William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced doo-BOYZ, /duːˈbɔɪs/, February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, and editor. Born in Massachusetts, Du Bois attended Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate. He was a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University, and he was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Du Bois rose to national prominence when he opposed Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta compromise, an agreement in which Southern blacks would work meekly and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic education and due process in law. Du Bois insisted on civil rights and increased political representation, which he felt would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite which he dubbed the Talented Tenth.
Du Bois was a vocal opponent of racism, and spoke strongly against lynching, discrimination in the military, and racism in education. His cause included colored persons everywhere, particularly Asians and Africans in their struggles against colonialism and imperialism. He was a proponent of Pan Africanism and helped organized several Pan African Congresses to free African colonies from European powers. Du Bois was a feminist who supported the women’s suffrage movement.
Du Bois was a prolific author, producing essays, editorials, novels, autobiographies, non-fiction works, and academic studies. He wrote dozens of influential editorials in NAACP’s journal The Crisis. His 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk was a seminal work in African-American literature, and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks did not contribute anything of value during the Reconstruction era. Du Bois felt that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated for nuclear disarmament.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois. He grew up in Great Barrington, a predominately European American town.
An old brick church surrounded by trees
As a child, Du Bois attended the Congregational Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Church members collected donations to pay Du Bois’s college tuition.
Mary Silvina Burghardt’s family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington, having long owned land in the state. The Burghardt family descended from Dutch and African ancestors. Du Bois’s maternal great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730), owned by Dutch-American Conraed Burghardt. Tom earned his freedom by service (1780) during the American Revolution as a private soldier in Captain John Spoor’s company.m’s son Jack Burghardt was the father of Othello Burghardt, who was the father of Mary Silvina Burghardt.
William Du Bois’s paternal great-grandfather was a white French-American, James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, who fathered several children with slave mistresses One of James’ mixed-race sons was Alexander. After James died, Alexander was disowned by the Du Bois family and forced to give up schooling for work.
Alexander became a merchant in New Haven and married Sarah Marsh Lewis. Alexander Du Bois travelled to Haiti, and around 1833 fathered a son, Alfred, with a mistress there. Alexander returned to his wife in Connecticut, leaving Alfred in Haiti with his mother. It is not known when Alfred moved from Haiti to the United States, but he appeared in the New York census in 1860 as Alfred Du Bois.[6fred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt married on February 5, 1867, in Housatonic, Massachusetts, and William was born the following year. Alfred deserted Mary by the time their son William was two. W.B. Du Bois identified himself as “mulatto” or “about one half or more Negro”.
When William was young, his mother suffered a stroke which left her unable to work During his youth, Du Bois attended the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington. He was treated well by the Great Barrington community, and experienced little discrimination. He attended the local public school, played with white schoolmates, and teachers encouraged his intellectual pursuits. His experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.al townspeople donated money for him to attend Fisk University, a historically black college.
A train station platform, with a sign: Colored Waiting Room
Du Bois encountered Jim Crow segregation for the first time when he attended Fisk University in Tennessee.
Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. It was Du Bois’s first experience with Southern racism, including lynchings, bigotry, and Jim Crow laws. After receiving a degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College from 1888 to 1890, earning a second bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in History. He paid his way through college with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. While at Harvard, he was heavily influenced by professor William James. In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.While at Harvard, he established a daily routine which he would practice all his life: rising at 7:15, working until 5, dinner and paper until 7, then reading or socializing until 10:30.
In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work.While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He came of age intellectually in the German capital, while studying with some of that nation’s most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Heinrich von Treitschke. After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies and in 1895 became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Wilberforce and University of Pennsylvania
In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute; he chose a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois met Alexander Crummell, and was deeply influenced by his thesis that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change. In 1897, Du Bois presented a paper The Conservation of Races at the Negro Academy, in which he rejected Frederick Douglass’s plea for black Americans to integrate into white society, writing “… we are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland”.
In the summer of 1896, Du Bois took a one-year research job with the University of Pennsylvania as an “assistant in sociology”. He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study The Philadelphia Negro, published two years later, when he was at Atlanta University. In the August 1897 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois published “Strivings of the Negro People”, his first work aimed at the general public, in which he enlarged on his thesis that African Americans should embrace their African heritage. Atlanta University
“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: … How does it feel to be a problem? … 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….He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People”, 1897
In July 1897, Du Bois took a professorship in history and economics at Atlanta University. In 1899 he published The Philadelphia Negro, an astoundingly thorough sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on the field work he did in 1896–7. The work was a major breakthrough in scholarship, because it was the first scientific sociological study in the U.S., and the first scientific study of African Americans. In the study, Du Bois coined the phrase “the submerged tenth” to describe the black underclass, anticipating the “talented tenth” term he would popularize in 1903 to describe society‘s elite class. Du Bois’s terminology reflected his opinion that the elite of a nation, black and white, was the critical portion of society that was responsible for culture and progress. Du Bois’s writings of this era were often dismissive of the underclass, employing characterizations such as “lazy” or “unreliable”, but he, in contrast to other scholars, attributed many societal problems to the ravages of slavery.
Du Bois’s output at Atlanta University was prodigious, in spite of a limited budget: he produced numerous social science papers, and annually hosted the Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. He was considered to be a brilliant, but aloof and strict, teacher. Du Bois received grants from the U.S. government to prepare reports about African-American workforce and culture.
Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise
W. E. B. Du Bois in 1904
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Du Bois was a renowned spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington. Washington was the director of the Tuskegee Institute, and wielded tremendous influence within the African-American community. Washington was the architect of the Atlanta compromise, a deal he struck in 1895 with Southern white leaders who had taken over government after the failure of Reconstruction. The agreement was that Southern blacks would work meekly and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic education and due process in law; blacks would not agitate for equality, integration, or justice, and Northern whites would fund black educational charities (primarily operated by Washington). Many African Americans opposed Washington’s plan, including DuBois, Archibald H. Grimke, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson, and Paul Dunbar – representatives of the class of learned blacks that Du Bois would later call “The Talented Tenth”. Du Bois felt that African Americans should fight for equal rights, rather than passively submit to the segregation and discrimination of Washington’s Atlanta compromise.
Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose which occurred near Atlanta in 1899. Hose was tortured, burned, and hung by a mob of two thousand whites. Du Bois was walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with a newspaper editor, when he encountered Hose’s burned knuckles in a storefront display. The episode numbed Du Bois, and he resolved that “one could not be a calm cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved.” Du Bois realized that “the cure wasn’t simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth.”
In 1901, Du Bois wrote a critical review of Booker T. Washington’s book Up from Slavery, and Du Bois later expanded the review and published it to a wider audience as the essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. In 1904, Du Bois published a nine-paragraph Credo which outlined his beliefs.
In 1905, Du Bois and several other African-American civil rights activists – including Fredrick L. McGhee, Jesse Max Barber and William Monroe Trotter – met in Canada, near Niagara Falls. They wrote a declaration of principles, and incorporated as the Niagara Movement in 1906. Du Bois and the other “Niagarites” wanted to publicize the Talented Tenth ideals to other African Americans, but most black periodicals were owned by publishers sympathetic to Washington, so Du Bois bought a printing press and started publishing Moon Illustrated Weekly in December 1905. It was the first African-American illustrated weekly, and Du Bois used it to attack Washington’s positions, but the magazine only endured for about eight months. Du Bois soon found another vehicle for his polemics, Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line, which debuted in 1907.
The Niagarites held a second conference in August 1906, on the 100th anniversary of John Brown’s birth, at the site of Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.Reverdy Cassius Ransom spoke and addressed the fact that Washington’s primary goal was to provide employment to blacks: “Today, two classes of Negroes, … are standing at the parting of the ways. The one counsels patient submission to our present humiliations and degradations; … The other class believe that it should not submit to being humiliated, degraded, and remanded to an inferior place. … it does not believe in bartering its manhood for the sake of gain.”
The Souls of Black Folk
In an effort to portray the genius and humanity of the black race, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of 14 essays, in 1903. The book was an inspiring manifesto which was as momentous in African-American history as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The introduction contained the proclamation that “… the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”[ Each chapter begins with two epigraphs – one from a white poet, and one from a black spiritual – to demonstrate intellectual and cultural parity between black and white cultures. A major theme of the work was the duality that African Americans faced: being both American and black, a unique identity which, according to biographer David Lewis, had been a handicap in the past, but could be a strength in the future: “henceforth, the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation.”
Two calamities in the autumn of 1906 stunned African Americans, and helped Du Bois’s struggle for civil rights to prevail over Booker T. Washington’s accommodationism. First, President Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers because they were accused of crimes as a result of the Brownsville Affair. Many of the discharged soldiers had served for twenty years and were near retirement. Second, in September, riots broke out in Atlanta, precipitated by unfounded allegations of black men assaulting white women, which compounded inter-racial tensions created by a job shortage and employers playing black workers against white workers. Ten thousand whites rampaged through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find, resulting in over 25 deaths. Du Bois wrote an essay “A Litany at Atlanta” which asserted that the riot demonstrated that the Atlanta compromise was a failure because, in spite of upholding their end of the bargain, blacks had failed receive legal justice. The compromise was no longer effective because, according to historian David Lewis, white patrician plantation owners that originally agreed to the comprise had been replaced by aggressive businessmen who were willing to pit blacks against whites. These two calamities were earth-shaking events for the African-American community, and marked the downfall of Washington’s Atlanta compromise and the ascendancy of Du Bois’s vision of equal rights.
Most African Americans had been loyal to the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, but Republicans Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had not expressed support for blacks during the aftermaths of Brownsville or the Atlanta riots, so Du Bois urged blacks to withdraw their support from the Republican party.
Du Bois continued to work as a professor at Atlanta University. In 1909, after five years of effort, he produced a biography of John Brown. It contained many insights, but also contained some factual errors. The work was strongly criticized by The Nation, which was owned by Oswald Villard, an author who had a competing biography of John Brown. Du Bois’s work was largely ignored by white scholars. After he published a piece in Collier’s magazine warning of the end of “white supremacy”, he had difficulty getting pieces accepted by major periodicals. However, Du Bois continued to publish columns regularly in the Horizon magazine.
“Once we were told: Be worthy and fit and the ways are open. Today the avenues of advancement in the army, navy, and civil service, and even in business and professional life, are continually closed to black applicants of proven fitness, simply on the bald excuse of race and color.”
Du Bois, Address at Fourth Niagara conference, 1908
Du Bois was the first African American to be invited by the American Historical Association (AHA) to present a paper at their annual conference. He read his paper, Reconstruction and Its Benefits to an astounded audience at the AHA’s December 1909 conference. The paper went against the mainstream historical view that Reconstruction was a disaster, caused by the ineptitude and sloth of blacks. Du Bois asserted that, to the contrary, the brief period of African-American leadership in the South accomplished three important goals: democracy, free public schools, and new social legislation. Du Bois’s paper claimed that it was the federal government‘s failure to manage the Freedman’s Bureau, to distribute land, and to establish an educational system, that doomed African-American prospects in the South. When Du Bois submitted the paper for publication a few months later in the American Historical Review, he asked that the word Negro be capitalized. The editor, J. Franklin Jameson, refused, but did publish the paper without the capitalization. The paper was subsequently ignored by white historians. Du Bois’s paper would later evolve into his ground-breaking 1935 book Black Reconstruction. The AHA did not invite another African-American speaker again until 1940.
In May 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York. The meeting led to the creation of the National Negro Committee on June 1, based on a platform of civil rights, equal voting rights, and equal educational opportunities. Oswald Villard was the director. The following spring, in 1910, at the second National Negro Conference, the attendees created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The word “colored”, at Du Bois’s suggestion, was chosen to include “dark skinned people everywhere.” Dozens of civil rights supporters, black and white, participated in the founding, but most executive offices were occupied by whites, including Mary Ovington, Charles Edward Russell, William English Walling, and NAACP president Moorfield Storey.[
Du Bois circa 1911
NAACP leaders offered Du Bois the position of Director of Publicity and Research. He resigned from Atlanta University in July 1910, and moved to New York. His primary duty was editing the NAACP’s monthly magazine which he named the The Crisis. The first issue appeared in November 1910, and Du Bois pronounced that its aim was to set out “those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people.” The journal was phenomenally successful, and it’s circulation would reach 100,000 in 1920. Typical articles in the early editions included one that inveighed against the dishonesty and parochialism of Black churches, and one that discussed the Afrocentric origins of Egyptian civilization.
An important Du Bois editorial from 1911 helped initiate a nationwide push to induce the Federal government to outlaw lynching. Du Bois, employing the sarcasm he frequently used, commented on a lynching in Pennsylvania wrote: “the point is he was black. Blackness must be punished. Blackness is the crime of crimes…. It is therefore necessary, as every white scoundrel in the nation knows, to let slip no opportunity of punishing this crime of crimes. Of course if possible, the pretext should be great and overwhelming – some awful stunning crime, made even more horrible by the reporters’ imagination. Failing this, mere murder, arson, barn burning or impudence may do.”
The Crisis also carried editorials by Du Bois that supported the ideals of unionized labor, but excoriated the racism demonstrated by its leaders, who systematically excluded blacks from membership. Du Bois also supported the principles of the Socialist party (he was briefly a member of the party from 1910–1912), but he denounced the racism demonstrated by some socialist leaders. Fed up with Republican president Taft’s failure to address widespread lynching, Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential race, in exchange for Wilson’s promise to support black causes.
Du Bois was a feminist, but he found it difficult to publicly support the women’s right-to-vote movement because leaders of the suffragism movement refused to support his fight against racial injustice. A Crisis editorial from 1913 broached the taboo subject of interracial marriage: although Du Bois generally expected persons to marry within their race, he viewed the problem as a women’s rights issue, because laws prohibited white men from marrying black women. Du Bois wrote ” laws leave the colored girls absolutely helpless for the lust of white men. It reduces colored women in the eyes of the law to the position of dogs. As low as the white girl falls, she can compel her seducer to marry her…. We must kill not because we are anxious to marry the white men’s sisters, but because we are determined that white men will leave our sisters alone.”
During the years 1915 and 1916, some leaders of the NAACP, disturbed by financial losses at The Crisis, and worried about the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its essays, attempted to oust Du Bois from his editorial position. Du Bois and his supporters prevailed, and he continued in his role as editor. Historian and author
The 1910s were a productive time for Du Bois. In 1911 he attended the First Universal Races Congress in London and he published his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece. In 1913, Du Bois wrote, produced and directed a pageant for the stage, The Star of Ethiopia. In 1915, Du Bois published The Negro, a general history of black Africans, and the first of its kind in English. The book rebutted claims of African inferiority, and would come to serve as the basis of much Afrocentric historiography in the twentieth century. The book predicted unity and solidarity for colored people around the world, and it influenced many who supported the Pan-African movement.
In 1915, Atlantic Monthly carried an essay by Du Bois, “The African Roots of the War”, which consolidated Du Bois’s ideas on capitalism and race. In it, he argued that the scramble for Africa was at the root of the World War I. He also anticipated later Communist doctrine, by suggesting that wealthy capitalists had coopted white workers, by giving them just enough wealth to prevent them from revolting, and by threatening them with competition by lower-cost labor of colored workers.
A charred body hanging by a chain from a gallows
Du Bois included photographs of the lynching of Jesse Washington in the June 1916 issue of The Crisis.
When the silent film The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, Du Bois and the NAACP led the fight to ban the movie, because of its racist portrayal of blacks as brutish and lustful. The fight was not successful, and possibly contributed to the film’s fame, but the publicity drew many new supporters to the NAACP. Under president Wilson, the plight of African Americans in government jobs suffered: many federal agencies adopted white-only employment practices, the Army excluded blacks from officer ranks, and the immigration service prohibited the immigration of persons of African ancestry. Du Bois wrote an editorial in 1914 deploring the dismissal of blacks from federal posts, and he supported William Monroe Trotter when Trotter brusquely confronted Wilson about the betrayal of Wilson’s campaign promise of justice for blacks.
The October 1916 edition of The Crisis, Du Bois wrote an editorial supporting the Great Migration of blacks from the Southern United States to the Northeast, Midwest, and West, because he felt it would help blacks escape Souther racism, find economic opportunities, and assimilate into American society.
The Crisis continued to wage a campaign against lynching. In 1915 it published an article with a year-by-year tabulation of 2,732 lynchings from 1884 to 1914. The April 1916 edition covered the group lynching of six African Americans in Lee County, Georgia. Later in 1916, “The Waco Horror” article covering the lynching of a Jesse Washington, a mentally impaired 17 year old African American. The article broke new ground by utilizing undercover reporting to expose the conduct of local whites in Waco.
World War I
As the U.S. prepared to enter World War I in 1917, Du Bois’s colleague in the NAACP, Joel Spingarn, established a camp to train African-Americans to serve as officers in the U.S. military. The camp was controversial, because some whites felt that blacks were not qualified to be officers, and some blacks felt that African Americans should not act as cannon fodder for what was a white man’s war. Du Bois supported Spingarn’s training camp, but was disappointed when the Army forcibly retired one of its few black officers Charles Young, on a pretense of ill health. The Army agreed to create 1,000 officer positions for blacks, but insisted that 250 come from enlisted men, conditioned to taking orders from whites, rather than from independent-minded blacks that came from the camp. Du Bois also railed against racist conditions facing black recruits (over 700,000 blacks enlisted on the first day of the draft).
Du Bois organized the 1917 Silent Parade in New York, to protest the East St. Louis Riot
When the East St. Louis Riot occurred in the summer of 1917, Du Bois travelled to St. Louis to report on the riots. Between 40 and 250 African Americans were massacred by whites, primarily due to resentment caused by St. Louis industry hiring blacks to replace striking white workers. Du Bois’s reporting resulted in an article “The Massacre of East St. Louis”, in the September issue of The Crisis, which contained photographs and interviews detailing the violence. Du Bois distorted some of the facts in order to increase the propaganda value of the article. To publicly demonstrate the black community’s outrage over the St Louis riot, Du Bois organized the Silent Parade, a march of around 9,000 African Americans down New York’s Fifth avenue, the first parade of its kind in New York, and the second instance of blacks publicly demonstrating for civil rights.
The Houston Riot of 1917 disturbed Du Bois and was a major setback to efforts to permit African Americans to become military officers. The riot began after Houston police arrested and beat two black soldiers: in response, over 100 black soldiers took to the streets of Houston and killed 16 whites. A military court martial was held, and 19 of the soldiers were hung, and 67 others were imprisoned. In spite of the Houston Riot, Du Bois and others successfully pressed the Army to accept the officers trained at Spingarn’s camp, resulting in over 600 black officers joining the Army in October 1917.
In 1918, Du Bois predicted that World War I would lead to the liberation of colored people world-wide: in China, in India, and especially in America.Federal officials, concerned about anti-war viewpoints expressed by NAACP leaders, threatened the NAACP with investigations. Du Bois was offered an officer’s commission in the Army, contingent on him writing an editorial repudiating his anti-war stance. Du Bois accepted this bargain and wrote the pro-war “Close Ranks” editorial in June 1918 and soon thereafter he received a commission in the Army. Many black leaders, who wanted to leverage the war to gain civil rights for African Americans, criticized Du Bois for his sudden reversal. Southern officers in Du Bois’s unit objected to his presence, and his commission was withdrawn.
After the war
When the war ended, Du Bois travelled to Europe in 1919 to attend the first Pan-African Congress and to interview African-American soldiers for a planned book on their experiences in World War I. He was trailed by U.S. agents who were searching for evidence of treasonous activities. Du Bois discovered that the vast majority of black American soldiers were relegated to menial labor as stevedores and laborers. Some units were armed, and one in particular, the 92nd Division (the Buffalo soldiers), engaged in combat. Du Bois discovered widespread bigotry and racism in the Army, and concluded that the Army command discouraged blacks – both officers and enlisted – from joining the Army, discredited the accomplishments of black soldiers, and encouraged bigotry.
An African-American family moves furniture out of a house with broken windows.
Du Bois documented the 1919 Red Summer race riots. This family is evacuating their house after it was vandalized in the Chicago Race Riot.
After returning from Europe, Du Bois was more determined than ever to gain equal rights for African Americans. Black soldiers returning from overseas felt a new sense of power and worth, and were representative of a new attitude referred to as the New Negro. In the editorial “Returning Soldiers” he wrote: “but, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Many blacks moved to northern cities in search of work, and some northern white workers resented the competition. This labor strife was one of the causes of the Red Summer of 1919, a horrific series of race riots across America, in which over 300 African Americans were killed in over 30 cities. Du Bois documented the atrocities in the pages of The Crisis, culminating in the December publication of a gruesome photograph of a lynching that occurred during the Omaha, Nebraska race riot.
The most egregious episode during the Red Summer was a vicious attack on blacks in Elaine, Arkansas, in which nearly 200 blacks were murdered.Reports coming out of the South blamed the blacks, alleging that they were conspiring to take over the government. Infuriated with the distortions, Du Bois published a letter in the New York World, claiming that the only crime the black sharecroppers had committed was daring to challenge their white landlords by hiring an attorney to investigate contractual irregularies. Over sixty of the surviving blacks were arrested and tried for conspiracy, in the case known as Moore v. Dempsey. Du Bois rallied blacks across American to raise funds for the legal defense, which, six years later, resulted in a Supreme Court victory authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Although the victory had little immediate impact on justice for blacks in the South, it marked the first time the Federal government used the 14th amendment guarantee of due process to prevent states from protecting mob violence.
Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, First edition
In 1920, Du Bois published Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, the first of three autobiographies he would write. The “veil” was that which covered colored people around the world. In the book, he hoped to lift the veil and show white readers what life was like behind the veil, and how it distorted the viewpoints of those looking through it – in both directions. The book contained Du Bois’s feminist essay “The Damnation of Women” which was a tribute to the dignity and worth of women, particularly black women.
Concerned that textbooks used by African-American children ignored black history and culture, Du Bois created a monthly children’s magazine, The Brownies’ Book. Initially published in 1920, it was aimed at black children, who Du Bois called “the children of the sun”.
Pan Africanism and Marcus Garvey
Du Bois travelled to Europe in 1921 to attend the second Pan-African Congress. The assembled black leaders from around the world issued the London Resolutions and established a Pan-African Association headquarters in Paris. Under Du Bois’s guidance, the resolutions insisted on racial equality, and that Africa be ruled by Africans (not, as in the 1919 congress, with the consent of Africans). Du Bois restated the resolutions of the congress in his Manifesto To the League of Nations, which implored the newly-formed League of Nations to address labor issues and to appoint Africans to key posts, but the League took little action on the requests.
Du Bois became embroiled in an ideological dispute with Marcus Garvey, promoter of the Back-to-Africa movement and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey denounced Du Bois’s efforts to achieve equality through integration, instead endorsing racial separatism. Du Bois initially supported the concept of Garvey’s Black Star Line, a shipping company that was intended to facilitate commerce within the African diaspora. However, Du Bois became concerned that Garvey was threatening the NAACP’s efforts, and assailed Garvey as fraudulent and reckless. Responding to Garvey’s slogan “Africa for the Africans” slogan, Du Bois said that he supported that concept, but denounced Garvey’s intention that Africa be ruled by African Americans. Du Bois wrote a series of articles in The Crisis throughout 1922, attacking Garvey’s movement. In 1924, Du Bois called Garvey the “most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world.” Du Bois and Garvey never made a serious attempt to collaborate, and their dispute was partially rooted in the desire of their respective organizations (NAACP and UNIA) to capture a larger portion of the available philanthropic funding.
Du Bois protested Harvard’s 1921 decision to ban black’s from its dormitories, decrying it as an instance of a broad effort in the U.S. to renew “the Anglo-Saxon cult; the worship of the Nordic totem, the disfranchisement of the Negro, Jews, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiate, and South Sea islander – the world rule of Nordic white through brute force.”[
When Du Bois sailed for Europe in 1923 for the third Pan-African Congress, the circulation of The Crisis had declined to 60,000 from its World War I high of 100,000, but it remained the preeminent periodical of the civil rights movement. President Coolidge designated Du Bois an “Envoy Extraordinary” to Liberia and – after the third congress concluded – Du Bois rode a German freighter from the Canary Islands to Africa, visiting Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.[
The explosion of African-American music, art, and literature in the 1920s that marked the Harlem Renaissance was not anticipated by Du Bois, although he frequently celebrated African-American artistic creativity in his writings. Credit for the leading journalist that inspired the Harlem Renaissance belongs to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, editor for the Urban League. In June 1925, Du Bois wrote “A Negro Art Renaissance”, recognizing that the long hiatus of blacks from creative endeavors was finally over. His enthusiasm for the renaissance waned as he came to believe that many whites visited Harlem for voyeurism, not for genuine appreciation of black art. Du Bois insisted that artists recognize their moral responsibilities, writing that “a black artist is first of all a black artist.” He was also concerned that black artists were not using their art to promote black causes, saying “I do no care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” By the end of 1926, he stopped employing The Crisis to support the arts.
“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked – who is good? Not that men are ignorant – what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”
Du Bois, “Of Alexander Crummell”, in The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
Nine years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Du Bois extended a planned trip to Europe to also visit the Soviet Union. In the U.S.S.R., Du Bois was struck by the poverty and disorganization, but was impressed by the intense labors of the officials and by the recognition given to workers. Although Du Bois was not yet familiar with the communist theories of Marx or Lenin, he concluded that socialism may be a better path towards racial equality than capitalism.
In 1929, Du Bois endorsed Democrat Jimmy Walker for mayor of New York, rather than the socialist Norman Thomas, believing that Walker could do more immediate good for blacks, even though the socialist platform was more consistent with Du Bois’s views. Throughout the 1920s, Du Bois and the NAACP shifted support back and forth between the Republican party and the Democratic party, induced by promises from the candidates to fight lynchings, improve working conditions, or support voting rights in the south; but, invariably, the candidates failed to deliver on their promises.
The Communist Party responded quickly and effectively to support the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American youth arrested in 1931 in Alabama for rape. Du Bois and the NAACP felt that the case would be not particularly beneficial to their cause, so they chose to let the Communist party organize the defense efforts. Du Bois was impressed with the vast amount of publicity and funds the Communists devoted to the partially successful defense effort, and he came to suspect that the communists were attempting to present their party to African Americans as better solution than the NAACP.
Du Bois wrote articles condemning the Communist party, claiming that it unfairly attacked the NAACP, and that it failed to fully appreciate racism in the United States. The Communist leaders, in turn, accused Du Bois of being a “class enemy”, and claimed that the NAACP leadership was an isolated elite, disconnected from the working-class blacks they ostensibly fought for. In 1932 the party selected an African American as their vice presidential candidate.
Return to Atlanta
Du Bois did not have a good working relationship with Walter Francis White, president of the NAACP since 1931. That conflict, combined with the financial stresses of the Great Depression, precipitated a power struggle over The Crisis. Du Bois, concerned that his position as editor would be eliminated, accepted a job at Atlanta University in early 1933. After arriving at his new professorship, he wrote a series of articles generally supportive of Marxism. Du Bois was not a strong proponent of labor unions or the communist political party, but he felt that Marx’s scientific explanation of society and the economy were useful to explain the situation of African Americans in the United States. Du Bois also found affinity with Marx’s atheism, since Du Bois himself routinely criticized black churches for dulling blacks’ sensitivity to racism. In his 1933 writings, Du Bois embraced socialism, but asserted that “colored labor has no common ground with white labor”, a controversial position that was rooted in Du Bois’s dislike of American labor unions, which had systematically excluded blacks for decades. Du Bois did not support the Communist party in the U.S. and did not vote for their candidate in the 1932 presidential election, in spite of an African American on their ticket.
In 1934, Du Bois reversed his stance on segregation, stating that separate but equal was an acceptable goal for African Americans. The NAACP leadership was stunned, and asked Du Bois to retract his stance, but he refused, and the dispute led to Du Bois’s symbolic resignation from the NAACP.
Black Reconstruction in America
Back in the world of academia, Du Bois was able to resume his study Reconstruction, the topic of his 1910 paper that he presented to the AHA. In 1935, he published his magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America. The book presented the thesis, in the words of David Lewis, that “black people, suddenly admitted to citizenship in an environment of feral hostility, displayed admirable volition and intelligence as well as the indolence and ignorance inherent in three centuries of bondage.” Du Bois documented how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and also showed how they made alliances with white politicians. He provided evidence to show that the coalition governments established public education in the South, as well as many needed social service programs. He demonstrated the ways in which Black emancipation — the crux of Reconstruction — promoted a radical restructuring of United States society, as well as how and why the country failed to continue support for civil rights for blacks in the aftermath of Reconstruction.
The book’s thesis ran counter to the orthodox interpretation of Reconstruction maintained by white historians, and the book was virtually ignored by mainstream historians until the 1960s.
In 1932, Du Bois was selected by several philanthropies, including the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, and the General Education Board, to be the managing editor for a proposed Encyclopedia of the Negro, a work Du Bois had been contemplating for thirty years. After several years of planning and organizing, the philanthropies cancelled the project in 1938, because some board members believed that Du Bois was too biased to produce an objective encyclopedia.
Trip around the world
Du Bois took a trip around the world in 1936, which included visits to Nazi Germany, China, and Japan. He later noted that he had received more respect from German academics than he had from white American colleagues. On his return to the United States, he voiced his ambivalence about the Nazi regime. While admiring how the Nazis had improved the German economy, he was horrified by their treatment of the Jews, which he described as “an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade.”
Du Bois became impressed by the growing strength of Imperial Japan following the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War. He saw the victory of Japan over Tsarist Russia as an example of colored peoples defeating white peoples. A representative of Japan’s “Negro Propaganda Operations” travelled to the United States during the 20s and 30s, meeting with Du Bois and giving him a positive impression of Imperial Japan’s racial policies. In 1936, the Japanese ambassador arranged a trip to Japan for Du Bois and a small group of academics.
World War II
Du Bois opposed the U.S. intervention in World War II, particularly in the Pacific, because he believed that China and Japan were just emerging from the clutches of white imperialists, and he felt that waging war against Japan was another way for white capitalists to continue their influence in Asia. Du Bois was discouraged that the government‘s plan for African Americans in the U.S. military was no better than World War I: blacks were limited to 5.8 percent of the force, and there were to be no African-American combat units. Blacks threatened to shift their support to president Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1940 election, so Roosevelt appointed a few blacks to leaderhip posts in the military.
Du Bois published his second autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, in 1940.
In 1943, at the age of 76, Du Bois’s employment at Atlanta University was abruptly terminated by college president Rufus Clement. Many scholars expressed outrage, prompting Atlanta University to provide Du Bois with a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Arthur Spingarn, commenting on Du Bois’s career up to that point, remarked that ” 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.” Turning down job offers from Fisk and Howard, Du Bois re-joined the NAACP in the position of director of the Department of Special Research. Defying the expectations of NAACP leadership, Du Bois jumped into the job with vigor and determination. In the ten years while Du Bois was away from the NAACP, its income had increased fourfold, and its membership soared to 325,000 members.
Du Bois in 1946, photo by Carl Van Vechten
Du Bois hoped that the United Nations, formed after World War II, would adopt a charter guaranteeing equal rights for colored people, and would set a path for the elimination of colonies around the world. Du Bois was a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP that attended the 1945 conference in San Francisco at which the United Nations was established. The NAACP delegation wanted the United Nations to recognize racial equality and to bring and end to the colonial era, and Du Bois drafted a proposal that pronounced “the colonial system of government … is undemocratic, socially dangerous and a main cause of wars.” The NAACP proposal received support from China, Russia, and India, but it was virtually ignored by the other major powers, and the NAACP proposals were not included in the United Nations charter.
After the United Nations conference, Du Bois published Color and Democracy, a book that attacked colonial empires and, in the words of one reviewer, “contains enough dynamite to blow up the whole vicious system whereby we have comforted our white souls and lined the pockets of generations of free-booting capitalists.”
In late 1945, Du Bois attended the fifth, and final, Pan African Congress, in Manchester, England. The congress was the most productive of the five congresses, and there Du Bois met Kwame Nkrumah, fighter for Ghana independence, and its future first president.
When the cold war commenced in 1946, the NAACP took steps to distance itself from communists, in order to ensure that the NAACP’s funding and reputation did not suffer. The NAACP redoubled their efforts in 1947 after Life magazine published a piece by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. claiming that the NAACP was heavily influenced by communists. Du Bois did not conform to the NAACP’s desire to avoid communist associations. He fraternized with communist sympathizers such as Paul Robeson, Howard Fast, and Shirley Graham (his future second wife). In 1940, Du Bois wrote “I am not a communist…. On the other hand, I … believe … that Karl Marx … put his finger squarely upon our difficulties…”. In 1946, Du Bos wrote articles giving his assessment of the Soviet Union: he did not embrace communism and he criticized its dictatorship. However, he felt that capitalism was responsible for poverty and racism, and felt that socialism was an alternative that might amerliorate those problems. The soviets explicitly rejected racial distinctions and class distinctions, leading Du Bois to conclude that the USSR was the “most hopeful country on earth.” Du Bois’s association with prominent communists made him a liability for the NAACP, especially since the FBI was starting to aggressively investigate communist sympathizers, so by mutual agreement, he resigned from the NAACP in late 1948.
After departing the NAACP, Du Bois starting writing regularly for the weekly leftist newspaper the National Guardian, a relationship that would endure until 1961. Du Bois also campaigned for peace, speaking at the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace in New York: “I tell you, people of America, the dark world is on the move! It wants and will have Freedom, Autonomy and Equality. It will not be diverted in these fundamental rights by dialectical splitting of political hairs . . . Whites may, if they will, arm themselves for suicide. But the vast majority of the world’s peoples will march on over them to freedom!”
Du Bois was a lifelong anti-war activist, but his efforts became more pronounced after World War II. In the spring of 1949, he spoke at World Congress of the Partisans of Peace in Paris, saying to the large crowd: “leading this new colonial imperialism comes my own native land built by my father’s toil and blood, the United States. The United States is a great nation; rich by grace of God and prosperous by the hard work of its humblest citizens…Drunk with power we are leading the world to hell in a new colonialism with the same old human slavery which once ruined us; and to a third World War which will ruin the world.”
Du Bois affiliated himself with the leftist organization, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions (ASP), and, as the ASPs’ representative, he travelled to Moscow in late 1949 to speak at the All-Soviet Peace Conference.
Du Bois was a staunch opponent of nuclear weapons, and in 1950 he became chairman of the newly created Peace Information Center (PIC), which worked to publicize the Stockholm Peace Appeal in the United States.[ The primary purpose of the appeal was to gather signatures on a petition, asking world governments to ban all nuclear weapons. The U.S. Justice department alleged that the PIC was acting as an agent of a foreign state, and thus required the PIC to register with the federal government. Du Bois and other PIC leaders refused, and they were indicted for failure to register. Some of Du Bois’s associates distanced themselves from him and the NAACP refused to issue a statement of support, but many leftists and labor figures, including Langston Hughes, supported Du Bois. After a trial in 1951, with defense attorney Vito Marcantonio arguing the case, the case was dismissed. Even though Du Bois was not convicted, the government confiscated Du Bois’s passport and withheld it for eight years.
Du Bois was bitterly disappointed that many of his colleagues from his early career did not support him during his PIC trial, whereas working class whites and blacks supported him enthusiastically. After the trial, Du Bois lived in Manhattan, writing and speaking, and continuing to associate primarily with leftist acquaintances. His primary theme was peace, and he railed against military actions, such as the Korean War, which he viewed as tools by imperialist whites to maintain colored people in a submissive state.
In 1950, at the age of 82, Du Bois ran for U.S. Senator from New York on the American Labor Party ticket and received about 200,000 votes, or 4% of the statewide total. Du Bois continued to believe that capitalism was the primary culprit responsible for the subjugation of colored people around the world, and therefore – although he recognized the faults of the Soviet Union – he continued to uphold socialism as a possible solution to racial problems. In the words of biographer David Lewis, Du Bois did not endorse socialism for its own sake, but did so because “the enemies of his enemies were his friends.”
The U.S. government prevented Du Bois from attending the 1955 Bandung conference in Indonesia. The conference was the culmination of 40 years of Du Bois’s dreams: a meeting of 29 nations from Africa and Asia, many recently independent, representing most of the world’s colored peoples. The conference celebrated their independence, and the nations began to assert their power as non-aligned nations in during the cold war. In 1958, Du Bois regained his passport, and with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, he travelled around the world, visiting Russia and China. In both countries he was celbrated and given guided tours of the best aspects of communism. Du Bois was blind to the defects of his host nations, even though he toured China in the middle of the tragic Great Leap Forward. He wrote approvingly of the conditions in both countries. He was 90 years old.
Du Bois became incensed in 1961 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1950 McCarran Act, a key piece of McCarthyism legislation which required communists to register with the government. To demonstrate his outrage, he joined the Communist party in October 1961, at the age of 93.
Although Du Bois attended the New England Congregational church as a child, he abandoned organized religion while at Fisk college. As an adult, he described himself as agnostic or a freethinker, and biographer David Lewis concluded that Du Bois did not believe in God. When asked to lead public prayers, Du Bois would refuse. In his autobiography, he wrote: “When I became head of a department at Atlanta, the engagement was held up because again I balked at leading in prayer… I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. … I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Union to modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy and the refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools.”
Du Bois believed that churches in America were the most discriminatory of all institutions. Du Bois occasionally acknowledged the beneficial role religion played in African-America life, as the “basic rock” which served as an anchor for African-American communities, but in general he disparaged African-American churches and clergy because he felt they did not support the goals of racial equality, and they hindered the efforts of activists.
Death in Africa
Du Bois was invited to Ghana‘s independence celebration in 1957, but was unable to attend because the U.S. government had confiscated his passport in 1951. By 1960, Du Bois had recovered his passport, and was able to travel to Ghana to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana. Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.
While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with its president about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. In early 1961, Ghana notified Du Bois that they had appropriated funds to support the encyclopedia project, and they invited Du Bois to come to Ghana and manage the project there. In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife travelled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia. In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he took the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana. His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana, and he died on August 17, 1963 in the town of Accra at the age of ninety-five. A week later, at the March on Washington, speaker Roy Wilkins asked the hundreds of thousands of marchers to honor Du Bois with a moment of silence. Du Bois is buried at the Du Bois Memorial Centre in Accra.
Du Bois was married twice, first to Nina Gomer Du Bois (m. 1896, d. 1950) with whom he had two children, a son Burghardt (who died as an infant) and a daughter, Yolande, who married Countee Cullen. His second marriage was to the author, playwright, composer, and activist Shirley Graham Du Bois (m. 1951, d. 1977). Dubois’s stepson, David Graham Du Bois, son of Shirley Graham Du Bois, followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and was committed to African-American causes. Historian David Levering Lewis wrote that Du Bois engaged in several extramarital relationships, but historian Raymond Wolters cast doubt on this, based on the lack of direct corroboration from Du Bois’s alleged lovers.
Honors and Legacy
Du Bois was featured on a 1998 U.S. postage stamp. He was also on a 1992 stamp.
Awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1920.
Awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize by the USSR in 1959.
The site of the house where Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
In 1992, the United States Postal Service honored Du Bois with his portrait on a postage stamp.
On October 5, 1994, the main library at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst was named after Du Bois.
A dormitory was named after Du Bois at the University of Pennsylvania, where he conducted field research for his sociological study “The Philadelphia Negro”.
Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience was inspired by and dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois by its editors Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Humboldt University in Berlin hosts a series of lectures named in Du Bois’s honor.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Du Bois on his list of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
Du Bois is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on August 3.