W. E. D. DuBois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced /duːˈbɔɪz/[1]) (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an African American civil rights activist, public intellectual, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.[2]

David Levering Lewis, a biographer, wrote, "In the course of his long, turbulent career, W. E. B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racismscholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity."[3]

Early life

Family history

W. E. B. Du Bois was born on Church Street on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, at the south-western edge of Massachusetts, to Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois. William Edward Burghart Du Bois was born and grew up in the overwhelmingly white town of Barrington, Massachusetts. His father — descended from mulatto slaves in Haiti — deserted his mother. He blamed his maternal grandparents for his father’s leaving because they did not take kindly to him. Du Bois was very close to his mother Mary, who was from Massachusetts. When Du Bois was young, Mary suffered a stroke which left her unable to work, and the two of them moved frequently. They survived on money from family members and Du Bois' after-school jobs. Du Bois wanted to help his mother as much as possible and believed he could improve their lives through education. Some of the neighborhood whites noticed him, and one allowed Du Bois and his mother to rent a house from him in Great Barrington.

While living there, Du Bois performed chores and worked odd jobs. Du Bois did not feel differently because of his skin color while he was in school. In fact, the only times he felt out of place were when out-of-towners would visit Great Barrington. One such incident occurred when a white girl who was new in school refused to take one of his fake calling cards during a game; the girl told him she would not accept it because he was black. Du Bois then realized that there would always be some kind of barrier between whites and others.[4]

Young Du Bois may have been an outsider because of his status, being poor, not having a father and being extremely intellectual for his age; however, he was very comfortable academically. Many around him recognized his intelligence and encouraged him to further his education with classical academic courses while in high school. His academic success led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.[5]

University education

Du Bois was awarded a degree from Fisk University in 1888. During the summer following graduation from Fisk, Du Bois managed the Fisk Glee Club. The club was employed at a grand luxury summer resort on Lake Minnetonka in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota. The resort was a favorite spot for vacationing wealthy American Southerners and European royalty. Du Bois and the other club members doubled as waiters and kitchen workers at the hotel.[6] Observing the drinking, rude and crude behavior and sexual promiscuity of the rich white guests of the hotel left a deep impression on the young Du Bois.[7]

Du Bois entered Harvard College in the fall of 1888, having received a $250 scholarship. He earned a bachelor's degree cum laude from Harvard in 1890. In 1892, he received a stipend to attend the University of Berlin. While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He came of age intellectually while studying with some of the most prominent social scientists in the German capital, such as Gustav von Schmoller. In 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. After teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio and working at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained employed while he undertook field research for his study, "The Philadelphia Negro," he established the department of sociology at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University).

Dr. Du Bois earned a honorary doctoral degree from a university in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The degree was conferred on October 23, 1958 and his honorary dissertation was entitled "The Negro and Communism."[1]


Du Bois wrote many books, including three major autobiographies. Among his most significant works are The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), John Brown (1909), Black Reconstruction (1935), and Black Folk, Then and Now (1939). His book The Negro (1915) influenced the work of several pioneer Africanist scholars, such as Drusilla Dunjee Houston[8] and William Leo Hansberry.[9][10]

In the NY Times Review of The Souls of Black Folk the anonymous book reviewer writes "...for it is the Jim Crow car, and the fact that he may not smoke a cigar and drink a cup of tea with the white man in the South, that most galls William E. Burghardt Du Bois of the Atlanta College for Negroes".[11] A hint at the level of prejudice and pervailing social estrangement of the times is evident at the conclusion of the review.

"...it is the thought of a negro of Northern education who has lived long among his bretheren of the South yet who can not fully feel the meaning of some things which these bretheren know by instinct-and which the Southern-bred white knows by a similar instinct; certain things which are accepted by both as facts-not theories-fundamental attitudes of race to race which are the product of conditions extending over centuries, as are the somewhat parallel attitudes of the gentry to the peasantry in other countries".


In 1940, at Atlanta University, Du Bois founded Phylon magazine. In 1946, he wrote The World and Africa: An Inquiry Into the Part that Africa has Played in World History. In 1945, he helped organize the historic Fifth Pan-African Conference in Manchester, England.[13]

While prominent white scholars denied African-American cultural, political and social relevance to American history and civic life, in his epic work Reconstruction, Du Bois documented how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. He demonstrated the ways Black emancipation—the crux of Reconstruction—promoted a radical restructuring of United States society, as well as how and why the country turned its back on human rights for African Americans in the aftermath of Reconstruction.[14] This theme was taken up later and expanded by Eric Foner and Leon F. Litwack, the two leading contemporary scholars of the Reconstruction era.

In total, Du Bois wrote 22 books, including five novels, and helped establish four journals.


Du Bois began writing about crime in 1897, shortly after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard (Zuckerman, 2004, p. 2). His first work involving crime, A Program of Social Reform, was shortly followed by a second, The Study of the Negro Problems (Du Bois, 1897; Du Bois, 1898). The first work that involved in-depth criminological study and theorizing was The Philadelphia Negro, in which a large section of the sociological study was devoted to analysis of the black criminal population in Philadelphia (Du Bois, 1899).

Du Bois (1899) sets forth three significant parts to his criminology theory. The first major part is that Negro crime is caused by the strain of the ‘social revolution’ experienced by black Americans as they began to adapt to their new found freedom and position in the nation. This theory is very similar to Durkheim’s (1893) Anomie theory, but applied specifically to the newly freed Negro. Du Bois (1900a, p. 3) credits Emancipation with causing the boom in crime in the black population. He explains "the appearance of crime among the southern Negroes is a symptom of wrong social conditions- of a stress of life greater than a large part of the community can bear" (Du Bois, 1901b, p. 745). He distinguishes between the strains on southern Negroes and those on northern Negroes because the problems of city life in the North were very different from those of the Southern rural sharecropper.

Du Bois’ (1904a) theory’s second major part is that black crime declined as the African-American population moved towards a more equal status. This idea, referred to later as "stratification," is strikingly similar to Merton’s (1968) structure-strain theory of deviance. In The Philadelphia Negro and later statistical studies, Du Bois found direct correlations between levels of employment, education, and criminal activity.

The final part of the theory is that the Talented Tenth or the "exceptional men" of the black race would be the ones to lead the race and save it from its criminal problems (Du Bois, 1903, p. 33). Du Bois sees the evolution of a class system within black American society as necessary to carry out the improvements necessary to reduce crime in the black population (Du Bois, 1903). He sets forth a number of solutions to crime that this Talented Tenth must endeavor to enact (Du Bois, 1903, p. 2).

He is perhaps the first criminologist to combine historical fact with social change, and used the combination to postulate his theories. He credited the crime increase after the Civil War to the "increased complexity of life," competition for jobs in industry, and the mass exodus from the farmland and immigration to the cities (Du Bois, 1899). Du Bois (1899, p. 64) states in The Philadelphia Negro:

"Naturally then, if men are suddenly transported from one environment to another, the result is lack of harmony with the new conditions; lack of harmony with the new physical surroundings leading to disease and death or modification of physique; lack of harmony with social surroundings leading to crime."

Civil rights activism

Du Bois was the most prominent intellectual leader and political activist on behalf of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. A contemporary of Booker T. Washington, the two carried on a dialogue about segregation and political disfranchisement. He was labeled "The Father of Pan-Africanism."

Along with Booker T. Washington, he partly organized the "Negro exhibition" at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where photos, taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, of Hampton Institute's black students were displayed[15]. The exhibition aimed at showing Afro-Americans' positive contributions to American society [15].

In 1905, Du Bois along with Minnesota attorney Fredrick L. McGhee[16] and others helped to found the Niagara Movement with William Monroe Trotter. The Movement championed, among other things, freedom of speech and criticism, the recognition of the highest and best human training as the monopoly of no caste or race, full male suffrage, a belief in the dignity of labor, and a united effort to realize such ideals under sound leadership.

The alliance between Du Bois and Trotter was, however, short-lived, as they had a dispute over whether or not white people should be included in the organization and in the struggle for Civil Rights. Du Bois felt that they should, and with a group of like-minded supporters, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

In 1910, he left his teaching post at Atlanta University to work as publications director at the NAACP full-time. He wrote weekly columns in many newspapers, including the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News, three African-American newspapers, and also the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle.

For 25 years, Du Bois worked as Editor-in-Chief of the NAACP publication, The Crisis, which then included the subtitle A Record of the Darker Races. He commented freely and widely on current events and set the agenda for the fledgling NAACP. Its circulation soared from 1,000 in 1910 to more than 100,000 by 1920.[17]

Du Bois published Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. As a repository of black thought, the Crisis was initially a monopoly, David Levering Lewis observed. In 1913, Du Bois wrote The Star of Ethiopia, a historical pageant, to promote African-American history and civil rights.

Du Bois thought blacks should seek higher education, preferably liberal arts. He also believed blacks should challenge and question whites on all grounds, but Washington believed assimilating and fitting into the "American" culture was the best way for Blacks to move up in society. While Washington stated that he did not receive any racist insults until his later years, Du Bois said Blacks have a "Double-Conscious" mind in which they have to know when to act "White" and when to act "Black". Booker T. Washington believed that teaching was a duty but Du Bois believed it was a calling.

Du Bois became increasingly estranged from Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, and began to question the organization's opposition to racial segregation at all costs. Du Bois thought that this policy, while generally sound, undermined those black institutions that did exist, which Du Bois thought should be defended and improved rather than attacked as inferior.

By the 1930s, Lewis said, the NAACP had become more institutional and Du Bois increasingly radical, sometimes at odds with leaders such as Walter White and Roy Wilkins. In 1934, after writing two essays in the Crisis suggesting that black separatism could be a useful economic strategy, Du Bois left the magazine to return to teaching at Atlanta University.

During the 1920s, Du Bois engaged in a bitter feud with Marcus Garvey. One of the key points of disagreement was whether African Americans could ever be assimilated as equals into American society (the view held by Du Bois) or whether African Americans would always be treated as second-class citizens (Garvey's position). Their dispute was bitter and it descended to personal attacks, sometimes based on skin color. Du Bois wrote that "Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor."[18] Garvey described Du Bois as "purely and simply a white man's nigger" and "a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro ... a mulatto ... a monstrosity."[19]

Du Bois was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity with a civil rights focus, and the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by African Americans.

American Historical Association

In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois addressed the American Historical Association (AHA). According to David Levering Lewis, "His would be the first and last appearance of an African American on the program until 1940."[20]

In a review of the second book in Lewis's biographies of Du Bois, Michael R. Winston observed that, in understanding American history, one must question "how black Americans developed the psychological stamina and collective social capacity to cope with the sophisticated system of racial domination that white Americans had anchored deeply in law and custom."[21]

Winston continued, "Although any reasonable answer is extraordinarily complex, no adequate one can ignore the man (Du Bois) whose genius was for 70 years at the intellectual epicenter of the struggle to destroy white supremacy as public policy and social fact in the United States."[21]

Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany

Du Bois became impressed by the growing strength of Imperial Japan following the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Du Bois saw the victory of Japan over Tsarist Russia as an example of "colored pride".

Hikida Yasuichi ran Japan's "Negro Propaganda Operations." After traveling to the United States to speak with students at Howard University, Scripps College and Tuskegee University, he became closely involved in shaping Du Bois' opinions of Imperial Japan. In 1936, Hikida and the Japanese Ambassador arranged a junket for Du Bois and a small group of fellow academics.[22] The trip included stops in Japan, China, and the Soviet Union, although the Soviet leg was canceled because Du Bois' diplomatic contact there, Karl Radek, had been swept up in Stalin's purges. While on the Chinese leg of the trip, Du Bois commented that the source of Chinese-Japanese enmity was China's "submission to white aggression and Japan's resistance", and he asked the Chinese people to welcome the Japanese as liberators. Du Bois joined a large group of African-American academics that cited the Mukden Incident to justify Japan's occupation and annexation of the formerly European-held southern Manchuria.

During 1936 Du Bois also visited Nazi Germany. He later noted that he received more respect from German academics than he had from white colleagues at American universities. On his return to the United States, he voiced his ambivalence toward the regime. He expressed his admiration for the manner in which the Nazis had improved the German economy but also his horror at their treatment of the Jews, which he described as "an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade".[23]

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