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.
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...
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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 contrast to the more conservative Tuskegee mentality, Du Bois became an intense rival of Washington, who nevertheless remained the most influential black spokesperson until his death in 1915. In 1905, Du Bois led a group of like-minded people in the formation of an organization to counter the Tuskegee approach. Meeting on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in July, they established the Niagara Movement, a short-lived group that never attracted much popular support. Its program was in some ways the opposite of Washington’s. It emphasized integration of education, voting rights for black men, and more rapid development of black people’s economic resources. Washington had urged African Americans: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Du Bois and the Niagara Movement insisted that they must actively protest against inequality and seize every opportunity to move into the mainstream of American life.
The Niagara Movement failed by 1909, but that same year, Du Bois worked with Mary White Ovington and other interested whites in formally establishing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It grew out of an interracial meeting triggered by the violent racial disturbances in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. Du Bois left Atlanta University in 1910 to become director of publicity and research for the NAACP. He also established a new journal, The Crisis, which became a semiofficial organ of the NAACP and afforded Du Bois larger opportunities than The Horizon, the Niagara Movement’s journal, to promulgate his ideas on the Talented Tenth, racial solidarity of African Americans and many other issues. The Crisis became essentially self-supporting, and Du Bois often argued with other NAACP leaders about its content. Regarding it essentially as his, he felt that The Crisis was actually the spearhead of the movement rather than of the parent NAACP organization.
Du Bois’s career after 1910 went through many changes that reflected the varying conditions of race relations in the United States. He retained his editorial position until his break with the NAACP in 1934, but he frequently departed from official NAACP positions. Increasingly, he advocated black separatism in the economic sphere, a modified version of Marxist socialism, and pan-Africanism. Du Bois organized the first important pan-African congress in Paris in 1919 and became a major rival of Marcus Garvey, the famous Jamaican who led the “back-to-Africa” movement between the world wars. Until the end of his life, Du Bois advocated various versions of pan-Africanism and became known in Africa for both this and his many involvements in peace organizations. A distinguished looking man with a mustache and goatee, he contrasted physically with most Africans but, nevertheless, identified with them. By the time his book Black Reconstruction was published, he was openly supporting socialism and racial separatism.
A third stage of his career began in 1934 as he returned to teaching at Atlanta University. From then until 1944, he resumed his academic work and added to his growing list of publications: Black Folk Then and Now; his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn; after returning to an NAACP job in 1944, Color and Democracy; and The World and Africa.
After World War II, Du Bois continued to change as the history of African Americans in the United States and the world evolved. The persistence of colonial rule after the war disturbed him, and he frankly criticized the great powers for not totally freeing their dependencies. While he continued to see the Soviet Union as a model in some respects, he did not refrain from criticizing that country’s domination of Eastern Europe and other areas. His displeasure with U.S. foreign policy further alienated him from his own country, and in 1951, he was charged with failing to register as an agent for a foreign power because of his pivotal position in the Peace Information Center. Although he was acquitted, he never felt at home in the United States after that. He was invited by Kwame Nkrumah to the 1957 ceremonies marking the end of British colonial rule in Ghana but was not allowed to go—although Vice President Richard Nixon and black leader Martin Luther King, Jr., were present. Eventually, in 1961, he joined the Communist Party and left his native land for Ghana. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana and died there, at age ninety-five, in 1963.
The life of W. E. B. Du Bois was a mirror of the growing independence of African American thought. On the surface, he embodied many contradictions: capitalism and socialism, separatism and integration, militancy and accommodationism. Yet the common thread of his evolving thought was his awareness of the racial question and the necessity to resolve it. “The problem of the Twentieth Century,” he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “is the problem of the color-line.” To him, it would yield only to determination and information. His commitment to scientific sociological research was so profound that some have said that he relied too much upon it.
Du Bois, however, was not merely a social scientist. He took pride in his blackness even as he recognized its complexity. He sensed in himself and all black Americans a dual identity:
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 history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
Thus, science and poetry flowed together in Du Bois’s mind as he wrestled with the universal problem of racism and ways to deal with it.
Du Bois anticipated several salient themes of modern black history, including the emphasis upon development of capital resources by African Americans and cultural identification with Africa. Although he left the United States, he was widely respected among mainstream black reformers for his literary and personal contributions to black liberation. Ironically, his death occurred on August 27, 1963, as more than 200,000 people were assembling to march on Washington. They paused to honor Du Bois, and on the next day NAACP head Roy Wilkins paid tribute to him at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Broderick, Francis L. W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959. An older work still valuable for understanding the evolving views of W. E. B. Du Bois. It contains much biographical information and is especially incisive in capturing the troubled spirit of Du Bois through his many difficult transitions. The seemingly surprising changes such as his break with the NAACP in 1934 are seen as flowing naturally from certain racist tendencies he had from his youth. The book credits Du Bois with two major accomplishments: emphasis upon equal rights for African Americans and his service to black Americans’ morale.
Byerman, Keith E. Seizing the Word: History, Art, and Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Examines Du Bois in terms of contemporary literary and cultural theory. Discusses the work of Du Bois and its influence on nineteenth and twentieth century America.
Horne, Gerald, and Mary Young, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001. A guide to the life and work of the philosopher and writer.
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: H. Holt, 1993. This 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning book chronicles the major impact Du Bois’s controversial thinking had on the United States. It focuses on a crucial fifty-year period in Du Bois’s life and in the nation’s civil rights struggle.
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. This second volume in Lewis’s massive biography of Du Bois focuses on the last forty-four years of Du Bois’s life.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. One of the few good treatments of Du Bois’s creative genius. Essentially a biography, this work traces Du Bois’s life from his New England beginnings to his last years in Ghana. Not so much concerned with controversies and rivalries as with his literary accomplishments, especially his fiction. Du Bois comes through as a concerned man, not a self-styled propagandist.
Rudwick, Elliott M. W. E. B. Du Bois: Voice of the Black Protest Movement. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982. A well-documented study; covers the full sweep of Du Bois’s career from his youth to his later involvements in pan-Africanism and peace promotion. Presents Du Bois as both a realist and an idealist, a skilled propagandist, and a devoted believer in equality. Rudwick suggests that although Du Bois erred in predicting socialism as the answer to the needs of African Americans, he accurately forecast the strong African orientation of contemporary black culture.
Bibliography updated by Lisa A. Wroble