William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois: A Biography
William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868. He was born and grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His parents were Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois. Her mother’s family lived among the small, free black community in Great Barrington. Her mother descended from English, African, and Dutch ancestors.
William’s paternal great-grandfather was a French-American named James Du Bois who fathered different offspring with some slave mistresses. Alexander was one of the many mixed-race sons of James. When Alexander went to Haiti, he fathered Alfred. Upon Alexander’s return to Connecticut, he left Alfred in Haiti. Prior to 1860, Alfred went to the US. On February 5, 1867, Alfred married Mary Silvina in Massachusetts. In 1870, after William was born, Alfred left Mary. William's mother supported her family through hardwork with some assistance from her brother and neighbors. In 1880, Mary had a heart attack and died in 1885.
William’s maternal great-grandfather was from West Africa named Tom Burghardt. Tom was a slave of Conraed Burghardt, a Dutch colonist. During the American Revolutionary War, Tom did a military service in the Continental Army. This may have been the reason why he was freed from slavery. Tom fathered a son named Jack Burghardt, who fathered Othello Burghardt whose daughter was Mary Silvina.
William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois was married first to Nina Gomer in 1896 with whom he fathered two children. His son died while still an infant whereas his daughter Yolande got married to Countee Cullen. After a year when Gomer died in 1950, he married Shirley Graham, an activist, author, composer, and playwright. Shirley had a son named David Graham who grew up close to his stepfather Du Bois. David took Du Bois as his surname and worked for the Afro-American causes.
Many European Americans lived in Great Barrington. They treated William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois generally well. Du Bois identified himself as the son of black and white parents – a mulatto. When Du Bois freely attended the local public school, he studied and played with his white classmates despite the apparent racism of his times. Nonetheless, his teachers warmly supported him as they encouraged him to pursue his intellectual aspirations in life. Because of his early rewarding experiences, he believed that he could use his intellectual prowess to empower Afro-Americans.
In 1885, when Du Bois decided to attend Fisk University, a historically black liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee, his neighbors and church congregation made some donations for his studies. Du Bois’ travel and residency in the South was his first encounter of the deep-seated Southern racism, which encompassed the lynching, bigotry, and laws of Jim Crow. It was there that he first analyzed the depth of American racism to the black community.
When he graduated from Fisk in 1888, Du Bois continued his studies in Harvard University, which did not accept credit courses from Fisk. He did this for three years while doing summer jobs, availing of loans, having an inheritance, and studying as a scholar. At Harvard, he was strongly influenced by his professors, especially, by the world-renowned American philosopher William James.
In 1890, Du Bois obtained his second baccalaureate degree in history as a cum laude graduate. In 1891, he continued his graduate study with a major in sociology at the same university. In 1892, after he obtained his master’s degree, he received a fellowship from the J. F. Slater Fund to do a graduate work at the University of Berlin in Germany. While a student in Berlin, he studied with some of the most prominent social scientists of his days such as Heinrich von Treitschke, Adolph Wagner, Gustav von Schmoller, to name some.
After Du Bois’ graduate work and extensive travel in Europe, in 1895, he became the first Afro-American to receive his doctorate in history from Harvard University. His PhD dissertation is entitled The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America: 1638–1870.
After William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois obtained his doctorate from Harvard University, between 1898 and 1910, he accepted a professorship in history, economics and sociology at the Atlanta University. William Du Bois was an Afro-American historian, sociologist, Pan-Africanist, civil rights leader, editor, author, lecturer, and educator. In 1899, Du Bois established himself as the first great scholar of Afro-American study when he first published The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. It was the first formal case study of the black life, black farmers, black businessmen, and black community in the Southern communities in the United States.
During summertime of 1903, Du Bois taught in a rural school and then later wrote his experiences in his book The Souls of Black Folk. In the book, he charged that the black people would remain in bondage to the Whites because of the strategy of Booker T. Washington, a United States educator who was born a slave but became educated and founded a college at Tuskegee in Alabama. William and his supporters were against Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, which stated that Southern blacks should submit to White’s political rule who will guarantee basic economic and educational opportunities for blacks.
Du Bois was also against Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa movement. Instead, Du Bois insisted on increased and immediate political representation and equality. Further, he also demanded full civil rights to be brought about by black intellectual elites or the talented tenth whose obligation was the betterment of the lives of their less fortunate fellow Afro-Americans.
In 1905, Du Bois was co-founder of the Niagara Movement, which was intended as an organization that advocates blacks’ civil rights. His active leadership of the movement, made him to achieve national prominence because he demanded equal rights for black and white people. In 1909, the Niagara Movement heraldic the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Apparently, because of William’s prominent role in NAACP’s creation, he became its research director and its editor of The Crisis, the organization’s magazine.
Aside from William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois’ first scientific, sociological treatise entitled The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America: 1638–1870 (1896), he also published autobiographies: Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil (1920), Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940), and The Autobiography of W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, (1968). Each of the autobiographies consists of insightful essays on history, politics, and most especially, sociology. As journal editor of NAACP’s The Crisis, he published several insightful polemics from 1910 to 1930.
Du Bois had written numerous other books such as The Study of the Negro Problems (1898); The Negro in Business (1899); The Philadelphia Negro (1899); The Talented Tenth (1903); The Souls of Black Folk (1903); Voice of the Negro II (1905); Efforts for Social Betterment among Negro Americans (1909); John Brown: A Biography (1909); Atlanta University's Studies of the Negro Problem (1897–1910); The Negro (1915); The Gift of Black Folk (1924); Africa: Its Place in Modern History (1930); Africa, Its Geography, People and Products (1930); Black Reconstruction in America (1935); What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas (1936); Black Folk, Then and Now (1939); Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945); The Encyclopedia of the Negro (1946); The World and Africa (1946); The World and Africa, an Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (1947); I Take My Stand for Peace (1951); Peace Is Dangerous (1951); In Battle for Peace (1952); Africa in Battle Against Colonialism, Racialism, Imperialism (1960); and so on.
Part of Du Bois’ major works were his novels such as The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911); Dark Princess: A Romance (1928); and, The Black Flame Trilogy: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959) and, Worlds of Color (1961).
William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois theorized that social science would help in the elimination of segregation. However, he later on concluded that agitation was the only effectual means against White’s racism. His polemical attack to Washington’s dominant ideology regarding black accommodation crystallized among the black intellectuals. Although Washington was the most influential Afro-American during those times, Du Bois was against blacks’ acceptance of discrimination even for the present occasion just to.win over the whites’ respect.
Because of Du Bois’ belief in the awarding of full civil rights for Afro-Americans, he even wrote articles on blacks’ voluntary segregation such that the black children be taught by black teachers. This occurred in 1930 when Walter White was the NAACP head. Du Bois resigned as editor of The Crisis because of the bitter disputes between him and White. In 1934, he altogether left his post in NAACP.
Many of the theoretical contributions of Du Bois are evident from his numerous writings in the field of sociology, history, literature, politics, and even economics. He has never been as ardent as concerning the black people wherein there should be racial equality and not supremacy by the whites. His disdain to colonial mentality and maltreatment of the black people made him to believe that communism and to blame capitalism as responsible for the world’s poverty and racism.
Contributions to Sociology
Furthermore, Du Bois’ sociological analysis of racism had made his polemics and protests against Crow laws, lynching, and all manners of discrimination, especially, in employment and education. His sociological contributions included the welfare for all colored persons anywhere, not just for Afro-Americans but also Asians as they struggle against imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism.
As a Pan-Africanist, he helped to organize many congresses on Pan-Africanism such as the freedom of Africa from its European colonizers. As a social scientist, he traveled extensively Africa, Asia, and Europe. After the First World War, he made a reconnaissance of the experiences of Afro-American soldiers in France. Furthermore, he also documented the general intolerance and prejudices in the US military.
Because of Du Bois various contributions, he has received various awards such as the Spingarn Medal (NAACP, 1920); International Lenin Peace Prize (USSR, 1959); National Historic Landmark for Du Bois’ birthplace (Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 1976); Du Bois’ portrait on a postal stamp (US Postal Service, 1992 and 1998); Du Bois’ Main Library (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1994); The Du Bois Center (Northern Arizona University, n.d.); Du Bois’ Dormitory (University of Pennsylvania, n.d.); Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience (dedicated to Du Bois); Du Bois’ Lecture Series (Humboldt University in Berlin, n.d.); Among the 100 Greatest African Americans (2002); Medallion of Honor (The Extra Mile, 2005); Honorary Emeritus Professor (University of Pennsylvania, 2012), to name some.
Most of William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois’ insights can be gleaned from his writing as a prolific author. The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of his essays, was a seminal work in Afro-American literature. In 1935, Black Reconstruction in America, one of his famous work in sociology, opposed the prevailing orthodoxy concerning the blacks’ responsibility for the failure of Reconstruction.
Du Bois’ insights were in line with his pragmatic thinking for Afro-Americans evident in his editorials and scholarly works. Hence, some of his writings were viewed to be biased because they go against the mainstream historical perspectives, such that the Reconstruction was not a disaster. Then, he went further to assert that it was not caused by the ineptitude and laxity of the black. As a consequence, there is a period in his life where he had encountered difficulty in getting his pieces accepted by major periodicals. An instance of this is when he published a biography of John Brown, which contained some of his insights but with some factual errors.
During most of Du Bois productive life, he published works about the general history of the black people such as in The Negro, which is the first of its kind as it was written in English. Since the book refuted most claims regarding blacks’ inferiority, it thus became the founding glory of Afro-American historiography in the 20th century. In this book, for instance, Du Bois foretold solidarity or unity for all colored people worldwide. There are similar insightful works that Du Bois published in order to combat racism during and after World War 1, during his trips around the world, Second World War, and in his later life.
Du Bois had many other insights throughout his life. He has been involved in many organizations aimed to benefit the black community against abuses, discrimination, and other forms of maltreatment. He openly and publicly expressed his views by means of writing. There were times that he had to include generally in his lectures and meeting with people (such as during conferences and congresses) blacks’ civil rights, equal educational opportunities, and equal voting rights for colored people.
In 1951, when Du Bois was 83 years old, he was prosecuted by the federal government for his association with the Communist Party. However, a judge later on dismissed his case. Because of his disillusionment with the US, in 1961, he officially joined the Communist Party. He then moved to Ghana, Africa. More than a year later, Du Bois renounced his US citizenship.
On August 27, 1963, William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois died at the age of 95 in the town of Accra. He was buried in Accra near his home, which is now known as the Du Bois Memorial Center.
Du Bois, W. E. (2013). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition.
Horne, G. (2010). W.E.B. Du Bois : A Biography. Greenwood Press.
Horne, G., & Young, M. (2001). W.E.B. Du Bois : An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press.
Melamed, J. (2006). W. E. B. Du Bois's UnAmerican End. African American Review, 40(3), 533-550.