Biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, Activist and Scholar

W.E.B. Du Bois

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W.E.B. Du Bois (William Edward Burghardt; February 23, 1868–August 27, 1963) was a pivotal sociologist, historian, educator, and sociopolitical activist who argued for immediate racial equality for African-Americans. His emergence as a black leader paralleled the rise of the Jim Crow laws of the South and the Progressive Era. He was a co-founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and has been called the Father of Social Science and the Father of Pan-Africanism.

Fast Facts: W.E.B. Du Bois

  • Known For: Editor, writer, political activist for racial equality, co-founder of the NAACP, often called the Father of Social Science and the Father of Pan-Africanism
  • Born: February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois
  • Died: August 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana
  • Education: Fisk University, Harvard University (first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University)
  • Published Works: The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, The Negro, The Gift of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction, The Color of Democracy, The Crisis
  • Awards and Honors: Spingarn Medal, Lenin Peace Prize 
  • Spouse(s): Nina Gomer, Lola Shirley Graham, Junior
  • Children: Burghardt, Yolande, stepson, David Graham Du Bois
  • Notable Quote: “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

Early Life and Education

Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. The Du Bois family was one of the few black families living in the predominantly white town. In high school, Du Bois was already focussing on racial inequality. At age 15, he became the local correspondent for the New York Globe and gave lectures and wrote editorials, spreading his ideas that black people needed to politicize themselves.

Du Bois attended an integrated school where he excelled. Upon his graduation from high school, members of his community awarded Du Bois with a scholarship to attend Fisk University. While at Fisk, Du Bois' experience of racism and poverty was markedly different from his life in Great Barrington. Du Bois, consequently, decided to dedicate his life to ending racism and uplifting black Americans.

In 1888, Du Bois graduated from Fisk and was accepted to Harvard University where he earned a master’s degree, a doctorate, and a fellowship to study for two years at the University of Berlin in Germany. He was the first black American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Academic Teaching Career

Du Bois followed his first teaching job at Wilberforce University with a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a research project in Philadelphia’s seventh ward slums. Researching racism as a social system, he was determined to learn as much as he could in an attempt to find the “cure” for prejudice and discrimination. His investigation, statistical measurements, and sociological interpretation of this endeavor were published as "The Philadelphia Negro." This was the first time such a scientific approach to studying social phenomenon was undertaken, which is why Du Bois is often called the Father of Social Science.

Du Bois next taught at Atlanta University, where he remained for 13 years. At Atlanta University, he studied and wrote about morality, urbanization, business and education, the church, and crime as it affected black society. His main goal was to encourage and help social reform.

Opposition to Booker T. Washington

Initially, Du Bois agreed with the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, the preeminent leader of African-Americans during the Progressive Era. Washington's activism and life work were all aimed to help black Americans become skilled in industrial and vocational trades so they could open businesses, assimilate into American society as engaged citizens, and become self-reliant.

Du Bois, however, came to greatly disagree with Washington's incremental, compromising approach and he outlined his arguments in his collection of essays, "The Souls of Black Folk," published in 1903. In these essays, Du Bois argued that white Americans needed to take responsibility for their contributions to the problem of racial inequality. He delineated the flaws he saw in Washington’s argument, but nevertheless, he also agreed that black Americans must take better advantage of educational opportunities to uplift their race as they simultaneously fought racism directly.

In "The Souls of Black Folk" he elaborated on his concept of "double-consciousness:"

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-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 souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Organizing for Racial Equality

In July 1905, Du Bois organized the Niagara Movement with William Monroe Trotter. Niagara Movement took a more militant approach to fighting racial inequality. Its chapters throughout the United States fought local acts of discrimination and the national organization published a newspaper, Voice of the Negro.

The Niagara Movement dismantled in 1909 and Du Bois, along with several other members, joined with white Americans to establish the NAACP. Du Bois was appointed director of research. In 1910, he left Atlanta University to work full-time as the publications director at the NAACP, where he served as the editor of their magazine The Crisis from 1910 to 1934. In addition to urging black American readers to become socially and politically active, the hugely successful publication later showcased literature and visual art of the Harlem Renaissance.

Break With the NAACP

By the 1930s, the NAACP had become increasingly institutionalized while Du Bois had become more radical. Because of these differences with the NAACP, he left the magazine and organization in 1934 and returned to teaching at Atlanta University.

Du Bois was one of a number of African American leaders investigated by the FBI, which claimed that in 1942 his writings indicated he was a socialist. At the time, Du Bois was chairman of the Peace Information Center and was one of the signers of the Stockholm Peace Pledge, which opposed the use of nuclear weapons.

Racial Upliftment

Throughout Du Bois’ career, he worked tirelessly to end racial inequality. Through his membership in the American Negro Academy, Du Bois developed the idea of the “Talented Tenth,” arguing that educated African-Americans could lead the fight for racial equality in the United States.

Du Bois’ ideas about the importance of education would be present again during the Harlem Renaissance. During this flowering of black literary, visual, and musical art, Du Bois argued that racial equality could be gained through the arts. Using his influence during his time as editor of The Crisis, Du Bois promoted the work of many African-American visual artists and writers.

Pan-Africanism

Du Bois' concern for racial equality was not limited to the United States. He was an activist for equality for people of African descent throughout the world. As a leader of the Pan-African movement, Du Bois organized conferences for the Pan-African Congress, including its first in 1919. Leaders from Africa and the Americas assembled to discuss racism and oppression—issues that people of African descent faced all over the world. In 1961, Du Bois moved to Ghana and renounced his U.S. citizenship.

Death

Over the course of his two years in Ghana, Du Bois' health deteriorated. He died there on August 27, 1963, at age 95. Du Bois was given a state funeral in Accra, Ghana.

Legacy

Du Bois was a central leader in the fight for racial upliftment and equality in the 20th century. In the world of academia, he is considered to be one of the founders of modern sociology.

His body of work inspired the creation of a critical journal of black politics, culture, and society called Souls. His legacy is honored annually by the American Sociological Association with an award for a career of distinguished scholarship given in his name.

Sources

  • Appiah, Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, editors. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2005 
  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt). Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: a soliloquy on viewing my life from the last decade of its first century. International Publishers, 1968.
  • Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868–1919. Henry Holt and Company, 1993