1868-02-23 to 1963-08-27
U.S., GhanaWilliam Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community, and after completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Due to his contributions in the African-American community he was seen as a member of a Black elite that supported some aspects of eugenics for blacks. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
William Du Bois claimed Elizabeth Freeman as his relative; he wrote that she had married his great-grandfather Jack Burghardt. But Freeman was 20 years older than Burghardt, and no record of such a marriage has been found. It may have been Freeman's daughter, Betsy Humphrey, who married Burghardt after her first husband, Jonah Humphrey, left the area "around 1811", and after Burghardt's first wife died (c. 1810). If so, Freeman would have been William Du Bois's step-great-great-grandmother. Anecdotal evidence supports Humphrey's marrying Burghardt; a close relationship of some form is likely.
Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after their son William was born. Mary Du Bois moved with her son back to her parents' house in Great Barrington, and they lived there until he was five. She worked to support her family (receiving some assistance from her brother and neighbors), until she suffered a stroke in the early 1880s.
After receiving a bachelor's degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890, where he was strongly influenced by his professor William James, prominent in American philosophy.
By the 1890s, Philadelphia's black neighborhoods had a negative reputation in terms of crime, poverty, and mortality. Du Bois's book undermined the stereotypes with empirical evidence and shaped his approach to segregation and its negative impact on black lives and reputations. The results led Du Bois to realize that racial integration was the key to democratic equality in American cities.
In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute; he accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change.
While taking part in the American Negro Academy (ANA) in 1897, Du Bois presented a paper in which he rejected Frederick Douglass's plea for black Americans to integrate into white society. He wrote: "we are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland".
In July 1897, Du Bois left Philadelphia and took a professorship in history and economics at the historically black Atlanta University in Georgia.
In the August 1897 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois published "Strivings of the Negro People", his first work aimed at the general public, in which he enlarged upon his thesis that African Americans should embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society.
Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose, which occurred near Atlanta in 1899. Hose was tortured, burned and hung by a mob of two thousand whites. When walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with newspaper editor Joel Chandler Harris, Du Bois encountered Hose's burned knuckles in a storefront display. The episode stunned Du Bois, and he resolved that "one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved". Du Bois realized that "the cure wasn't simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth".
Du Bois was primary organizer of The Exhibit of American Negroes at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris between April and November 1900, for which he put together a series of 363 photographs aiming to commemorate the lives of African Americans at the turn of the century and challenge the racist caricatures and stereotypes of the day.
In 1905, Du Bois and several other African-American civil rights activists – including Fredrick L. McGhee, Jesse Max Barber and William Monroe Trotter – met in Canada, near Niagara Falls.There they wrote a declaration of principles opposing the Atlanta Compromise, and incorporated as the Niagara Movement in 1906.
Du Bois and the other "Niagarites" wanted to publicize their ideals to other African Americans, but most black periodicals were owned by publishers sympathetic to Washington. Du Bois bought a printing press and started publishing Moon Illustrated Weekly in December 1905.
President Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers because they were accused of crimes as a result of the Brownsville Affair. Many of the discharged soldiers had served for 20 years and were near retirement.
In September, riots broke out in Atlanta, precipitated by unfounded allegations of black men assaulting white women. This was a catalyst for racial tensions based on a job shortage and employers playing black workers against white workers. Ten thousand whites rampaged through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find, resulting in over 25 deaths.
In the aftermath of the 1906 violence, Du Bois urged blacks to withdraw their support from the Republican Party, because Republicans Roosevelt and William Howard Taft did not sufficiently support blacks. Most African Americans had been loyal to the Republican Party since the time of Abraham Lincoln.
In May 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York. The meeting led to the creation of the National Negro Committee, chaired by Oswald Villard, and dedicated to campaigning for civil rights, equal voting rights, and equal educational opportunities.
Du Bois was the first African American invited by the American Historical Association (AHA) to present a paper at their annual conference. He read his paper, Reconstruction and Its Benefits, to an astounded audience at the AHA's December 1909 conference.
His primary duty was editing the NAACP's monthly magazine, which he named The Crisis. The first issue appeared in November 1910, and Du Bois pronounced that its aim was to set out "those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people".
Du Bois used his influential role in the NAACP to oppose a variety of racist incidents. When the silent film The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, Du Bois and the NAACP led the fight to ban the movie, because of its racist portrayal of blacks as brutish and lustful.
During the years 1915 and 1916, some leaders of the NAACP – disturbed by financial losses at The Crisis, and worried about the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its essays – attempted to oust Du Bois from his editorial position. Du Bois and his supporters prevailed, and he continued in his role as editor.
As the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917, Du Bois's colleague in the NAACP, Joel Spingarn, established a camp to train African Americans to serve as officers in the United States military.
After the East St. Louis riots occurred in the summer of 1917, Du Bois traveled to St. Louis to report on the riots. Between 40 and 250 African Americans were massacred by whites, primarily due to resentment caused by St. Louis industry hiring blacks to replace striking white workers.
To publicly demonstrate the black community's outrage over the riots, Du Bois organized the Silent Parade, a march of around 9,000 African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue, the first parade of its kind in New York, and the second instance of blacks publicly demonstrating for civil rights.
The Houston riot of 1917 disturbed Du Bois and was a major setback to efforts to permit African Americans to become military officers. The riot began after Houston police arrested and beat two black soldiers; in response, over 100 black soldiers took to the streets of Houston and killed 16 whites. A military court martial was held, and 19 of the soldiers were hung, and 67 others were imprisoned. In spite of the Houston riot, Du Bois and others successfully pressed the Army to accept the officers trained at Spingarn's camp, resulting in over 600 black officers joining the Army in October 1917.
Infuriated with the distortions, Du Bois published a letter in the New York World, claiming that the only crime the black sharecroppers had committed was daring to challenge their white landlords by hiring an attorney to investigate contractual irregularities.
Du Bois traveled to Europe in 1921 to attend the second Pan-African Congress. The assembled black leaders from around the world issued the London Resolutions and established a Pan-African Association headquarters in Paris. Under Du Bois's guidance, the resolutions insisted on racial equality, and that Africa be ruled by Africans (not, as in the 1919 congress, with the consent of Africans).
Du Bois did not have a good working relationship with Walter Francis White, president of the NAACP since 1931. That conflict, combined with the financial stresses of the Great Depression, precipitated a power struggle over The Crisis. Du Bois, concerned that his position as editor would be eliminated, resigned his job at The Crisis and accepted an academic position at Atlanta University in early 1933.
In 1932, Du Bois was selected by several philanthropies – including the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, and the General Education Board – to be the managing editor for a proposed Encyclopedia of the Negro, a work Du Bois had been contemplating for 30 years. After several years of planning and organizing, the philanthropies canceled the project in 1938, because some board members believed that Du Bois was too biased to produce an objective encyclopedia.
When the Cold War commenced in the mid-1940s, the NAACP distanced itself from Communists, lest its funding or reputation suffer. The NAACP redoubled their efforts in 1947 after Life magazine published a piece by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. claiming that the NAACP was heavily influenced by Communists.
Ignoring the NAACP's desires, Du Bois continued to fraternize with communist sympathizers such as Paul Robeson, Howard Fast and Shirley Graham (his future second wife). Du Bois wrote "I am not a communist ... On the other hand, I ... believe ... that Karl Marx ... put his finger squarely upon our difficulties ...".
Du Bois's association with prominent communists made him a liability for the NAACP, especially since the FBI was starting to aggressively investigate communist sympathizers; so – by mutual agreement – he resigned from the NAACP for the second time in late 1948.
In 1949, Du Bois spoke at the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace in New York: "I tell you, people of America, the dark world is on the move! It wants and will have Freedom, Autonomy and Equality. It will not be diverted in these fundamental rights by dialectical splitting of political hairs ... Whites may, if they will, arm themselves for suicide. But the vast majority of the world's peoples will march on over them to freedom!"
In 1958, Du Bois regained his passport, and with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, he traveled around the world, visiting Russia and China. In both countries he was celebrated. Du Bois later wrote approvingly of the conditions in both countries.
Du Bois joined the Communist Party in October 1961, at the age of 93. Around that time, he wrote: "I believe in Communism. I mean by Communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part."