Today is the birthday (1868) of William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois, a U.S. sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois. His mother’s family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington and had long owned land in the state. She was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors. William Du Bois’ maternal great-great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom during the 18th century. Du Bois’ paternal great-grandfather was James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, an ethnic French-American of Huguenot origin who fathered several children with slave women.
Great Barrington had a majority European-American community. He attended the local integrated public school and as an adult wrote about racism partly based on the experience of being a minority in the town. His teachers recognized his ability and encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his education to empower African-Americans. Du Bois graduated from the town’s Searles High School. When Du Bois decided to attend college, the congregation of his childhood church, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, raised the money for his tuition.
Du Bois attended Fisk University, an historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois’ first experience with Southern racism, which at the time encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, suppression of black voting, and lynchings. The latter reached a peak in the next decade. 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, then prominent in American philosophy. Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history. In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.
In 1892, Du Bois 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 matured intellectually in Berlin while studying with some of that nation’s most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Heinrich von Treitschke. After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies; in 1895 he was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the Tuskegee Institute, but he accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas are necessary tools to effect social change. While at Wilberforce, Du Bois married Nina Gomer, one of his students, on May 12, 1896. After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an “assistant in sociology” in the summer of 1896. He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899 while he was teaching at Atlanta University. It was the first case study of a black community in the United States. By the 1890s, Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods had a negative reputation in terms of crime, poverty, and mortality. Du Bois’ book undermined the stereotypes with experimental evidence, and shaped his approach to segregation and its negative impact on black lives and reputations. The results led Du Bois to believe that racial integration was the key to democratic equality in American cities. His later point of view became much more complex.
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 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.
By the turn of the 20th century Du Bois became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.
Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of American black soldiers in France and documented widespread prejudice in the United States military.
Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature, and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that African-Americans were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. Borrowing a phrase from Frederick Douglass, he popularized the use of the term color line to represent the injustice of the separate but equal doctrine prevalent in American social and political life. He opens The Souls of Black Folk with the central thesis of much of his life’s work: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”
He wrote one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, he published a number of influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. The United States’ Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.
During the 1950s, the U.S. government’s anti-communist McCarthyism campaign targeted Du Bois because of his socialist leanings. The FBI began to compile a file on Du Bois in 1942, but the most aggressive government attack against Du Bois occurred in the early 1950s, as a consequence of Du Bois’ opposition to nuclear weapons. In 1950 Du Bois became chairman of the newly created Peace Information Center (PIC), which worked to publicize the Stockholm Peace Appeal in the United States. The primary purpose of the appeal was to gather signatures on a petition, asking governments around the world to ban all nuclear weapons. The U.S. Justice department alleged that the PIC was acting as an agent of a foreign state, and thus required the PIC to register with the federal government. Du Bois and other PIC leaders refused, and they were indicted for failure to register. After the indictment, some of Du Bois’ associates distanced themselves from him, and the NAACP refused to issue a statement of support; but many labor figures and leftists – including Langston Hughes – supported Du Bois. He was finally tried in 1951 represented by civil rights attorney Vito Marcantonio. The case was dismissed before the jury rendered a verdict as soon as the defense attorney told the judge that “Dr. Albert Einstein has offered to appear as character witness for Dr. Du Bois. Du Bois’ memoir of the trial is In Battle for Peace. Even though Du Bois was not convicted, the government confiscated his passport and withheld it for eight years.
Ghana invited Du Bois to Africa to participate in their independence celebration in 1957, but he was unable to attend because the U.S. government had confiscated his passport. By 1960 – the “Year of Africa” – Du Bois had recovered his passport, and was able to cross the Atlantic and celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.
While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with its president about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. In early 1961, Ghana notified Du Bois that they had appropriated funds to support the encyclopedia project, and they invited Du Bois to come to Ghana and manage the project there. In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife traveled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia. In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he made the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana. While it is sometimes stated that he renounced his U.S. citizenship at that time, and he did state his intention to do so, Du Bois never actually did. His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana, and he died on August 27, 1963, in the capital of Accra at the age of 95.
I could give you a string of quotes from Du Bois, but this one says it all:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: … How does it feel to be a problem? … One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder … He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
In answering a questionnaire Du Bois wrote that his favorite food was bread and milk (and his favorite drink was ginger ale). Bread and milk is something of a surprise because it is not something I would ever think of as comfort food. To make it is simplicity itself. Tear up fresh bread into bite-sized pieces, place them in a bowl, sprinkle them with sugar, and pour in whole milk. Not my thing. I would jazz it up by using the kind of sweet, buttery French bread the bakers make here in Cambodia, probably use cream rather than milk, and sprinkle over some spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg.