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W.E.B. DuBois

On Feb. 23, 1868, William Edward Burghardt DuBois (often referred to as W.E.B. DuBois) was born in Great Barrington, Mass. His family lived in a small clapboard house on Church Street.

DuBois mother’s was from the Burghardt family, one of the oldest families in Great Barrington, black or white. His great, great, grandfather Tom was born in West Africa around 1730, he was captured as a child by Dutch slave trader, Conraet Burghardt who bought him to Massachusetts. By the time his great, great grandfather Tom died, Massachusetts had adopted a Bill of Rights, which stated that all people living in the Commonwealth were free.

DuBois attended school, worked in a local bookstore and sold subscriptions for the New York Globe, a black newspaper. In 1884 he graduated as valedictorian from Great Barrington High. His commencement speech focused on the abolitionist, Wendell Phillips. It was his desire to enroll at Harvard College after high school, but his family did not have the funds to pay for his tuition. DuBois intellect made him a highly regarded young man in the community by both blacks and whites. To assist his college endeavors his high school principal, members of the clergy and others in the community started fundraiser to garner the monies to pay his tuition.

In the summer of 1885, DuBois received a message from the group that funds were available for him to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk was established in 1866 as a school for blacks, with its mission to become one of the best educational institutions in the south. In June 1888, DuBois graduated from Fisk, with a Bachelor in Arts and gave the Commencement address.

DuBois was still very determined to go to Harvard. In 1888 he re-applied for admission, Harvard recognizing his brilliance, awarded him a $250 grant and admission if he agreed to enter as an undergraduate in the junior class. Harvard did not recognize his degree from Fisk, ruling that its academic program did not measure up to Harvard’s standard. In June of 1890 DuBois graduated from Harvard with a bachelor of arts cum laude, and was one of six commencement speakers. From 1892 to 1894 he pursued graduate studies in history and economics at the University of Berlin on a Slater Fund fellowship. He taught Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio for two years.

In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Review. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children.

In 1896-1897 Du Bois became assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. While there he led a study on the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899).

DuBois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshalling and presenting evidence to challenge the myths and misrepresentation of racial inferiority.

In 1905 Du Bois was one of the founders and the general secretary of the Niagara movement, a protest group made up of Negro scholars and professionals. Du Bois founded and edited the Moon (1906) and the Horizon (1907-1910) as voices for the Niagara movement. In 1909 Du Bois was one the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and from 1910 to 1934 served it as director of publicity and research, a member of the board of directors, and editor of the monthly magazine, the Crisis.

Using the Crisis, Du Bois directed a continuous barrage of bitter and sarcastic agitation at white America while serving as a source of information and pride to the black community. The magazine always published black authors. Racial protest during the decade following World War I focused on securing anti-lynching legislation. During this period the NAACP was the leading protest organization and Du Bois was its leading spokesperson.

In 1934 Du Bois resigned from the NAACP board and from the Crisis because of his new advocacy of a black nationalist strategy: Blacks controlled institutions, schools, and economic cooperatives. This approach opposed the NAACP’s commitment to integration. However, he returned to the NAACP as director of special research from 1944 to 1948. During this period he was active in placing the grievances of Blacks before the United Nations, serving as a consultant to the UN founding convention (1945) and writing the famous “An Appeal to the World” (1947).

Du Bois was a member of the Socialist party from 1910 to 1912 and always considered himself a Socialist. In 1948 he was cochairman of the Council on African Affairs; in 1949 he attended the New York, Paris, and Moscow peace congresses; in 1950 he served as chairman of the Peace Information Center and ran for the U.S. Senate on the American Labor party ticket in New York. In 1950-1951 Du Bois was tried and acquitted as an agent of a foreign power in one of the most ludicrous actions ever taken by the American government. Du Bois traveled widely throughout Russia and China in 1958-1959 and in 1961 joined the Communist party of the United States. He also took up residence in Ghana, Africa, in 1961.

DuBois’s most lasting contribution is his writing. As poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, sociologist, historian, and journalist, he wrote 21 books, edited 15 more, and published over 100 essays and articles. Only a few of his most significant works will be mentioned here. From 1897 to 1910 Du Bois served as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, where he organized conferences titled the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problem and edited or co-edited 16 of the annual publications, on such topics as The Negro in Business (1899), The Negro Artisan (1902), The Negro Church (1903), Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans (1907), and The Negro American Family (1908). Other significant publications were The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), one of the outstanding collections of essays in American letters, and John Brown (1909), a sympathetic portrayal published in the American Crisis Biographies series.

From 1934 to 1944 Du Bois was chairman of the department of sociology at Atlanta University. In 1940 he founded Phylon, a social science quarterly. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935), perhaps his most significant historical work, details the role of African Americans in American society, specifically during the Reconstruction period. The book was criticized for its use of Marxist concepts and for its attacks on the racist character of much of American historiography.

Du Bois died in Ghana on Aug. 27, 1963, on the eve of the civil rights march in Washington, D.C.

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