W.E. B. Du Bois championed higher education. But though Du Bois was one of Harvard University’s most dedicated advocates and most esteemed graduates, Harvard never quite welcomed him into the fold.
“Du Bois famously remarked that he was ‘in Harvard, but not of it,” said Professor Henry Louis Gates, Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. “While Harvard was his fantasy place to study, Du Bois could not even live in the dorms.”
Du Bois attended Harvard College in 1888, and earned his PhD in History in 1895—the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard.
“Du Bois’ example—performing brilliantly in the classroom—became metaphor for academic excellence in diversity,” said Professor Gates.
The accomplished DuBois was a prolific author and scholar, best known for “The Souls of Black Folk,” originally published in 1903. The book, originally a series of essays in “Atlantic Monthly,” was an autobiographically informed sociological argument for racial equality in American society. In a sentence, it demands that Southern blacks deserve to be treated with justice, a good education, and, in practical terms, the right to vote.
Perhaps the hallmark quote of “Souls” is: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” In those terms, the book continues to influence public discussion at Harvard and beyond.
“If Du Bois were alive,” he said, “he would see clearly that Harvard, just like America, has not yet reached the Promised Land of a post-racial society, and it will not for a very long time. Not until programs such as affirmative action and goals such as excellence and diversity in admissions have achieved their purpose—which is to diversify the educated classes by gender, by race, and religion and by sexual orientation.”
In 375 years, Harvard and the United States has witnessed a transition from the oppression of black people through slavery to the first black president, Barack Obama, himself a graduate of the Law School. Obama represents the epitome of the “talented tenth” that Du Bois describes in his essay “The Negro Problem.”
According to Gates, Du Bois would praise President Obama for attempting to heal the ideological, economic, and religions divisions in our country. “And then,” he said, “I think he would tell him to turn back into your soul and remind us of who we are as Americans by sharing your fundamental principles with us over and over again in your splendid, eloquent voice.”
As for Du Bois’s influence on Harvard, Gates recalls University President Drew G. Faust’s inaugural address.
“She used this quote by Du Bois,” he said. “‘I insist that the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.’ Du Bois’ legacy and message to those of us at Harvard today is best exemplified by that quote. These words are even more urgent today in an era where so many of our best students who would have otherwise become scholars instead become investment bankers and hedge fund managers.”