The Life of
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A descendant of African American, French, and Dutch ancestors, he demonstrated his intellectual gifts at an early age. He graduated from high school at age 16, the valedictorian and only black in his graduating class of 12. He was orphaned shortly after his graduation and was forced to fund his own college education. He won a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he excelled and saw for the first time the plight of Southern blacks.
Du Bois had grown up with more privileges and advantages than most blacks living in the United States at that time, and, unlike most blacks living in the South, he had suffered neither severe economic hardship nor repeated encounters with blatant racism. As violence against blacks increased in the South throughout the 1880s, Du Bois's scholarly education was matched by the hard lessons he learned about race relations. He followed reports about the increasing number of lynchings, calling each racially motivated killing "a scar" upon his soul. Through these and other encounters with racial hatred, as well as through his experience teaching in poor black communities in rural Tennessee during the summers, Du Bois began to develop his racial consciousness and the desire to help improve conditions for all blacks.
Du Bois received his bachelor's degree from Fisk in 1888, and won a scholarship to attend Harvard University. Harvard considered his high school education and Fisk degree inadequate preparation for a master's program, and he had to register as an undergraduate. Du Bois received his second bachelor's degree in 1890 and then enrolled in Harvard's graduate school. He earned his master's degree and then his doctoral degree in 1895, becoming the first black to receive that degree from Harvard.
By that time, Du Bois had begun his research into the historical and sociological conditions of black Americans that would make him the most influential black intellectual of his time. His doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slavetrade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published in 1896 as the initial volume in the Harvard Historical Studies Series. After teaching for several years at Wilberforce University in Ohio, Du Bois conducted an exhaustive study of the social and economic conditions of urban blacks in Philadelphia in 1896 and 1897. The results were published in The Philadelphia Negro (1899), the first sociological text on a black community published in the United States. After he became a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University in 1897, he initiated a series of studies as head of the school's "Negro Problem" program. These works had a profound impact on the study of the history and sociology of blacks living in the United States.
In 1897 Du Bois made a famous statement on the ambiguity of the black identity: "One feels his two-ness an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body." He advanced these views even further in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a powerful collection of essays in which he described some of the key themes of the black experience, especially the efforts of black Americans to reconcile their African heritage with their pride in being U.S. citizens.
With The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had begun to challenge the leadership of Booker T. Washington, a fellow educator who was then the most influential and admired black in the United States. Du Bois objected to Washington's strategy of accommodation and compromise with whites in both politics and education. Du Bois perceived this strategy as accepting the denial of black citizenship rights. He also criticized Washington's emphasis on the importance of industrial education for blacks, which Du Bois felt came at the expense of higher education in the arts and humanities.
Du Bois also challenged Washington's leadership through the Niagara Movement, which Du Bois helped to convene in 1905. The movement grew out of a meeting of 29 black leaders who gathered to discuss segregation and black political rights. They met in Canada after being denied hotel accommodations on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls and drafted a list of demands. These included equality of economic and educational opportunity for blacks, an end to segregation, and the prohibition of discrimination in courts, public facilities, and trade unions.
Du Bois was hired to head the NAACP's publicity and research efforts. He was also named editor of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, which soon became the most important national voice for the advancement of black civil rights, largely through Du Bois's reporting and editorials. His writings on lynchings in the South, his positions on why blacks should support the U.S. war effort during World War I (1914-1918), and his criticisms of Marcus Garvey, the black separatist who led the "Back to Africa" movement, were all broadly influential.
Du Bois resigned from the NAACP staff in 1934 because he was unwilling to advocate racial integration in all aspects of life, a position adopted by the NAACP. Du Bois had argued that blacks should join together, apart from whites, to start businesses and industries that would allow blacks to advance themselves economically. He returned to Atlanta University, where he taught, wrote books, and founded a new journal, called Phylon. During these years he published two important books, Black Reconstruction (1935), a Marxist interpretation of the post-Civil War era in the South; and Dusk of Dawn (1940), an autobiography. Following extended conflicts with university officials, he was forced to retire from Atlanta University in 1944.
In 1961 Du Bois moved to the newly independent West African nation of Ghana. In an act of defiance just before his departure, he joined the American Communist Party. Once in Ghana, he began work on the Encyclopedia Africana, a reference work on Africans and people of African descent throughout the world. When his passport expired in 1963 he applied to have it renewed, but it was denied by the U.S. government because he was a registered Communist. He renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana in February of that year, shortly before his 95th birthday. Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah welcomed Du Bois's decision and deemed him "the first citizen of Africa." Du Bois died a few months later.