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William Edward Burghardt DuBois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. Born to Alfred and Mary DuBois, he was an only child. In his early childhood his parents separated, and he remained with his mother until her death in 1884.
The community in which he lived comprised a population of approximately 5,000 whites and about 50 black people. Vindictive attitudes toward the black people added to DuBois' already troubled life.
Despite many hardships, DuBois became an excellent student and he was hired as the local correspondent for the New York Globe. Through editorials and lectures, he emphasized the need for black people to be politically recognized. Naturally gifted intellectually, he surpassed his peers and in 1883 graduated as the sole black student from Great Barrington High School.
DuBois earned a partial scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville and enrolled at the tender age of 15. In the following three years he witnessed endemic discrimination and became more determined to expedite social justice for black people. Also during that time, he became a writer, editor, and passionate speaker on racism.
While attending Fisk, DuBois saw first hand the poverty of his people in the South as well as the ignorant prejudices held against them. He elected to teach at a county school because he perceived a deep desire for knowledge among his students, and he wanted to learn all that he could about racial problems in America. He earned his B.A. degree and graduated from Fisk in 1888.
DuBois furthered his education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he concentrated on philosophy and history. Eventually he pursued economics and social problems. In his determination to graduate, he never quite felt he was part of the student body. Once he said, “I was in Harvard but not of it."
Immediately upon receiving his B.A. in 1890, he began to work on his master’s and doctor’s degrees, which he received in the spring of 1891. Prior to his graduation, former president Rutherford B. Hayes, the current head of a fund to educate black people, was quoted in the Boston Herald as saying, "[we] could not find anyone worthy enough to study abroad."
DuBois challenged him and immediately applied for the opportunity. Thanks to impeccable references and credentials, he received not only the grant, but a letter from Hayes stating that he was misquoted.
DuBois then left America to study at the University of Berlin in Germany, well known for being one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning. With more confidence than ever — and the prospect of another doctorate — DuBois believed he would be fully prepared for his life’s work.
Over the next two years, he learned about racial problems in countries of Africa, Asia, and Europe, in addition to America. DuBois fell short of his Ph.D. by one semester because his funding sources declined to extend him any more money.
They encouraged him to obtain his degree at Harvard instead, which he gladly did. His doctoral thesis, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America," became the first volume in Harvard’s Historical Series. In 1895, he became the first black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Despite offers from Lincoln University in Missouri and Tuskegee University in Alabama, DuBois, then 26, accepted his first teaching appointment at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he taught English, French, and literature. His salary for the year was $800.
The year 1896 was for DuBois the beginning of a new era. Accepting a special fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, he conducted a research project in the slums of Philadelphia, thus furthering his pursuit to study the black experience as a social system.
He was relentless with his historical investigation and social interpretation. His endeavor was published as The Philadelphia Negro. Because of his scientific approach in that work, DuBois was acknowledged by some as the father of social science.
In 1897 he accepted a position at Atlanta University, where he taught history and economics for 13 years. During that time he studied and wrote about African-American morality, urban life, business ventures, higher education, the church, and crime. His studies included Africa, to provide a background for social reform.
DuBois became a well-known historian and sociologist. The author of several books, one titled The Souls of Black Folks, he was a leader in the movement to win social justice for African Americans. In the book, he expressed his sadness, rage, and frustration with the hardships that black people encountered. DuBois was considered a radical in that he demanded racial equality should be immediate. He was devoted to teaching, training, and mentoring college-educated black people to become leaders of their race.
DuBois went to great lengths to get results, even speaking out against such well-known blacks as Booker T. Washington, whom he deemed to be not radical enough. With no persuasion from Washington, DuBois initiated public protests against prejudice, some of which became violent.
Due to the personal animosity between DuBois and Washington, DuBois solicited help from others who believed in black freedom and growth. Twenty-nine African-American leaders from 14 states united and in January 1906, the Niagara Movement was formed.
A movement to change the face of politics, this group later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), possibly the most influential civil rights group in American history. DuBois became the NAACP's research and publicity director. Today the organization still comprises black and white Americans who believe in equality for all.
DuBois and his wife, former student Nina Gomer, stayed in Atlanta until 1910, even though they never felt truly comfortable there. While in Atlanta, the DuBois’ lost a young son. Sixteen months later Nina gave birth to their daughter, Yolande. Shortly thereafter Nina suffered a stroke and consequently died in 1950. Dubois remarried Shirley Graham in 1951 who traveled extensively with her husband.
DuBois continually examined black history and demanded that social changes be made. He introduced the concept of the “Talented Tenth," a group of the black elite who helped better the lives of less fortunate African Americans. He firmly believed in higher education for his race, and DuBois went on to become the leading black intellectual of the 20th century.
The Crisis magazine, autocratically governed by DuBois as its editor-in-chief for 25 years, was the mouthpiece of NAACP policies and news concerning blacks. The articles were often written without approval by the whites among the NAACP leadership, whose presence DuBois highly objected to, sometimes leading to battles within the association. This tended to bear out DuBois' theory of injustices heaped upon African Americans.
His theory became further confirmed during World War I, when the armed forces first refused black enlistment, but then placed inductees in subservient roles. With the military now enlisting the white working man, more blacks found jobs in civilian industry. Whites became fearful that blacks would consume the job market.
When the war ended, black veterans returned home to the same racial discrimination, even though they had fought bravely to defend America. Given the current situation, the Crisis magazine grew in readership, with circulation increasing from 1,000 in 1909 to more than 10,000 in 1919. In the same year, DuBois sailed to France to represent the NAACP as an observer at the Paris Peace Conference. It was there that he decided it was time to organize a Pan-African conference to educate the world about the problems of Africans.
Sadly, nothing ever came of that idea due to the lack of interest among more influential black organizations. That did not discourage DuBois, however, and in 1921, he decided to hold another Pan-African meeting, where he had an encounter with Marcus Garvey.
Unlike DuBois, Garvey managed to gain mass support, and his methodology was refreshing and inspiring. He established his own movement and association known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and held pageants and parades through Harlem, with liberation flags flying — quite a contrast to DuBois' intellectual style.
DuBois set out to prove that Garvey was too much an idealist, and that his methods were wasteful and close to illegal. Charges of fraud were eventually brought against Garvey and he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he was exiled from the United States.
DuBois held his Pan-African conference in 1923, but the turnout was small. When the conference concluded, DuBois decided to sail to Africa for the first time. The trip gave him time to reflect upon his pursuits, and he made many observations about the world of black people.
He further realized that America had side-stepped issues of color, and even though he had tried to educate and agitate, few had listened. He now believed that his ideological approach to the problem had to be revised.
He studied the Russian Revolution and traveled to Russia in 1927. It was there that he adopted their ideas of a socialist order and classless society. Witnessing the beginning of a new nation form without regard to class, he decided he could no longer support conventional integration efforts.
In addition, due to the fact that the NAACP would not back political candidates, he was convinced by 1930 that he had two clear choices: One was to attempt to change the board of directors of the NAACP (who at that time were mostly white), or, two, to leave the organization. He opted for the latter.
Resuming his duties at Atlanta University, he completed two books. His work, Black Reconstruction, dealt with the socio-economic development of the nation following the Civil War. It portrayed black people as disorganized and chaotic. His second book during that period was Dusk of Dawn, which he completed in 1940 to express his views on both the African’s and African American’s continued quest for freedom. Another book titled The World and Africa, was written in retaliation against historians who would, for various reasons, omit Africa from world history. W.E.B. DuBois never yielded, and in 1945 he served as a consultant to the American delegation at the founding conference of the United Nations held in San Francisco. At that conference he announced that the fifth Pan-African Congress would determine what pressures could be applied to world powers.
The congress elected DuBois as International President, and he also became known as the "Father of Pan-Africanism." Entering his last phase as a protest propagandist for the sake of proletarian liberation, and becoming a member of the left-wing American Labor Party, his radical behavior led him to indictment under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Further alienated — even by his own efforts — DuBois continued to speak out as a catalyst. His thoughts were heard around the world in 1959, while speaking to a large audience in Peking, China. The following year, his daughter Yolande died.
W.E.B. DuBois spent the remainder of his life residing in Ghana, an expatriate from the United States. There he edited the government-sponsored Encyclopedia Africana.
In the final years of his life, he renounced his U.S. citzenship and became a Ghanian citizen. In 1961, at the age of 93, he became a member of the Communist Party. He believed that the party embodied the solution for blacks and poor white people. On August 27, 1963, DuBois died in Accra, Ghana.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by W.E.B. DuBois.
Regarding Soviet Union
The Soviet Union does not allow any church of any kind to interfere with education, and religion is not taught in public schools. It seems to me that this is the greatest gift of the Russian Revolution to the modern world. Most educated modern men no longer believe in religious dogma. If questioned they will usually resort to double-talk before admitting the fact. But who today actually believes that this world is ruled and directed by a benevolent person of great power who, on humble appeal, will change the course of events at our request? Who believes in miracles? Many folk follow religious ceremonies and services and allow their children to learn fairy tales and so-called religious truth, which in time the children come to recognize as conventional lies told by their parents and teachers for the children's good. One can hardly exaggerate the moral disaster of the custom. We have to thank the Soviet Union for the courage to stop it.
- - - Books You May Like Include: ----
W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 by David Levering Lewis.
This monumental biography--eight years in the research and writing--treats the early and middle phases of a long and intense career: a crucial fifty-y...
At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray.
This extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s...
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington.
19th-century African American businessman, activist & educator Booker Taliaferro Washington's Up from Slavery is one of the greatest autobiographies e...
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) is the greatest of African American intellectuals--a sociologist, historian, novelist, and activist whose...
Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Harper Barnes.
The dramatic and first popular account of one of the deadliest racial confrontations in the 20th century—in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917—which...