W. E. B. Du Bois Biography

W. E. B. Du Bois (the pen name of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois) is primarily remembered today for two of his achievements: he was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard (in 1895); and then, in 1903, he published The Souls of Black Folks. Part sociological study, part philosophical reflection on race, part moving and poetic autobiography, Souls introduced the idea of “double-consciousness,” which refers to the divided experience and vision of African-Americans. This concept, and others stemming from it, actively influence both popular and academic discussions of race in America today. Still taught regularly, The Souls of Black Folks is one of the most honest and profound discussions of race ever published.

Facts and Trivia

  • Du Bois’s family background was complex and no doubt helped shape his perspective on race. His father was born in Haiti and had some French background; his great grandmother Elizabeth Freeman was a slave who sued to earn her freedom, an action that contributed to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
  • Du Bois was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group that eventually developed into the NAACP.
  • Du Bois investigated many possible solutions to the race problem in America, including socialism. He was given the Lenin Peace Prize (a Soviet analogue to the Nobel Prize) in 1959 and joined the Communist Party two years later.
  • In the 1950s, Du Bois was charged with being a foreign agent for his antiwar activities.
  • Du Bois became a citizen of the West African nation of Ghana in 1963, when he was ninety-five years old.


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Early Life

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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...

(The entire section contains 4019 words.)

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