William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced DU-boyce) was born of mixed African, French Huguenot, and Dutch descent in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. His father, Alfred Du Bois, was the son of Alexander Du Bois, a light-skinned man born of a union between a mulatto slave girl in Santo Domingo and a wealthy American of French Huguenot descent. He lost his father early and was reared by his mother, Mary Burghardt, whose family traced its roots to a freed slave in the days of the American Revolution. The Burghardts were proud of their long, stable residence in Massachusetts as free farmers, but because they were black, they remained outside the social elite.
Du Bois grew up as part of a small black community of about fifty people among some five thousand whites in Great Barrington. Though his childhood was basically happy, he learned early that African Americans were not fully accepted as equal, even in New England. Determined to be a leader of his people, Du Bois studied hard and dreamed of getting a degree from Harvard. Books and writing interested young Du Bois more than athletics, although he did enjoy games and socializing with his friends. When he was graduated from high school in 1884 at the age of sixteen, he was the only African American in his class of twelve and was already urging African Americans to take advantage of their opportunities to advance through education and other forms of self-help.
The death of his mother shortly after his graduation, lack of funds, and his young age forced deferment of his plans to attend Harvard. After working several months and receiving scholarship aid from some interested churches, however, he was able to enter Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in the fall of 1885. Because of his superior academic background, he was admitted at the sophomore level. Fisk was a radically different world from that of Great Barrington, and, significantly, it provided him with the long-sought opportunity to relate to African Americans his own age. Now living among the two hundred African Americans at Fisk, he felt a stronger sense of identification with other African Americans and continued his instinctive efforts to make his fellow blacks more conscious of what they could accomplish. He also learned more about the deep-rooted racial discrimination of the South after Reconstruction. Summers were spent teaching in small western Tennessee schools, adding to the profound influence of his Fisk years.
Du Bois was graduated from Fisk in 1888 and at last was able to attend Harvard. With financial aid, he matriculated that fall at the junior level. In 1890, he earned a second baccalaureate degree, and the next year a master’s degree. From 1892 to 1894, he interrupted his Harvard doctoral program to take advantage of a fellowship to study at the University of Berlin. There he came into contact with some of Europe’s most prominent scholars, such as sociologist Max Weber, Heinrich von Treitschke, and Rudolf von Gneist. Like George Santayana and the famous psychologist-philosopher William James at Harvard, these seminal thinkers left a deep mark on his formative mind. Again, he used his summers to good advantage by traveling on the Continent. This European experience did not lessen his commitment to uplifting African Americans, but it did, he recalled, help him emerge “from the extremes of my racial provincialism … and to become more human.”
Du Bois returned to Harvard in 1894 and completed his dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. Its acceptance for publication by Harvard marked the beginning of a career in writing and scholarship. When he was graduated in 1895—the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard—he was ready to enter the academic world and become part of what he called the Talented Tenth—the intellectual elite that he believed was the key to the advancement of African Americans. He was chosen to speak at the commencement ceremonies and was recognized for his oratorical abilities.
Du Bois’s first appointment was at Wilberforce College in Ohio as an instructor in classics, a field in which he had excelled both at Fisk and at Harvard. He was not happy there, however, and in 1896 took a position at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where his primary responsibility was to undertake a study of African American society in the city’s Seventh Ward slums. His experience in Philadelphia was another disappointment. His apartment in the slum area brought him close to the worst effects of poverty, and he felt slighted by the university leadership. On the positive side, his year there produced his second major work and the first serious sociological study of American black social life, The Philadelphia Negro, which was published in 1899 after he moved to Atlanta.
From 1897 to 1910, Du Bois headed the economics and history program at Atlanta University and for the first time settled into a rewarding job. During that crucial period when African Americans were going through many important changes, Du Bois developed his ideas in Atlanta University Studies and wrote for prominent journals such as the Atlantic Monthly. In 1903, he compiled his thoughts in his best-known work, The Souls of Black Folk. By then, he was openly challenging the ideas of fellow African American leader Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington had rapidly risen to prominence after his Atlanta Exposition address of 1895, in which he urged African Americans to acquire industrial education, property, and good personal habits rather than push immediately for political rights or social equality.
The Washingtonian approach has been called accommodationism, while Du Bois’s strategy emphasized immediate acquisition of rights such as voting, education, and access to public facilities. Known as a “radical” at that time, in...
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