon them a restricted status separate and apart from their fellow citizens."

Du Bois was also a proponent of Pan-Africanism, a movement devoted to the political, social, and economic empowerment of people of color throughout the world. Later, he became active in trade unionism, women's rights, and the international peace movement. Never one to shy away from controversy, Du Bois also embraced socialism and communism at a time when they were especially unpopular in the United States. He joined the American Communist party in 1961, after winning the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959 from the former Soviet Union.

Du Bois became increasingly disenchanted with the United States, and emigrated to Ghana in 1961. He was a citizen of that country at the time of his death in 1963.

Du Bois's influence on U.S. law was indirect but powerful. He spoke out eloquently against injustice and inspired generations of African Americans to work for racial equality. With 21 books to his credit and a zeal for organizing social protest, he helped plant the seeds for the civil rights and black power movements in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. His unswerving commitment to equal rights helped bring about changes in the laws governing education, voting, housing, and public accommodations for racial minorities.

In 1900, Du Bois wrote Credo, a statement of his beliefs and his desire for social change. The poet in him was revealed when he wrote,

I believe in Liberty for all men: the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.

further readings

Berman, Nathaniel. 2000. "Shadows: Du Bois and the Colonial Prospect, 1925." Villanova Law Review 45 (December).

Clarke, John Henrik, et al., eds. 1970. Black Titan: W.E.B. Du Bois. Boston: Beacon Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1968. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: International Publishers.

Logan, Rayford Whittingham, ed. 1971. W.E.B. Du Bois: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang.

Marable, Manning. 1986. W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne.

Romano, Mary Ann, ed. 2002. Lost Sociologists Rediscovered. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen.

Wolters, Raymond. 2002. Du Bois and His Rivals. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri.

Du Bois, W. E. B.

views updated Jun 11 2018

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1868–1963

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s life spanned the two great reconstructions of democracy in the United States. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868, as the former slaves were entering political life in the South, and he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington that marked a high point in the modern civil rights movement. In his ninety-five years, Du Bois not only bore eloquent witness to his country’s advances toward and retreats from interracial democracy but, as a scholar, activist, and artist, he actively participated in the cause of racial justice in the United States and around the world. He also contributed to the understanding of the nature of race and the causes of racism, offering a powerful refutation of scientific conceptions of race and insisting on the distinctive cultural, political, and economic contributions of Africans and African Americans.

Du Bois often observed that he spent his childhood in New England largely detached from African American life and unaware of the power of racial hierarchies. It was as a college student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, that he encountered both the privations of Jim Crow segregation and the richness and variety of African American culture. During this period, Du Bois’s work as a school-teacher in rural Tennessee also impressed on him the ongoing after effects of slavery. Leaving Fisk in 1888, Du Bois went on to study philosophy, history, and economics at Harvard and the University of Berlin. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, and his first book, based on a dissertation on Americans’ erratic efforts to withdraw from the international slave trade, heralded the entry of a remarkable scholar.

In the first phase of his scholarly career, Du Bois pursued the conviction that ignorance was the root of racial prejudice and that collecting and disseminating knowledge about black life was crucial to obtaining full citizenship for African Americans. To that end, he published a ground-breaking sociological study of the African American community in Philadelphia, and as a professor at Atlanta University, produced sixteen studies of African American life. Over time, Du Bois came to believe that knowledge alone would not eliminate racial injustice, and his writing increasingly focused on the importance of unconscious racism and economic self-interest in sustaining racial hierarchies. Among his greatest achievements, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 (1935) rewrote the history of Reconstruction by highlighting the central role of the slaves in securing the Union’s victory and by countering the prevailing view that the experiment in interracial democracy was a disaster. Black Reconstruction also explored the links between capitalism and white supremacy, revealing the growing influence of Marx’s ideas on Du Bois’s thought.

Persistent violence against African Americans convinced Du Bois to trade academic life for full-time activism in 1910. He had already come to public attention when he published an essay in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that criticized the leadership of Booker T. Washington and when he established the Niagara Movement in 1905 to demand civil and political rights for African Americans. He was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), its only original African American board member, and the founder-editor of its journal, The Crisis. Over the next twenty-four years, Du Bois used this platform to advocate for anti-lynching legislation, black political and civil rights, women’s suffrage, international peace, and a host of other social justice issues.

Du Bois never confined the fight against racism to the United States. Even his early writings indicate an awareness of connections between racial hierarchies at home and European colonialism in Africa and Asia. When he first prophesied that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” in his 1900 “Address to the Nations of the World,” Du Bois insisted that the color line encompassed the globe. After World War I he organized a series of Pan-African Congresses to encourage cooperation among people of African descent; and after World War II he continued to work with transnational networks of activists, fighting for human rights at home and abroad, for the independence of colonized nations, and for the cause of world peace.

Art was, for Du Bois, an essential element of the struggle against racism. “All art is propaganda and ever must be,” he declared in his 1926 essay, “The Criteria of Negro Art.” Du Bois never meant that beauty should be sacrificed to politics. Rather, he insisted that beauty was intimately connected to truth telling, particularly to conveying the truth of African American humanity. He understood, furthermore, that poetic expression could change people’s perspectives where a mere recitation of facts might fail. To that end, Du Bois wrote constantly and in a variety of genres; he published essays, novels, poetry, autobiographies, and a wide range of occasional pieces; he staged elaborate pageants that displayed the glories of black civilization; and he served as a conduit for other writers and artists as editor of The Crisis. The best known of his books, The Souls of Black Folk, exemplifies Du Bois’s ability to blend historical and sociological detail with profoundly moving passages about the impact of race on his own life and that of his fellow citizens.

Although Du Bois’s final years have received relatively less scholarly attention, he remained active until his death. He continued to write prolifically, and after an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate as an American Labor Party candidate in 1950, he dedicated much of his energy to the peace movement. A victim of cold war politics, Du Bois was indicted in 1951 on charges of operating as an agent for foreign interests. Despite his acquittal, he was denied a passport in 1952 and was not allowed to travel abroad until 1958. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party and left the United States for Ghana, where, upon his death, he was buried as a hero. Fittingly, at his death, Du Bois was at work on the Encyclopedia Africana, a comprehensive study of black life and history.

SEE ALSO Niagara Movement; Pan-Africanism; Racial Hierarchy.



1997 (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Edited by David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams. Boston: Bedford Books.

1998 (1935). Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. New York: Free Press.

1984 (1940). Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

1995. W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader. Edited by David Levering Lewis. New York: Henry Holt.


Lewis, David Levering. 1993. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt.

———. 2000. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century: 1919–1963. New York: Henry Holt

Marable, Manning. 1986. W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne.

Rampersad, Arnold. 1976. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B Du Bois. New York: Schocken.

Lawrie Balfour

Du Bois, W. E. B.

views updated May 29 2018


(b. February 23, 1868; d. August 27, 1963) American writer, sociologist, and civil rights leader.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His mother worked as a maid for local white families, despite being partially paralyzed in her hands and legs by a stroke. When Du Bois was just a year old, his father left home, ostensibly to look for work, and never returned. Though life was difficult and money hard to come by, Du Bois was bright and articulate and he excelled in school. Most of his friends were sons of the middle class white families in town. Du Bois's upbringing was relatively free of racial discrimination.

In 1885, Du Bois moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend historically black Fisk University, where, despite his self-described "blithely European and imperialist" outlook, he began to articulate his ideas about race relations and the importance of economics to American notions of equality. After Fisk, Du Bois fulfilled his long-held desire to attend Harvard. He received his Ph.D. in 1895 after falling under the spell of the burgeoning science of sociology.

Next came a series of teaching and research positions, first at tiny Wilberforce College in Ohio, then at the University of Philadelphia after he moved there with his new wife, Nina. In 1903, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays that became, and is still considered, one of the most important books ever written about the problems of African-American people in the United States. In it, Du Bois separated his philosophy from those of the towering black thinkers of American history, many of which he considered too focused on appeasement and delicately constructed accession. Not long after, Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and went on to serve as the organizations' director of publication and as the editor of its magazine, Crisis, for nearly a quarter of a century.

With the coming of World War I, Du Bois saw an opportunity for black Americans to advance and to win many of the freedoms and protections they had long struggled for. He urged blacks to insist on their right to serve their country by joining the armed forces, an idea the military at first resisted. Later, he used his position in the NAACP and as editor of Crisis to urge Congress to allow blacks to become officers and to establish economic and occupational assistance for returning black veterans. His writing about the moral conundrum of black soldiers voluntarily defending a country that refused to protect them from lynch mobs was widely read and discussed, and immediately became part of America's political and social vocabulary.

When the war ended, Du Bois used his increased influence and popularity to bring yet more attention to the plight of black people around the world. The pan-African Conferences that he organized, though lauded in certain circles, were unsuccessful largely because of changing ideas among black Americans about how to proceed in the struggle for equality. As Du Bois had anticipated, World War I had been a catalyst for blacks to gain equal rights. For many black Americans who had served their country, a return to the days of political and social repression seemed unthinkable. A new idealism and purpose were afoot. What was missing was a unified voice. For many, like the orator and critic Marcus Garvey, the only solution was separation and a return to Africa. Du Bois' conflict with Garvey, who raised money to purchase a line of sailing ships, was widely reported in the press and served to forestall any attempts to create a viable pan-African political movement.

In 1934, Du Bois resigned his position in the NAACP when his own increasingly militant opinions brought him into conflict with other leading figures within the organization. He returned to Atlanta University, where he had taught from 1897 until 1910, and during the next decade he published many books. Then, having been forced to resign due in part to his increasingly radical views, Du Bois continued to organize international summits to examine the plight of black people in America and abroad. He rejoined the NAACP, but was again ousted when his criticism of U.S. foreign policy became too vocal.

That criticism increased following World War II, with America's ascension to the position of world military superpower. It was in the post war period that Du Bois began to speak out most vocally about the dangers of American imperialism, which he saw as creating a new class of conquered, desperate, and ignored humanity. In 1945, he warned against these dangers at the birth of the United Nations and later convened another pan-African Congress to consider the question and a possible response.

Not all of these gestures met with universal approval among African Americans. Indeed, a visit to the USSR, which cemented the favorable view of socialism Du Bois had developed during the Great Depression, as well as his decision to join the Communist Party in 1961 further alienated him from the mainstream Civil Rights movement. That same year, Du Bois renounced his American citizenship and emigrated to Ghana, Africa, where he undertook the editorship of the massive and audacious Encyclopedia Africana, a work suggested by the country's president and Du Bois's friend Kwame Nkrumah, but never brought to completion.

Du Bois died some six months later, at the age of ninety-four, very far from the land of his birth. The board of the NAACP, with whom he had so often tangled, honored him as "the prime inspirer, philosopher and father of the Negro protest movement."


Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race: 1868–1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919–1963. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

Marable, Manning. W. E. B. DuBois, Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Internet Resource

Hynes, Gerald. "A Biographical Sketch of W.E.B. DuBois." W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center. Available from <http://www.duboislc.org/man.html>.

Laura M. Miller

See also:African Americans, World War I; African Americans, World War II; Civil Liberties, World War I; Civil Liberties, World War II.