Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?
W. E. B. Dubois (1868 - 1963)
On February 17, 2012, W. E. B. Dubois finally was awarded a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. His appointment as Honorary Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies came 116 years after he first came to the university with the title of Assistant Lecturer in 1896. That the appointment was made in 2012 and not in 1896 is a testament both to the prejudice that stood in this extraordinary scholar’s way, and to the towering intellect and fierce determination that overcame that prejudice and left a lasting imprint on the nation.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois. During his childhood William experienced little racial prejudice. His maternal great-grandfather, Tom Burghardt, had been a slave who gained his freedom after fighting with the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, and the Burghardt descendants were well established in the community.
Schools and churches were fully integrated, and both gave the young Du Bois extraordinary encouragement for his academic pursuits. He far excelled his white contemporaries, and was the valedictorian of his high school class. When Du Bois was ready for college, the church he and his mother attended, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, donated money for his tuition at Fisk University, a black liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee.
Du Bois arrived at Fisk in 1885. At that time the white racist backlash against Reconstruction was in full flow, including Jim Crow laws (forced separation of the races), political oppression, and lynchings. The scale of racial prejudice was far beyond anything Du Bois had ever seen before, and the experience changed the direction of his life. He became aware in a very personal way of the racial oppression that confronted African Americans at that time in the nation’s history, and the struggle against it would become his life’s work.
After graduation from Fisk with a bachelor’s degree in 1888, Du Bois was accepted at Harvard, which, however, refused his course credits from Fisk. He completed his Harvard undergraduate course and was awarded his second bachelor’s degree in 1890. He then went on to become, in 1895, the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard. During this period he also studied at the University of Berlin in Germany (1892-1894) and was influenced by some of the most prominent European social scientists of the day.
In 1894 Du Bois accepted a professorship at Wilberforce University in Ohio. While there, he completed his dissertation on the African slave trade for his Harvard PhD and, in 1896, married Nina Gomer, one of his students.
In 1896 the University of Pennsylvania gave Du Bois a one-year appointment to study the African American population in Philadelphia. It was the research he did for this assignment that led to the publication in 1899 of his landmark sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro. That book, still available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, is now recognized as the first scientific sociological study in the United States.
Ironically, although the University of Pennsylvania had supported his research, and the resulting book was published by their university press, the school couldn't bring itself to offer Du Bois, a Harvard PhD, a faculty position, until his 2012 posthumous appointment as honorary emeritus professor.
Growth in influence
In 1897, after his year in Philadelphia, Du Bois became professor of history and economics at historically black Atlanta University. While there he produced numerous papers relating to African American culture and living conditions. His influence grew to the point that by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, he was second only to Booker T. Washington as a spokesman regarding African American issues.
That first decade of the new century was a very productive time for Du Bois.
- He wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and John Brown (1909), and founded two literary magazines, The Moon (1906) and Horizon (1907).
- In 1905 he founded the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP, and served as its general secretary.
- In 1906 he wrote “A Litany of Atlanta” in response to the Atlanta race riot of that year.
- In 1909 he helped found the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Controversy with Booker T. Washington
Until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was the preeminent spokesman for blacks in America. He rose to national prominence with his Atlanta Exposition Speech of 1895, in which he offered what came to be known as The Atlanta Compromise. Washington’s suggestion was that blacks should not immediately agitate for social and political equality with whites, but first work to establish a firm foundation of education and wealth within the black community. In return for that self-imposed restraint, white America would support blacks in their efforts at self-help.
The Atlanta Compromise was enthusiastically received by many whites, both North and South. Initially Du Bois also approved it. But during the period of 1901 to 1903 his philosophy began to change. He became more and more convinced that advancement for the black race required the nurturing of the “talented tenth,” an intellectual elite that could provide the leadership required to move the race forward.
Since Washington’s program focused on industrial-agricultural education for blacks, while the talented tenth envisioned by Du Bois required a focus on providing, and funding, a liberal arts education, a fundamental clash of visions arose between the two men. In The Souls of Black Folk and other writings Du Bois was highly critical of Washington and his program, and became the highest profile spokesman for political and social activism to secure immediate civil and political rights for blacks.
The Niagara Movement
In 1905, Du Bois, along with other black intellectuals, launched the Niagara Movement. In its declaration of principles, the group forthrightly opposed the Atlanta Compromise and advocated for what most blacks at the time viewed as a radical program of agitation for equal rights. The movement never gained adequate financial support, and dissolved by 1910. But by then its successor was already taking shape.
The NAACP years
Early in 1909 a meeting was organized in New York City to protest the ill treatment and murders of blacks during race riots in Springfield, Illinois the previous year. Out of this initial meeting, called The National Negro Conference, was formed in 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois was instrumental in the founding of this most influential and productive of civil rights organizations.
Du Bois left Atlanta University to become the director of publications and research for the NAACP, and the founder of its monthly magazine, The Crisis. His editorials, sometimes very inflammatory, gained more and more acceptance, and extended his influence among African Americans. The Crisis dealt with every type of racial bigotry, from employment discrimination to violence against blacks, especially lynchings.
By 1934 financial pressures plus a difference of vision between Du Bois and NAACP president Walter Francis White, led to a rift. Du Bois had expressed the view that separate but equal segregation was acceptable as a means of encouraging black self-reliance and independence. When the NAACP leadership demanded that he retract his statement, he refused to do so. He resigned from the NAACP in 1934. He had accepted a professorship at Atlanta University in early 1933, and that now became his full time base of operations.
By 1943, however, Du Bois found himself, at the age of 76, no longer welcome at Atlanta University. Terminated as an active professor, he was given a lifetime pension and the title of professor emeritus. Civil rights leader Arthur Spingarn is quoted as saying that Du Bois spent his time in Atlanta “battering his life out against ignorance, bigotry, intolerance and slothfulness, projecting ideas nobody but he understands, and raising hopes for change which may be comprehended in a hundred years.”
In 1944 Du Bose returned to the NAACP, serving as director of special research until 1948.
Radical political views
In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had famously said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” As his frustration with the continuance of racial discrimination in the US grew, Du Bois moved more and more to the political left.
- At the turn of the twentieth century Du Bois had been a supporter of black capitalism as the best means of African American economic development. But as the decade progressed, his views moved steadily away from capitalism and toward socialism.
- He joined the Socialist Party in 1911, but resigned to support Woodrow Wilson for President.
- When the NAACP was accused in the late 40s of being influenced by Communists, and moved to distance itself from any links that might lend credence to that charge, Du Bois refused to cooperate. He continued to publicly associate with known Communist sympathizers such as Paul Robeson and Shirley Graham (whom he later married after his first wife died). This led to his final break with the NAACP in 1948.
- In 1951 the US Justice Department indicted Du Bois, then 83 years old, and other members of a group he headed called the Peace Information Center, accusing them of failure to register as agents of a foreign government. The PIC advocated for nuclear disarmament, and the government considered it Communist-inspired. Although Du Bois and the rest were acquitted, the government confiscated his passport and did not return it for eight years.
- In 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois joined the Communist Party. He left the US for Ghana, where, a year later, he renounced his US citizenship.
W. E. B. Du Bois died in Ghana on August 27, 1963 at the age of 95. It was, ironically, the day before Martin Luther King expressed his dream of racial justice during the March on Washington.
W. E. B. Du Bois had a major impact on the twentieth century in several respects. Starting with his groundbreaking study The Philadelphia Negro, he was instrumental in laying the foundations of modern sociological research. His writings on the culture and history of African Americans, and especially on the positive role they played in the Reconstruction era, helped to refute the assumption of black inferiority that was widespread through much of the century.
His personal accomplishments helped blaze a trail and provide a role model for young African Americans striving for accomplishment in a society that relegated them to second class status. In addition to being the first black person to receive a Harvard PhD, Du Bois was the first African American elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He also was a life member and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
But it is his work as an implacable opponent of racial bigotry that has had the most profound and continuing impact on the shape of American society. His writings, both academic treatises and popular appeals in The Crisis and elsewhere, helped to create the intellectual and moral climate that eventually led to the Civil Rights movement. As a founder of the NAACP, Du Bois helped develop, promote and sustain the organization that, by fighting and winning the Supreme Court battle against legal segregation in public schools, literally changed the course of American history.
At the end of his life, W. E. B. Du Bois was scorned by much of the American public for his embrace of Communism. But now, as the honorary degree belatedly given him by the University of Pennsylvania, as well as two US postage stamps issued in his honor attest, he has come to be regarded as a great American whose life is worthy of celebration.
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin