W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent African American intellectual, writer, and activist, played a significant role in shaping the discourse around race and civil rights in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His extensive body of work, including his groundbreaking book “The Souls of Black Folk,” provided a foundation for the modern study of African American history and culture. Du Bois was a key figure in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and used his influence to advocate for equal rights and opportunities for African Americans.
Early life and education
Childhood and family background
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on 23 February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and Alfred Du Bois, a barber and itinerant labourer. Du Bois’ father was of mixed-race Bahamian and Haitian descent, while his mother’s family had deep roots in New England, tracing back to a freedman of Dutch slave origin who served in the American Revolution.
When his father left his mother, Du Bois was raised by his mother and her extended family in a predominantly white rural community. There were only a small number of African Americans in his town. Du Bois excelled academically and became the first African American to graduate from his high school in 1884. His early success as a writer led to contributions to several regional newspapers, including the Springfield Republican and the New York Globe.
Higher education and influences
In 1888, Du Bois enrolled at Harvard University as a junior, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts cum laude in 1890, a Master of Arts in 1891, and a Ph.D. in 1895. He was influenced by renowned scholars such as Albert Bushnell Hart and William James, who became his friends and mentors. Du Bois also studied in Germany between 1892 and 1894, attending the Berlin Friedrich-Wilhelm III Universitat (now Humboldt University). However, due to funding limitations, he was unable to complete the residency requirements for a German doctorate.
Upon returning to the United States, Du Bois accepted a teaching position at Wilberforce University in Ohio. There, he met and married Nina Gomer, one of his students, in 1896. Du Bois completed his doctoral thesis at Harvard during this time, which was later published as “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.
Groundbreaking sociological work
The Philadelphia Negro
In 1896, Du Bois was invited by the University of Pennsylvania to study the African American population of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. He conducted extensive fieldwork, interviewing residents from over 2,500 households. His findings were published in the seminal book “The Philadelphia Negro” in 1899. This work combined empirical research with a call to action, setting the stage for Du Bois’ politically engaged scholarship on race and inequality.
Pioneering studies for the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Du Bois’ work in Philadelphia led to a position with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1897. He conducted several groundbreaking studies on southern African American households, starting with “The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study” in 1898. His innovative approach to sociology combined historical context, empirical data, and a focus on the lived experiences of African Americans.
The Souls of Black Folk and double consciousness
In 1903, Du Bois published “The Souls of Black Folk,” a collection of essays that explored the African American experience in the United States. This influential work introduced the concept of “double consciousness,” the internal struggle faced by Black Americans as they navigated their dual identity as both African and American. The book also established Du Bois as a leading voice in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s policy of political conservatism and racial accommodation.
The Niagara Movement and the NAACP
In response to growing tensions with Booker T. Washington and his supporters, Du Bois joined forces with William Monroe Trotter and other like-minded activists to form the Niagara Movement in 1905. This organisation advocated for full civil and political rights for African Americans and was a precursor to the NAACP.
In 1909, following the Springfield Race Riot, a group of concerned citizens, both Black and white, came together to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organisation sought to combat racism and promote equal rights through legal challenges, lobbying, and public awareness campaigns. Du Bois joined the NAACP in 1910 as its director of publicity and research and became the founding editor of its official journal, The Crisis.
The Crisis: A voice for change
Under Du Bois’ leadership, The Crisis became a powerful platform for promoting African American rights and culture. The journal covered a wide range of topics, from political issues like lynching and segregation to literary works and discussions of Black religion. Du Bois used the publication to rally support for the NAACP’s policies and programs and to challenge white opposition to racial equality.
International activism and Pan-Africanism
Throughout his career, Du Bois was actively involved in the Pan-African movement, which sought to unite and empower people of African descent worldwide. He attended the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 and organised a series of Pan-African Congresses between 1919 and 1945. These events brought together intellectuals from Africa, the West Indies, and the United States to discuss the challenges facing the African diaspora and to advocate for an end to colonialism.
Du Bois also represented the NAACP at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, where he pushed for the recognition of the rights of Black Americans and the end of colonial rule in Africa. In 1947, he presented “An Appeal to the World,” a document outlining the case for the international recognition of African American civil rights as a human rights issue.
Later life and legacy
Du Bois continued to be involved in leftist politics and the Communist Party during the latter part of his life. He left the NAACP for a second time in 1948 due to disagreements over his radical views and support for progressive causes. In 1961, he joined the American Communist Party and moved to Ghana at the invitation of its president, Kwame Nkrumah.
In his final years, Du Bois worked on the Encyclopedia Africana, a project he had conceived decades earlier as a comprehensive resource on the history and achievements of people of African descent. He became a citizen of Ghana in 1963 but passed away later that year before the project could be completed.
W.E.B. Du Bois’ legacy as a scholar, activist, and pioneer in the fight for African American rights continues to inspire and inform our understanding of race, inequality, and the African American experience. His work laid the groundwork for modern African American studies and provided a foundation for future generations of activists and intellectuals to build upon.