Writer, Teacher, Civil Rights Spokesman: 1868 - 1963
William Edward Burghardt DuBois is considered by many to be the father of African American Studies. He spent his eclectic career researching and writing about both the history and the lived experiences of African Americans. As a professor, historian, civil rights activist and editor, DuBois used his prodigious intellect to advance the cause of African American equality within the United States, as well as advocating for Pan-African collaboration and cooperation.
DuBois was born to Alfred DuBois and Mary Silvina Burghardt DuBois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868. Unlike the vast majority of African Americans, DuBois grew up in an integrated community, received a quality education, and was praised for his intellectual gifts. Following his graduation from the local high school (where he was the school’s first African American graduate), DuBois, with the help of individuals in Great Barrington, was able to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. This move marked DuBois’ first encounter with the American South.
At a time when only a tiny minority of Americans went to college, DuBois would receive an education that few of any race could have imagined, but particularly an African American. Following DuBois’ 1888 graduation from Fisk, he entered Harvard University as a junior. By 1895, DuBois had completed his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees at Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D from the university. DuBois also won a scholarship to the University of Berlin and studied there for two years.
During the course of his doctoral studies, DuBois accepted a teaching position at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, he met his future wife Nina Gomer; they married in 1896 and had two children, Burghardt (who died in infancy) and Yolande. Upon his graduation from Harvard, DuBois accepted a one year research appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, where he started what would become his monumental study, The Philadelphia Negro, which was the first sociological study of an African American community.
In 1897, DuBois accepted a teaching position at Atlanta University, and it was there that DuBois published his most important academic works, including the completed version of The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935). DuBois once stated that “[e]ither America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States”; he was determined to do everything he could to eradicate some of the ignorance regarding African Americans. The Souls of Black Folk, for example, is a collection of essays that combine autobiography, sociology, history and fiction on the African American experience. Black Reconstruction in America, a direct attack on the broader and inherently racist historical interpretation of the Reconstruction era, ushered in a period of more accurate Reconstruction scholarship.
DuBois was a co-founder of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization whose goals were in contradistinction to the purely economic self-sufficiency goals espoused by Booker T. Washington, the leading African American leader of his day. Though the Niagara Movement, established in 1905, ultimately failed, it did lead to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was established in 1909. DuBois served as both a board member of the NAACP and as editor of the organization’s magazine The Crisis (DuBois left Atlanta University in 1910 to work full-time with the NAACP in New York City).
With The Crisis, DuBois had a bully pulpit to offer his opinions and perspectives on a wide variety of issues beyond African American civil and political rights, including the labor movement and women’s rights. DuBois used The Crisis to offer early support to the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. And from the platform of The Crisis, DuBois advocated for Pan-Africanism, including African self-determination, and the importance of building bridges within the African diaspora, or the people of African descent scattered throughout the world primarily due to the slave trade.
DuBois left his position with the NAACP in 1933 and returned to Atlanta University, where he worked for another decade, before returning once again to the NAACP as Director of the Department of Special Research in 1943. DuBois was one of three NAACP representatives who attended the gathering in San Francisco when the United Nations was established in 1945. DuBois, long supportive of socialist principles, came under great scrutiny by the U.S. government following World War II because of his essays critiquing capitalism’s role in sustaining poverty within the African American community and his associations with people, such as actor/activist Paul Robeson, who were sympathetic to communism. DuBois, a strong peace advocate, refused to discontinued his associations with people whose politics the U.S. government deemed questionable or undesirable.
In 1952, DuBois and his second wife Shirley Graham DuBois (Nina Gomer DuBois passed away in 1950) were denied passport for international travel, a restriction that wasn’t lifted until 1958. Once allowed to travel, DuBois visited a number of Communist countries, almost in defiance of his treatment by the U.S. While visiting China in 1959, DuBois expressed his feelings about the United States by stating that “in my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a nigger.” In 1961, at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, president of the newly independent nation of Ghana, DuBois embarked on a new project, an Encyclopedia Africana. DuBois moved to Accra, Ghana, renounced his U.S. citizenship, and remained there until his death, at 95, on August 27, 1963.
DuBois’ death was announced the next day at the March on Washington. This icon within the African American community did not live to see the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, laws that represented precisely the goals he had sought in the early 20th century. Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson, in signing these laws, had finally come to understand that, as Dubois wrote, “... the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”