W. E. B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois (1868-1963) was was a leading African-American sociologist, writer and activist. Educated at Harvard University and other top schools, Du Bois studied with some of the most important social thinkers of his time. He earned fame for the publication of such works as Souls of Black Folk (1903), and was a founding officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and editor of its magazine. Dubois also taught at Wilberforce University and Atlanta University, and chaired the Peace Information Center. Shortly before his death, Du Bois settled in Ghana to work on the Encyclopedia Africana.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois knew little of his father, who died shortly after his birth, but he was socialized into an extended family network that left a strong impression on his personality and was reflected in his subsequent work. Educated at Fisk University (1885-1888), Harvard University (1888-1896), and the University of Berlin (1892-1894), Du Bois studied with some of the most important social thinkers of his time and then embarked upon a seventy-year career that combined scholarship and teaching with lifelong activism in liberation struggles.

Interspersed with his teaching career at Wilberforce and Atlanta University were two stints as a publicist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), of which he was a founding officer and for whom he edited the monthly magazine, the Crisis. He resigned from the naacp in June 1934 in a dispute over organizational policy and direction. He believed the depression dictated a shift from the organization’s stress on legal rights and integration to an emphasis on black economic advancement, even if this meant temporarily “accepting” segregation. But after teaching at Atlanta University, he returned in 1944 as head of a research effort aimed at collecting and disseminating data on Africans and their diaspora and putting issues affecting them before the world community. Renewed disputes with the naacpcaused him to be dismissed in 1948.

During the 1950s Du Bois was drawn into leftist causes, including chairing the Peace Information Center. The center’s refusal to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act led to his indictment with four others by a federal grand jury in 1951. All five were acquitted after a highly publicized trial, but the taint of alleged communist association caused him to be shunned by colleagues and harassed by federal agencies (including eventual revocation of his passport) throughout the 1950s. In 1961, Du Bois settled in Ghana and began work on the Encyclopedia Africana, a compendium of information on Africans and peoples of African descent throughout the world. Shortly thereafter he joined the American Communist party and became a citizen of Ghana, where he died in 1963.

During Du Bois’s prolific career he published nineteen books, edited four magazines, coedited a magazine for children, and produced scores of articles and speeches. Perhaps his most outstanding work was Souls of Black Folk(1903), a poignant collection of essays in which he defined some of the key themes of the African-American experience and the dominant motifs of his own work.

He clashed on occasion with other black leaders over appropriate strategies for black advancement, notably Booker T. Washington (whose strategy of accommodation and emphasis on industrial education for blacks he rejected) and Marcus Garvey (whom he considered a demagogue, although they shared a commitment to Pan-Africanism and the liberation of Africa). Du Bois’s own approach was an eclectic mix of scientific social analysis, which led him eventually to Marxism, and a romantic evocation of the poetry of black folk culture, which is reflected in his nationalist sympathies and Pan-Africanist organizational efforts. Above all Du Bois sought to place African-American experience in its world historical context. Out of this mix evolved his dual projects of building an African socialism and publishing a unifying work of scholarship on the African diaspora.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.