William E. B. DuBois: 1868-1963

William Edward Burghardt DuBois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868, the year the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. He died August 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana, on the eve of the Great March on Washington. In the 95 years of his life, Dr. DuBois combined the roles of historian, author, journalist, sociologist, politician, and educator, in an unremitting struggle against racial inequality, discrimination, and injustice. President Kwame Nkrumah, in his tributary message at the funeral in Ghana, described DuBois as "the greatest scholar the Negro race has produced."

He grew up in Massachusetts, the cradle of abolitionism, where he had little contact with open discrimination and dreamed of getting his higher education at Harvard. But he lacked the money for Harvard and the offer of a scholarship attracted him to a small Negro college in Nashville, Tennessee. At the age of 17 he entered Fisk University, which was for him "the new experience of being with my own group of people.

... While I was, in the long run, going to try and break down segregation and separateness, for the time I was willing to be a Negro and work within a Negro group."

Scholarship to Harvard

In 1888 DuBois' wishes were realized, for a scholarship made it possible for him to come to Harvard. Only one or two other Negroes were in the class of 300 students, and DuBois wrote "I never felt myself a Harvard man as I'd felt myself a Fisk man." The person whom be describes as "my closest friend as a teacher," William James, persuaded the industrious student to give up his desire to study philosophy. DuBois decided to concentrate in history and soon selected American Negro History as his special field. He received his bachelor's degree with distinction in 1890 and was one of the six Commencement speakers; the subject of his address was Jefferson Davis. His fellowship was renewed and he continued his studies at the Graduate School. In 1892 he became the first Negro to attain the degree of Ph.D. at Harvard.


DuBois was not the only prominent Negro then at Harvard. In this era Harvard was throwing off its strictly New England outlook and giving scholarships to people in the Midwest and the South. "In my class was a black man from St. Louis who was one of the best speakers of English That I ever knew, Tunent Morgan," DuBois recalled. "When it came to the election of class officers, always the class officers had been Lowells and Cabots and Saltonsalls and so forth and the class revolted and elected Morgan as the class orator which was unprecedented. They talked about it all over the United States."

With a grant from the Slater Fund, DuBois left the United States and studied in Germany for two years. "For the first time in my life I was just a human being and not a particular kind of human being." Returning from Berlin in 1894, Dr. DuBois began teaching at Wilburforce College, a small semi-religious Negro institution in Ohio. He taught Greek and Latin, but the subject he really wished to explore was sociology. And in two years this wish, also, was realized. The University of Pennsylvania invited him to do a study of the Negro in Philadelphia. After one and a half years of work he wrote The Philadelphia Negro, one of the first urban sociological studies in the world. At about the same time Harvard published his doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies.

Moves to Atlanta

In 1897 he joined the Sociology Department of the University of Atlanta, where he spent the next 13 years. He taught, continued his studies of the American Negro, and began to write the essays for the Atlantic Monthly, World's Work, and other journals, that were later to be combined in his most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk. When this small book appeared in 1903 it had an enormous impact on Negroes. In the words of Langston Hughes, The Souls of Black Folk "was like a Bible to thousands of Negro students, writers, intellectuals, and just plain ordinary people."

Perhaps the most important feature of this new book was its attack on Booker T. Washington, who was the Negro leader of that time. Washington maintained that the Negro should accept second-class citizenship in return for the assurance that whites would give the Negroes industrial training and jobs. DuBois became part of the Negro outcry against this compromising policy. "We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights," he wrote. "We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a free-born American: political, civil and social; and until we get these rights, we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans."

On July 9, 1905, 29 Negroes met secretly in Canada near Niagara Falls in a response to a letter from Dr. DuBois. The next year the "Niagara Movement" met at Harper's Ferry, and publicly commemorated John Brown. By 1910 this movement became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. DuBois left his Atlanta position, where his views were becoming too radical, and moved to New York. There he became the chief propagandist for the NAACP, acting for 23 years as the editor of Crises.

Edits Crises

Under the leadership of DuBois, Crises went to as many as 100,000 readers every month, reporting on the struggle for equality and urging readers to take courage and pride in their Negro-ness. Many a Negro writer was first published and encouraged by Crises. Because of the magazine's financial stability, DuBois was able to say what he felt, without threat of recrimination for the NAACP.

During his years at Atlanta and with Crises, DuBois' thought under-went an evolution. In the first quarter of the 20th century, 1,091 Negroes were lynched in the United States. Some were publicly burned at the stake. In the 1906 race riots in Atlanta, Mrs. DuBois was beaten so severely that she never fully recovered. Dr. DuBois had seen Negro poverty close at hand, first in Philidelphia, then in Georgia. These things made him turn away from the idealistic optimism that he had learned at Harvard and led him to reject the conciliation of Booker T. Washington.

Dr. DuBois became aware of two great thinkers whose views were to sharpen his outlook and influence his later actions: Freud and Marx. As early as 1904 he joined the Socialist Party, though he was soon to leave it to support Wilson. In 1926 DuBois made his first visit to the Soviet Union which "was for me a never-to-be-forgotten experience and it strengthened my belief in socialism as the one great road to progress." This development of DuBois' thought culminated when he joined the Communist Party of the United States of America in 1958.