William Edward Burghardt DuBois, to his admirers, was by spirited devotion and
scholarly dedication, an attacker of injustice and a defender of freedom.
A harbinger of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, he died in self-imposed exile in his
home away from home with his ancestors of a glorious past—Africa.
Labeled as a "radical," he was ignored by those who hoped that his massive
contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote,
"history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois
was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay
in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned
themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void.
The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man."
His Formative Years
W.E.B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. At
that time Great Barrington had perhaps 25, but not more than 50, Black people out of a
population of about 5,000. Consequently, there were little signs of overt racism there.
Nevertheless, its venom was distributed through a constant barrage of suggestive
innuendoes and vindictive attitudes of its residents. This mutated the personality of young
William from good natured and outgoing to sullen and withdrawn. This was later
reinforced and strengthened by inner withdrawals in the face of real discriminations. His
demeanor of introspection haunted him throughout his life.
While in high school DuBois showed a keen concern for the development of his race. At
age fifteen he became the local correspondent for the New York Globe. And in this
position he conceived it his duty to push his race forward by lectures and editorials
reflecting upon the need of Black people to politicized themselves.
DuBois was naturally gifted intellectually and took pleasurable pride in surpassing his
fellow students in academic and other pursuits. Upon graduation from high school, he, like
many other New England students of his caliber, desired to attend Harvard. However, he
lacked the financial resources to go to that institution. But with the aid of friends and
family, and a scholarship he received to Fisk College (now University), he eagerly headed
to Nashville, Tennessee to further his education.
This was DuBois' first trip south. And in those three years at Fisk (1885–1888) his
knowledge of the race problem became more definite. He saw discrimination in ways he
never dreamed of, and developed a determination to expedite the emancipation of his
people. Consequently, he became a writer, editor, and an impassioned orator. And in the
process acquired a belligerent attitude toward the color bar.
Also, while at Fisk, DuBois spent two summers teaching at a county school in order to
learn more about the South and his people. There he learned first hand of poverty, poor
land, ignorance, and prejudice. But most importantly, he learned that his people had a
deep desire for knowledge.
After graduation from Fisk, DuBois entered Harvard (via scholarships) classified as a
junior. As a student his education focused on philosophy, centered in history. It then
gradually began to turn toward economics and social problems. As determined as he
was to attend and graduate from Harvard, he never felt himself a part of it. Later in life he
remarked "I was in Harvard but not of it." He received his bachelor's degree in 1890 and
immediately began working toward his master's and doctor's degree.
DuBois completed his master's degree in the spring of 1891. However, shortly before
that, ex-president Rutherford B. Hayes, the current head of a fund to educate Negroes,
was quoted in the Boston Herald as claiming that they could not find one worthy to enough
for advanced study abroad. DuBois' anger inspired him to apply directly to Hayes. His
credentials and references were impeccable. He not only received a grant, but a letter
from Hayes saying that he was misquoted. DuBois chose to study at the University of
Berlin in Germany. It was considered to be one of the world's finest institutions of higher
learning. And DuBois felt that a doctor's degree from there would infer unquestionable
preparation for ones life's work.
During the two years DuBois spent in Berlin, he began to see the race problems in the
Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the political development of Europe as one. This was the
period of his life that united his studies of history, economics, and politics into a scientific
approach of social research.
DuBois had completed a draft of his dissertation and needed another semester or so to
finish his degree. But the men over his funding sources decided that the education he
was receiving there was unsuitable for the type of work needed to help Negroes. They
refused to extend him any more funds and encouraged him to obtain his degree from
Harvard. Which of course he was obliged to do. His doctoral thesis, The Suppression of
the African Slave Trade in America, remains the authoritative work on that subject, and is
the first volume in Harvard's Historical Series.
Easing On Down The Road
At the age of twenty-six, with twenty years of schooling behind him, DuBois felt that he
was ready to begin his life's work. He accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce in Ohio at
the going rate of $800.00 per year. (He also had offers from Lincoln in Missouri and
Tuskegee in Alabama.)
The year 1896 was the dawn of a new era for DuBois. With his doctorate degree and two
undistinguished years at Wilberforce behind him, he readily accepted a special fellowship
at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a research project in Philadelphia's seventh
ward slums. This responsibility afforded him the opportunity to study Blacks as a social
DuBois plunged eagerly into his research. He was certain that the race problem was one
of ignorance. And he was determined to unearth as much knowledge as he could, thereby
providing the "cure" for color prejudice. His relentless studies led into historical
investigation, statistical and anthropological measurement, and sociological
interpretation. The outcome of this exhaustive endeavor was published as The
Philadelphia Negro. "It revealed the Negro group as a symptom, not a cause; as a
striving, palpitating group, and not an inert, sick body of crime; as a long historic
development and not a transient occurrence." This was the first time such a scientific
approach to studying social phenomena was undertaken, and as a consequence DuBois
is acknowledged as the father of Social Science.
After the completion of the study, DuBois accepted a position at Atlanta University to
further his teachings in sociology. For thirteen years there he wrote and studied Negro
morality, urbanization, Negroes in business, college-bred Negroes, the Negro church, and
Negro crime. He also repudiated the widely held view of Africa as a vast cultural cipher by
presenting a historical version of complex, cultural development throughout Africa. His
studies left no stone unturned in his efforts to encourage and help social reform.. It is said
that because of his outpouring of information "there was no study made of the race
problem in America which did not depend in some degree upon the investigations made
at Atlanta University."
During this period an ideological controversy grew between DuBois and Booker T.
Washington, which later grew into a bitter personal battle. Washington from 1895, when
he made his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech, to 1910 was the most powerful black
man in the America. Whatever grant, job placement or any endeavor concerning Blacks
that influential whites received was sent to Washington for endorsement or rejection.
Hence, the "Tuskegee Machine" became the focal point for Black input/output. DuBois
was not opposed to Washington's power, but rather, he was against his
ideology/methodology of handling the power. On one hand Washington decried political
activities among Negroes, and on the other hand dictated Negro political objectives from
Washington argued the Black people should temporarily forego "political power,
insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth. They should concentrate all
their energies on industrial education." DuBois believed in the higher education of a
"Talented Tenth" who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the
American Negro into a higher civilization. (See Chapter 4, "Science and Empire" in
DuBois' Dusk of Dawn.)
The culmination of the conflict came in 1903 when DuBois published his now famous
book, The Souls of Black Folks. The chapter entitled "Of Booker T. Washington and
Others" contains an analytical discourse on the general philosophy of Washington.
DuBois edited the chapter himself to keep the most controversial and bitter remarks out
of it. Nevertheless, it still was more than enough to incur Washington's continued
contempt for him.
In the early summer of 1905 Washington went to Boston to address a rally. While
speaking he was verbally assaulted by William Monroe Trotter ( a Harvard college friend
of DuBois). The subsequent jailing of Trotter on trumped-up charges, apparently by
Washingtonites, raised the wrath of DuBois. This incident caused DuBois to solicit help
from others "for organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who
believe in Negro freedom and growth. (Emphasis mine)
Twenty-nine men from fourteen states answered the call in Buffalo, New York. Five
months later in January of 1906 the "Niagara Movement" was formed. So called after the
cite of the meeting place–the Canadian side of Niagara falls. (They were prevented from
meeting on the U.S. side.) Its objectives were to advocate civil justice and abolish caste
discrimination. The downfall of the group was attributed to public accusations of fraud and
deceit instigated and engineered presumably by Washington advocates, and DuBois'
inexperience with organizations and the internal strain from the dynamic personality of
Trotter. In 1909 all members of the Niagara Movement save one (Trotter, who despised
and distrusted whites and their objectives) merged with some white liberals and thus the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was born.
DuBois was not altogether pleased with the group but agreed to stay on as Director of
Publications and Research.
The main artery for distributing NAACP policy and news concerning Blacks was the
Crisis magazine, which DuBois autocratically governed as its editor-in-chief for some
twenty-five years. He was of no mind to follow pedantically the Associations views, and
therefore wrote only that which he felt could lift the coffin lid off his people.
His hot, raking editorials oftentimes lead to battles within the ranks of the Association.
Besides this, the NAACP was, at that time, under the leadership of whites, to which
DuBois objected. He always felt that Blacks should lead and that if whites were to be
included at all, it should be in a supportive role. The meteoric and sustained rise in the
circulation of the Crisis, making it self-supporting, tranquilized the moderates within the
Association. This afforded DuBois the ability to continue his assault on the injustices
heaped upon the Blacks.
World War I had dramatic affects on the lives of Black folks. Firstly, the Armed Forces
refused Black inductees, but finally relinquished and put the "colored folks" in subservient
roles. Secondly, while the war was raging, Blacks in the southern states were moving
North where industry was desperately looking for workers. Ignorant, frightened whites, led
by capitalist instigators, were fearful that Blacks would totally consume the job market.
Thus, lynching ran rampant. Finally, after the war, Black veterans returned home to the
same racist country they had fought so heroically to defend.
Dr. DuBois, using the Crisis as his vehicle, hurled thunderbolts of searing script,
scorching the "dusty veil," and revealing the innards of a country whose quivering heart
beat bigotry. So vitriolic and eloquent was his pen, that subsequent reaction from his
followers caused congressional action to:
Inaugurate the opening of Black officer training schools.
Bring forth legal action against lynchers.
Set up a federal work plan for returning veterans.
His articles never quit. The countryside was inundated with DuBoisian unmitigated
protest. This period marked the height of DuBois' popularity. The Crisis magazine
subscription rate had grown from 1000 in 1909 to over 10,000 in May of 1919. His
"Returning Soldier" editorial climaxed the period.
"By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do
not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight the forces of hell in our own land.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting!
Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the great Jehovah, we will save
it in the United Stated of America, or know the reason why."
Shortly after the Armistice was signed, DuBois, sailed for France in 1919 to represent the
NAACP as an observer at the Peace Conference. While there he decided it was an
opportune time to organize a Pan-African conference to bring attention to the problems of
Africans around the world. While this was not the first Pan-African Congress (the first one
was held in 1900), he had long been interested in the movement.
While the concept was lauded by a few revolutionaries, it failed because of lack of
interest by the more influential Black organizations.
DuBois realized that for Africans could be free anywhere, they must be free everywhere.
He therefore decided to hold another Pan-African meeting in 1921. While this one was
better organized, he was dealt double trouble. First, following the war, "a political and
social revolution, economic upheaval and depression, national and racial hatred made a
setting in which any such movement was entirely out of the Question." More importantly,
however, was the encounter with the astonishing Marcus Garvey.
"Unlike DuBois, Garvey was able to gain mass support and had tremendous appeal." He
established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) for the purpose of
uniting Africa and her descendants. He instituted the visionary concept of buying ships for
overseas trade and travel; he issued forth uncompromising orations on race relations and
inspiration ("Up you mighty people. You can accomplish what you will!"); and held
pageants and parades through "Harlems" with red, black, and green liberation flags flying
(The colors symbolizes the skin, the blood, and the hopes and growth potential of Black
people. The green is also symbolic of the earth.). His methodology was refreshing and
inspiring. And it was in direct contrast to the intellectual style of DuBois.
DuBois' first efforts were to explain away the Garvey movement and ignore it . But it was
a mass movement and could not be ignored.
Later, when Garvey began to collect money for his steamship line, DuBois characterized
him as "a hard-working idealist, but his methods are bombastic, wasteful, illogical and
almost illegal." Marcus Garvey, choosing to ignore the critiques of DuBois, continued with
his undertakings until charges of fraud were brought forth against him. He was imprisoned
and upon his release, he was exiled from the United States. He died in 1941.
The conflict between the two men was amplified by the white press. It also served to
debilitate the progress of the future planned Pan-African Congress. Nevertheless, DuBois
held his conference in 1923, and as expected the turnout was small.
When the conference was concluded, he set sail for Africa for the first time. During the trip
through "the eternal world of Black folk" he made a characteristic observation–"The world
brightens as it darkens." His racial romanticism was given free reign as he wrote–"The
spell of Africa is upon me ..."
Returning home from his African experience, DuBois had a chance to reflect upon his
past. DuBois noted how America tactically side-stepped the issues of color, and how his
approach of "educate and agitate" appeared to fall on deaf ears. He felt that his
ideological approach to the "problem of the twentieth century" had to be revised.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 illuminated and made clear the change in his basic
thought. The revolution concerned itself with the problem of poverty. "Russia was trying to
put into the hands of those people who do the world's work the power to guide and rule
the state for the best welfare of the masses." DuBois' trip to Russia in 1927, his learning
about Marx and Engles, his seeing the beginning of a new nation form with regard to
class, prompted him to say–"My day in Russia was the day of communist beginnings."
"He could no longer support integration as present tactics and relegated it to a long range
goal. Unable to trust white politicians, white capitalists of white workers he invested
everything in the segregated socialized economy." (Shades of Washingtonianism?) His
ideology carried over to his editorials in the Crisis magazine.
By 1930 he had become thoroughly convinced that the basic policies and ideals of the
NAACP must be modified and/or discarded. There were two alternatives:
Change the board of directors of the NAACP (who were mostly white) so as to substitute
a group which agreed with his program.
LEAVE THE ORGANIZATION.
By 1933 DuBois decided his financial, organizational and ideological battles with the
NAACP were unendurable, and he recommended that the Crisis suspend its operation.
(The Crisis magazine, however, is still in existence today.)
He resumed his duties at Atlanta University and there upon completed two major works.
His book Black Reconstruction dealt with the socio-economic development of the nation
after the Civil War. This masterpiece portrayed the contributions of the Black people to
this period, whereas before, the Blacks were always portrayed as disorganized and
chaotic. His second book of this period, Dusk of Dawn, was completed in 1940 and
expounded his concepts and views on both the African's and African American's quest for
As in years past, DuBois never relented in attacks upon imperialism, especially in Africa.
(His book entitled The World and Africa was written as a contradiction to the pseudo-
historians who consistently omitted Africa from world history.) In 1945 he served as an
associate consultant to the American delegation at the founding conference of the United
Nations in San Francisco. He charged the world organization with planning to be
dominated by imperialist nations and not intending to intervene on the behalf of colonized
countries. He announced that the fifth Pan-African Congress would convene to determine
what pressure could be applied to the world powers.
This conference was dotted with an all-star cast:
Kwame Nkruma–dedicated revolutionary, father of Ghanian independence, and first
president of Ghana.
George Padmore–an international revolutionary, often called the "Father of African
Emancipation," who later became Kwame Nkrumah's advisor on African Affairs.
Jomo Kenyatta–called the "burning Spear," reputed leader of the Mau Mau uprising, and
first president of independent Kenya.
The congress elected DuBois International President and cast him a "Father of Pan-
Thus, "W.E.B. DuBois entered into his last phase as a protest propagandist, committed
beyond a single social group to a world conception of proletarian liberation."
Always antagonizing and making guilty groups feel extremely uncomfortable, he wrote in
1949: "We want to rule Russia and cannot rule Alabama." As s member of the left-wing
American Labor Party he wrote: "Drunk with power, we (the U.S.) are leading the world to
hell in a new colonialism with the same old human slavery, which once ruined us, to a third
world war, which will ruin the world."
As the chairman of the Peace Information Center, he demanded the outlawing of atomic
weapons. The Secretary of State denounced it as Soviet propaganda. Jumping at the
chance to quiet "that old man," the U.S. Department of Justice ordered DuBois and
others to register as agents of a "foreign principal." DuBois refused and was immediately
indicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Sufficient evidence was lacking,
therefore DuBois was acquitted. The subversive activity initiated by the U.S. government
acted as a catalyst in the alienation DuBois already felt for the present system. His
feelings were heard around the world in 1959. While in Peking he told a large audience–
"In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a NIGGER." By the time the
U.S. press published the account, he was residing in Ghana; an expatriate from the
United States. President Nkruma welcomed DuBois and asked him to direct the
government-sponsored Encyclopedia Africana. The offer was accepted graciously and a
year later, in the final months of his life, DuBois became a Ghanian citizen and an official
member of the Communist party.
Free At Last
On August 27,1963, on the eve of the March On Washington, DuBois died in Accra,
His role as a pioneering Pan-Africanist was memorialized by the few who understood the
genius of the man and neglected by the many who were afraid that his loquacious
espousals would unite the oppressed throughout the world into revolution.
Dusk of Dawn (W.E.B. DuBois)
W.E.B. DuBois: Propagandist of the Negro Protest (Elliott M. Rudwick)
Black Revolutionary (James R. Hooker)
The Souls of Black Folks (W.E.B. DuBois)
The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (W.E.B. DuBois)
W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868–1963 (David Levering Lewis)
The World and Africa (W.E.B. DuBois)
Some of the Major Offerings of W.E.B. DuBois
The Philadelphia Negro (1896)
The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (Harvard Ph.D. thesis, 1896)
Atlanta University's Studies of the Negro Problem (1897–1910)
Souls of Black Folks (1903)
John Brown (1909)
Quest of the Silver Fleece ( 1911)
The Negro (1915)
The Gift of Black Folk (1924)
Dark Princess (1924)
Black Reconstruction (1935)
Black Folk, Then and Now (1939)
Dusk of Dawn (1940)
Color and Democracy (1945)
The Encyclopedia of the Negro (1931–1946)
The World and Africa (1946)
The Black Flame (a trilogy)
______I. Ordeal of mansart (1957)
_____II. Mansart Builds a School (1959)
____III. Worlds of Color (1961) The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois (1968)
The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960
(Edited by Herbert Aptheker–1973)
Building Minds Community Involvement History W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center
Mission Objectives Program Description
DuBois Home Page Kansas City's African American Community