Last reviewed: June 2017
American-born scholar, novelist, and activist
February 23, 1868
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
August 27, 1963
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a thinker, writer, editor, teacher, and activist. Among his many distinctions, he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and his ninety-five years saw the United States change from a land of small towns and farms to a nation of cities and industry. He was called many things—visionary, propagandist, scholar, communist, prophet, atheist. Each label held some truth.
Three years after the Civil War ended, W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a town of approximately four thousand people with a scattering of African American families. His bloodline contained French and Dutch strains but was primarily African, descended from Tom Burghardt, a black freedman. Du Bois’s father left after two years, and his mother raised him. They were poor. W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois worked hard and made excellent grades in school. His life was much like that of his white contemporaries until his teens, when he became aware of being different. A girl’s scornful rebuff and his arrest for stealing a few grapes were two experiences that initially shaped Du Bois’s emerging concept of the African American “double consciousness,” a conflict between being both black and American.
While in high school, Du Bois’s letters and political commentaries began appearing regularly in the New York Globe, a widely distributed newspaper. Already, Du Bois was committed to going to college, which few people did in those years. He wanted to attend Harvard, but money was scarce. At seventeen he entered Fisk University, a black school in Tennessee. Du Bois excelled in academics at Fisk, but he also discovered firsthand the painful legacy of slavery. The experience provided inspiration and content for his most famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, which was published in 1903 as a mixture of philosophy, autobiography, and social study. Du Bois began to believe that the best-educated African Americans, the “talented tenth,” should become active leaders for other black people. Some critics of Du Bois later used this concept to brand him an elitist.
After Fisk, Du Bois finally entered Harvard, completing another undergraduate degree in two years. Among his Harvard influences were William James, the father of American psychology, and George Santayana, the philosopher and poet. Though challenged academically for the first time, he graduated cum laude.
Du Bois then entered Harvard’s master’s degree program, followed by a trip to Germany for Ph.D. study. He found little racism in Europe and even considered marrying a German girl who proposed to him. He began experimenting seriously with fiction, touching on themes and characters that he would later employ in novels. To Du Bois’s regret, his funds ran out, and he returned to Harvard to take his Ph.D. in 1895. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer.
Even before receiving his doctorate, Du Bois began teaching at Wilberforce University. He followed this with a temporary appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed the first scientific study of African Americans in urban environments. This was published in 1899 as The Philadelphia Negro.
The next twelve years found Du Bois at Atlanta University, where he produced a nationally recognized body of scholarship on African Americans in the South. Atlanta was hard on Du Bois, however. His son died, and he expressed his grief in an essay, “Of the Passing of the First-Born.” In addition, conflict arose between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, another leading African American thinker, over the best way for black people to advance.
In 1909 Du Bois helped found the NAACP and became editor of its magazine, The Crisis. He moved from scholarship toward social and political commentary. His first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, was published; it was noted for its socialist themes. At The Crisis from 1910 until 1934, Du Bois used his editorials to wage a war for African American rights. He also began considering Africa’s problems, helping found the Pan-African Congress and leaning more toward socialism and the ideas of Karl Marx. In 1920, the NAACP awarded him its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, for his work on The Crisis and the Pan-African Congress. Six years later, in 1926, he visited the Soviet Union; he certainly was not a communist at this time, however. He harshly criticized the American Communist Party. The Great Depression and the agonies of segregation changed Du Bois. He began suggesting that voluntary segregation could actually strengthen African Americans. Blacks had to improve their lot alone, he seemed to be saying. The NAACP did not agree with this concept, and Du Bois soon resigned his position there.
Du Bois was immediately hired to head the Sociology Department at Atlanta University, where he returned to scholarship and academia. Two major works were Black Reconstruction and Black Folk Then and Now. He also taught a course on communism. Abruptly, in 1944, the university retired Du Bois without his consent. No clear reasons were given, though conflict with university officials was the probable cause.
Du Bois was seventy-six years old and without much money. Succor came from an unexpected quarter: The NAACP invited him back. He was allowed only a restricted role, however, and after four difficult years the NAACP leadership dismissed him. They had expected him to keep his strong opinions to himself and to follow orders—roles for which he was unsuited. Du Bois next focused his attention on Africa and joined the Council on African Affairs, which the American government branded as a Soviet front. In 1950 Du Bois’s wife died. Later that year he received more than 200,000 votes while running for the New York State Senate as an American Labor Party candidate.
In 1951 Du Bois was indicted for failure to register as a foreign agent. Though acquitted, he was outraged by his treatment. With Shirley Graham, his second wife, he wrote a book about the trial called In Battle for Peace. Du Bois felt persecuted after the trial. Passports were denied him; his friends were questioned. Yet he remained an active speaker and writer, and he was awarded the 1952 Grand International Prize from the World Peace Council and the 1959 Lenin Peace Prize. At eighty-nine he published the first novel in his ambitious trilogy, The Black Flame. Just over a year later he publicly renounced his citizenship and declared himself a member of the American Communist Party. He moved to Ghana to direct the Encyclopedia Africana project, but he died in 1963 with this final task incomplete.
In 2000, Du Bois's alma mater, Harvard, established a medal given in his name to those who have contributed to African American culture and thought. Fisk similarly promotes his legacy of the pursuit of academic excellence through its W. E. B. Du Bois General University Honors Program. Other universities have dedicated programs and honors in his memory as well.