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Du Bois, W.E.B.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1918
Born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
February 23, 1868(1868-02-23)
Great Barrington, Massachusetts, United States
Died August 27, 1963(1963-08-27) (aged 95)
Accra, Ghana
Occupation Academic, scholar, activist, journalist, sociologist
Alma mater Fisk University, Harvard University
Spouse(s) Nina Gomer Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced /duːˈbɔɪs/[1] February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an intellectual leader of the black community in America. In multiple roles as civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, and editor. Biographer David Levering Lewis wrote, "In the course of his long, turbulent career, W. E. B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity."[2]

Du Bois graduated from Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D in History, making him Harvard's first African-American to earn a Ph.D. Later he became a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. He became the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910, becoming founder and editor of the NAACP's journal The Crisis. Du Bois rose to national attention in his opposition of Booker T. Washington's ideas of accommodation with Jim Crow separation between whites and blacks and disenfranchisement of blacks, campaigning instead for increased political representation for blacks in order to guarantee civil rights, and the formation of a Black elite that would work for the progress of the African American race.[3]


Early life

Family history

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 Anglo-American town. Mary Silvina Burghardt's family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington, having long owned land in the state. Their family descended from Dutch and African ancestors. Tom Burghardt, a slave (born West Africa around 1730) earned his freedom by service (1780) as a private soldier in Captain John Spoor's company.[4] According to Du Bois, several of his maternal ancestors were notably involved in regional history.

Alfred Du Bois, from Haiti, was of French Huguenot and African descent. His grandfather was Dr. James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York. Dr. Du Bois's family was rewarded extensive lands in the Bahamas for its support of King George III during the American Revolution. On Long Cay, Bahamas, James Du Bois fathered several children with slave mistresses. When he returned to New York in 1812, James brought with him John and Alexander, two of his sons, to be educated in Connecticut. After James Du Bois died, his black sons were disowned by his family and forced to give up schooling for work. Alexander became a merchant in New Haven and married Sarah Marsh Lewis, with whom he had several children. In the 1830s Alexander went to Haiti to try to salvage his inheritance. His son Alfred was born there in about 1833. Alexander returned to New Haven without the boy and his mother.

It is unknown how Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt met, but they married on February 5, 1867, in Housatonic, Massachusetts. Alfred deserted Mary by the time their son William was two. The boy was very close to his mother. When he was young, Mary suffered a stroke which left her unable to work. The two of them moved frequently, surviving on money from family members and Du Bois's after-school jobs. Du Bois wanted to help his mother and believed he could improve their lives through education. Some of the neighborhood whites noticed him, and one rented Du Bois and his mother a house in Great Barrington. Growing up Du Bois attended the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington.

While living in Great Barrington, Du Bois performed chores and worked odd jobs. He did not feel separate because of his skin color while he was in school. He has suggested that the only times he felt out of place were when out-of-towners visited Great Barrington. One such incident occurred when a white girl who was new in school refused to take one of his "calling cards" during a game; the girl told him she would not accept it because he was black. Du Bois then realized that there would always be a barrier between some whites and non-whites.[5]

Du Bois faced some challenges growing up, as the precocious, intellectual, mixed-race son of an impoverished single mother. Nevertheless, he was very comfortable academically, as many of his teachers recognized his academic gifts and encouraged him to further his education with classical courses while in high school. His scholastic success led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.[6]

University education

In 1888 Du Bois earned a degree from Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. During the summer following graduation from Fisk, Du Bois managed the Fisk Glee Club. The club was employed at a grand luxury summer resort on Lake Minnetonka in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota. The resort was a favorite spot for vacationing wealthy American Southerners and European royalty. In addition to providing entertainment, Du Bois and the other club members worked as waiters and kitchen help at the hotel.[7] The drinking, crude behavior, and sexual promiscuity of the rich white guests at the hotel left a lasting impression on the young Du Bois.[8]

Du Bois entered Harvard College in the fall of 1888, having received a $250 scholarship. He earned a bachelor's degree cum laude from Harvard in 1890. In 1892, he 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.

In 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. After teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught while undertaking field research for his study The Philadelphia Negro. Next he moved to Georgia, where he established the Department of Social Work at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University Whitney M. Young school of Social Work). He also taught at The New School in Greenwich Village, New York City.


Title page of the second edition of The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois wrote many books, including three major autobiographies. Among his most significant works are The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), John Brown (1909), Black Reconstruction (1935), and Black Folk, Then and Now (1939). His book The Negro (1915) influenced the work of several pioneer Africanist scholars, such as Drusilla Dunjee Houston[9] and William Leo Hansberry.[10][11]

In the New York Times review of The Souls of Black Folk, the anonymous book reviewer wrote, "For it is the Jim Crow car, and the fact that he may not smoke a cigar and drink a cup of tea with the white man in the South, that most galls William E. Burghardt Du Bois of the Atlanta College for Negroes."[12]

[I]t is the thought of a negro of Northern education who has lived long among his brethren of the South yet who can not fully feel the meaning of some things which these brethren know by instinct — and which the Southern-bred white knows by a similar instinct: certain things which are by both accepted as facts — not theories — fundamental attitudes of race to race which are the product of conditions extending over centuries, as are the somewhat parallel attitudes of the gentry to the peasantry in other countries.[12]

While prominent white scholars denied African-American cultural, political and social relevance to American history and civic life, in his epic work Black Reconstruction, 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 disprove the Dunning School theories of Reconstruction, showing 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.[13] This theme was taken up later and expanded by Eric Foner and Leon F. Litwack, the two leading late twentieth century scholars of the Reconstruction era.

In 1940, at Atlanta University, Du Bois founded Phylon magazine. In 1946, he wrote The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part That Africa Has Played in World History. In 1945, he helped organize the historic Fifth Pan-African Conference in Manchester, Great Britain.[14] In total, Du Bois wrote 22 books, including five novels. He helped establish four academic journals.


Du Bois began writing about the sociology of crime in 1897, shortly after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard (Zuckerman, 2004, p. 2). His first work involving crime, A Program of Social Reform, was shortly followed by a second, The Study of the Negro Problems (Du Bois, 1897; Du Bois, 1898). The first work that involved in-depth criminological study and theorizing was The Philadelphia Negro, in which a large section of the sociological study was devoted to analysis of the black criminal population in Philadelphia (Du Bois, 1899).

Du Bois (1899) set forth three significant parts to his criminology theory. The first was that Negro crime was caused by the strain of the "social revolution" experienced by black Americans as they began to adapt to their new-found freedom and position in the nation. This theory was similar to Durkheim's (1893) Anomie theory, but it applied specifically to the newly freed Negro. Du Bois (1900a, p. 3) credited Emancipation with causing the boom in crime in the black population. He explained, "[T]he appearance of crime among the southern Negroes is a symptom of wrong social conditions--of a stress of life greater than a large part of the community can bear." (Du Bois, 1901b, p. 745). He distinguished between the strains on southern Negroes and those on northern Negroes because the problems of city life in the North were different from those of the Southern rural sharecroppers.

Secondly, Du Bois (1904a) believed that black crime declined as the African-American population moved toward a more equal status with whites. This idea, referred to later as "stratification," was developed in a similar manner later in the twentieth century by Merton in his 1968 structure-strain theory of deviance. In The Philadelphia Negro and later statistical studies, Du Bois found direct correlations between low levels of employment and education and high levels of criminal activity.

Thirdly, Du Bois held that the Talented Tenth or the "exceptional men" of the black race would be the ones to lead the race and save it from its criminal problems (Du Bois, 1903, p. 33). Du Bois saw the evolution of a class system within black American society as necessary to carry out the improvements necessary to reduce crime (Du Bois, 1903). He set forth a number of solutions to crime that the Talented Tenth had to enact (Du Bois, 1903, p. 2).

He was perhaps the first criminologist to combine historical fact with social change and used the combination to postulate his theories. He attributed the crime increase after the Civil War to the "increased complexity of life," competition for jobs in industry (especially with the recent Irish immigrants), and the mass exodus of blacks from the farmland and immigration to cities (Du Bois, 1899). Du Bois (1899, p. 64) states in The Philadelphia Negro:

Naturally then, if men are suddenly transported from one environment to another, the result is lack of harmony with the new conditions; lack of harmony with the new physical surroundings leading to disease and death or modification of physique; lack of harmony with social surroundings leading to crime.

Civil rights activism

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1904
African American topics
Category · Portal

Du Bois was the most prominent intellectual leader and political activist on behalf of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. A contemporary of Booker T. Washington, he carried on a dialogue with the educator about segregation, political disfranchisement, and ways to improve African American life. He was labeled "The Father of Pan-Africanism."

Along with Washington, Du Bois helped organize the "Negro exhibition" at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It included Frances Benjamin Johnston's photos of Hampton Institute's black students.[15] The Negro exhibition focused on African Americans' positive contributions to American society.[15]

Du Bois is viewed by many as a modern day prophet.[16] This is highlighted by his "Credo", a prose-poem first published in The Independent in 1904.[17] It was reprinted in Darkwater in 1920.[18] It was written in style similar to a Christian creed and was his statement of faith and vision for change. Credo was widely read and recited.

In 1905, Du Bois, along with Minnesota attorney Fredrick L. McGhee[19] and others, helped found the Niagara Movement with William Monroe Trotter. The Movement championed freedom of speech and criticism, the recognition of the highest and best human training as the monopoly of no caste or race, full male suffrage, a belief in the dignity of labor, and a united effort to realize such ideals under sound leadership.

The alliance between Du Bois and Trotter was, however, short-lived, as they had a dispute over whether or not white people should be included in the organization and in the struggle for civil rights. Believing that they should, in 1909 Du Bois with a group of like-minded supporters founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1910, Du Bois left Atlanta University to work full-time as Publications Director at the NAACP. He also wrote columns published weekly in many newspapers, including the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle as well as the African American Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News. For 25 years, Du Bois worked as editor-in-chief of the NAACP publication, The Crisis, then subtitled A Record of the Darker Races. He commented freely and widely on current events and set the agenda for the fledgling NAACP. The journal's circulation soared from 1,000 in 1910 to more than 100,000 by 1920.[20]

W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary White Ovington, co-founders of NAACP

Du Bois published Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. He encouraged black fiction, poetry and dramas. As a journal of black thought, the Crisis was initially a monopoly, David Levering Lewis observed. In 1913, Du Bois wrote The Star of Ethiopia, a historical pageant, to promote African-American history and civil rights.

Du Bois thought blacks should seek higher education, preferably liberal arts. He also believed blacks should challenge and question whites on all grounds. Booker T. Washington believed assimilating and fitting into the "American" culture was the best way for blacks to move up in society. While Washington stated that he did not receive any racist insults until his later years, Du Bois said blacks have a "Double-Conscious" mind in which they have to know when to act "white" and when to act "black". Booker T. Washington believed that teaching was a duty, but Du Bois believed it was a calling.

Du Bois became increasingly estranged from Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP. He began to question the organization's opposition to all racial segregation. Du Bois thought that this policy undermined those black institutions that did exist. He believed that such institutions should be defended and improved rather than attacked as inferior.

Du Bois seated with college members of the Beta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha at Howard University in 1932

By the 1930s, the NAACP had become more institutional and Du Bois increasingly radical, sometimes at odds with leaders such as Walter White and Roy Wilkins. In 1934, Du Bois left the magazine to return to teaching at Atlanta University, after writing two essays published in the Crisis suggesting that black separatism could be a useful economic strategy.

As a member of the Princeton chapter of the NAACP, Albert Einstein corresponded with Du Bois, and in 1946 Einstein called racism "America's worst disease".[21]

During the 1920s, Du Bois engaged in a bitter feud with Marcus Garvey. They disagreed over whether African Americans could be assimilated as equals into American society (the view held by Du Bois). Their dispute descended to personal attacks, sometimes based on ancestry. Du Bois wrote, "Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor."[22] Garvey described Du Bois as "purely and simply a white man's nigger" and "a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro ... a mulatto ... a monstrosity."[23]

Du Bois became an early member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by African Americans, and one that had a civil rights focus.


Du Bois circa 1911

W. E. B. Du Bois was involved in religion, studied Baptist churches, and contributed to the sociological study of religion.[24] He believed that the capacity of religion could be either good or evil. In the context of the black community, Du Bois suggested that religion gives people strength and pride; African Americans could derive comfort from one another by sharing their common struggles and experiences. On the other hand, Du Bois contended that religion maintained the status quo of America in regards to racial injustice and class disparity.

Du Bois believed that religious organizations serve as communal centers. In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois argued that blacks who attended church went for a social gathering first and religion second. Du Bois said that church “introduces the stranger to the community, it serves as a lyceum, library, and lecture bureau—it is, in fine, the central organ of the organized life of the American Negro.”[24]

Susan Jacoby writes that Du Bois was "raised as a liberal New England Congregationalist...contrary to the majority of blacks, who were brought up in the Baptist evangelical tradition"[25] He "became a self-described freethinker in Europe."[26] Returning to the United States in 1894 to teach at the Wilberforce University in Ohio, Du Bois' polemical stance on prayer in school and his critical views on the church set him at odds with contemporary Booker T. Washington.[27]

American Historical Association

In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois addressed the American Historical Association (AHA) at its annual conference, the first African American to do so. According to David Levering Lewis, "His would be the first and last appearance of an African American on the program until 1940."[28]

In a review of the second volume of Lewis's biography of Du Bois, Michael R. Winston observed that, in understanding American history, one must question "how black Americans developed the psychological stamina and collective social capacity to cope with the sophisticated system of racial domination that white Americans had anchored deeply in law and custom."[29] Winston continued, "Although any reasonable answer is extraordinarily complex, no adequate one can ignore the man (Du Bois) whose genius was for 70 years at the intellectual epicenter of the struggle to destroy white supremacy as public policy and social fact in the United States."[29]

Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany

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 pride." Hikida Yasuichi ran Japan's "Negro Propaganda Operations." After traveling to the United States to speak with students at Howard University, Scripps College, and Tuskegee University, Yasuichi influenced Du Bois's opinions of Imperial Japan. In 1936, Yasuichi and the Japanese ambassador arranged a trip to Japan for Du Bois and a small group of academics.[30] The trip was to include stops in Japan, China, and the Soviet Union. The Soviet stop was canceled after Karl Radek, Du Bois's diplomatic contact, was swept up in Stalin's purges. While on the Chinese leg of the trip, Du Bois commented that the source of Chinese-Japanese enmity was China's "submission to white aggression and Japan's resistance." He asked the Chinese people to welcome the Japanese as liberators. Du Bois joined a large group of African-American academics who cited the Mukden Incident to justify Japan's occupation and annexation of the formerly European-held southern Manchuria.

During 1936 Du Bois also visited Nazi Germany. 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".[31]

On scientific racism and eugenics

Du Bois was an outspoken opponent of scientific racism.[32] Along with cultural anthropologist Franz Boas, and in the pages of Crisis magazine, and in debates with advocates of a biological basis for white superiority Du Bois opposed the notion that African-Americans are biologically inferior to whites.[33][34]

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