Born in 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s life spanned the era that saw black Americans move from subjugation to active citizenship, demanding their rights alongside other Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most influential black activists and perhaps the most notable African American intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. A poet, novelist, essayist, sociologist, journalist, and historian, he wrote 21 books, edited 15 more, and published more than 100 essays and articles. Throughout his life, he was intellectually and politically active and controversial.
Du Bois was a professor, sociologist, and economist. Although sometimes accused of elitism because of his insistence on educating the top 10 percent of black young men, he was also uniquely perceptive of the complex psychology of American blacks. He organized the Niagara Movement and helped merge it into the newly organized NAACP, editing The Crisis, the NAACP’s organizational publication. He was instrumental in the blossoming of black culture in the Harlem Renaissance, active in the Pan-African movement, the American Labor Party, and the Communist Party.
In early adulthood, Du Bois witnessed the increasing failure of the federal government to enforce Reconstruction legislation, notably the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, guaranteeing equal protection, due process, and the right to vote. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision endorsed the concept of “separate but equal,” legitimizing state-mandated racial segregation and restoring social, political, and economic subjugation of African Americans.
The three decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century were marked by interracial fear and violence. Between 1890 and 1920, more than 3,000 lynchings took place; 2,500 of them were extralegal executions of black people by whites. Most lynchings occurred in the rural South and the border states, but the violence moved north with the emergence of race riots that were prompted not only by fear and prejudice, but also by competition between blacks and whites for jobs and housing. It was in this atmosphere that Du Bois’s philosophy grew.
Du Bois excelled early. Raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he was valedictorian in high school. He excelled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he experienced his first taste of Southern racism and was valedictorian at that graduation, too. He entered Harvard as a junior and graduated cum laude two years later. He proceeded to earn both his master of arts (1891) and PhD (1896) from Harvard, the first black person to earn a PhD from that institution. His doctoral dissertation, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” was published as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies.
His academic career began as professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce College, Ohio, the first predominantly African American private university in the country. He then took a position as assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and later as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, where he taught for 13 years until 1910.
Du Bois married Nita Gomer in 1896. A son, Burghardt, was born in 1899 and died three years later. His daughter, Yolande, was born in 1900. Her marriage in 1938 to Countee Cullen, a successful author and editor, was described as the social event of the decade. Nita died in 1950 and two years later Du Bois married writer Shirley Graham.
Du Bois expressed with clarity and sensitivity the burden of black identity in the United States. In The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, he observed:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two warring 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.
Du Bois emphatically asserted that political action, civil liberties, and higher education were the keys to the improvement of black life in the United States. This view was not shared by Booker T. Washington, who espoused a nonpolitical approach, arguing that civil rights and higher education of black youth could wait while industrial education became widespread. Du Bois asserted that the higher education of the “Talented Tenth” was the only way to lead all African Americans to better conditions. The Souls of Black Folks: Essays and Sketches detailed his opposition to Washington’s philosophy and explored the complex self-awareness of African Americans in the essay, “On Double Consciousness.” He directly criticized Washington’s philosophy in “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” He wrote,
The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate,—a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,—so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,—we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them.
Controversy over the two men’s philosophies became heated, and in 1906, Du Bois gathered 29 black men who were sympathetic to his views and formed the Niagara Movement—so named because, banned from the American side, the meeting took place on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Du Bois, who was the general secretary of the movement, stated its manifesto thus: “We are men! We want to be treated as men. And we shall win.”
This Niagara Movement involvement was vital to his participation in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910, originally a predominantly white organization whose philosophy of political action was similar to that of the Niagara Movement. Du Bois served as director of publicity and research and edited The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, the NAACP official publication.
Although he was opposed to Marcus Garvey’s “Back-to-Africa” movement, Du Bois was involved in Pan-Africanism, a movement dedicated to establishing independence for African nations and cultivating unity among black people throughout the world. In 1900, he attended the first Pan-Africanism Congress. He was the chief organizer of the Congress in 1919 and attended and organized the Congresses of 1921, 1923, and 1927. He perceived creeping white colonialism and in “The African Roots of War,” published in the Atlantic Monthly, he espoused the education of native Africans and advocated placing limitations on non-African acquisition of native lands.
The Crisis provided a platform for criticism of his opponents, and as its editor, he was able to encourage the talents of a burgeoning number of black authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer. Circulation of The Crisis grew from 1,000 in 1910 to 100,000 at its peak in 1920. Through this influence, Du Bois was instrumental in the growth of the Harlem Renaissance, a period that began at the end of World War I and lasted through the middle of the 1930s’ Depression. During this time, black literature, dance, theater, and culture exploded with such talents as Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Paul Robison, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Du Bois not only supported others’ work, but also published many essays, articles, and books including Darkwater: Voices within the Veil (1920), a collection of essays and short fiction on race, class, and gender topics, The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (1924), and The Dark Princess (1928), a novel of sensual love and racial politics.
Discouraged by the moderate positions taken by the NAACP, Du Bois resigned from his post in 1934; however, he returned in 1944, serving as director of special research until 1948 when he resigned again and became chairman of the Council on African Affairs. As the years advanced, so did Du Bois’s leftist political views and the controversy surrounding him. He belonged briefly to the Socialist Party in the early1900s. Then in 1948, he campaigned for the Progressive Party in national elections. In 1950, he was the American Labor Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. He called for union and labor rights, equal rights for women, and the dismantling and banning of atomic weapons.
Du Bois’s political positions, radical for the time, led to some confrontations with the U.S. government. In 1949, he accepted an honorary position as vice chairman of the Council on African affairs, an organization labeled “subversive” by the U.S. attorney general. His work with the Peace Information Center, an organization dedicated to banning nuclear weapons, also led to controversy. Du Bois and four other officers from the Peace Information Center were indicted for “failure to register as an agent of a foreign principal.” The case was brought to trial in 1951, and the defendants were acquitted.
W.E.B. Du Bois died at the age of 95 on August 27, 1963, in Accra on the eve of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. The W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture, created in 1985 in Accra, is a national historic monument of Ghana. It is the final resting place of W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois. This major West African tourist site houses the mausoleum, personal library, and museum.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The African Roots of War.” The Atlantic Monthly 115 (1915): 707–14.
Du Bois, W.E.B . Dark Princess. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1928.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Darkwater: Voices within the Veil. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1920.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. 1924; reprint. New York: Square One, 2009.
Du Bois, W.E.B . The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago, IL: A. C. McClury, 1903.
Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868–1919. New York: Owl Books, 1994.
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919–1965. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
“Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882–1968.” University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law. Tuskegee Institute, February 1979. http://www.lawumkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingsstate.html .