W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) Scholar, Editor and Founding

Member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People



W.E.B. DuBois
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction: William Edward Burghardt DuBois was a noted scholar, editor, and African American activist. DuBois was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — the largest and oldest civil rights organization in America.  Throughout his life DuBois fought discrimination and racism. He made significant contributions to debates about race, politics, and history in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, primarily through his writing and impassioned speaking on race relations. DuBois also served as editor of The Crisis magazine and published several scholarly works on race and African American history. By the time he died, in 1963, he had written 17 books, edited four journals and played a key role in reshaping black-white relations in America.

Education and Early Career: William Edward Burghardt DuBois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. Born to Alfred and Mary DuBois, he was an only child. In his early childhood his parents separated, and he remained with his mother until her death in 1884. The community in which he lived comprised a population of approximately 5,000 whites and about 50 black people. Vindictive attitudes toward the black people added to DuBois’ already troubled life. Despite many hardships, DuBois became an excellent student and he was hired as the local correspondent for the New York Globe. Through editorials and lectures, he emphasized the need for black people to be politically recognized. Naturally gifted intellectually, he surpassed his peers and in 1883 graduated as the sole black student from Great Barrington High School.

DuBois earned a partial scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and enrolled at the tender age of 15. In the following three years he witnessed endemic discrimination and became more determined to expedite social justice for black people. Also during that time, he became a writer, editor, and passionate speaker on racism. While attending Fisk, DuBois saw first hand the poverty of his people in the South as well as the ignorant prejudices held against them. He elected to teach at a country school because he perceived a deep desire for knowledge among his students, and he wanted to learn all that he could about racial problems in America. He graduated from Fisk in 1888. DuBois furthered his education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he concentrated on philosophy and history. Eventually he pursued economics and social problems. In his determination to graduate, he never quite felt he was part of the student body. Once he said, “I was in Harvard but not of it. “Immediately upon receiving his B.A. in 1890, he began to work on his master’s and doctor’s degrees, which he received in the spring of 1891.

Prior to his graduation, former president Rutherford B. Hayes, the current head of a fund to educate black people, was quoted in the Boston Herald as saying, “[we] could not find anyone worthy enough to study abroad.” DuBois challenged him and immediately applied for the opportunity. Thanks to impeccable references and credentials, he received not only the grant, but a letter from Hayes stating that he was misquoted. DuBois then left America to study at the University of Berlin in Germany, well known for being one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning. With more confidence than ever — and the prospect of another doctorate — DuBois believed he would be fully prepared for his life’s work. Over the next two years, he learned about racial problems in countries of Africa, Asia, and Europe, in addition to America. DuBois fell short of his Ph.D. by one semester because his funding sources declined to extend him any more money. They encouraged him to obtain his degree at Harvard instead, which he gladly did. His doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America,1638–1870” became the first volume in Harvard’s Historical Series. In 1895, he became the first black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

In 1897, DuBois took a position with Atlanta University. During his tenure there he conducted extensive studies of the social conditions of blacks in America. Although DuBois took an advanced degree in history, he was broadly trained in the social sciences; and, at a time when sociologists were theorizing about race relations, he was conducting empirical inquiries into the condition of blacks. For more than a decade he devoted himself to sociological investigations of blacks in America, producing 16 research monographs published between 1897 and 1914 at Atlanta (Georgia) University, where he was a professor, as well as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), the first case study of a black community in the United States. For the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, DuBois created a full-scale exhibit of African American achievement since the Emancipation Proclamation in industrial work, literature, and journalism. It included photo-documentation on educational institutions such as Tuskeegee, Fisk, and Howard Universities. Congress approved of $15,000 for installation, and it was installed — off the midway and in the Social Economy section of the Liberal Arts building where it languished.

Later Career: In 1903 he wrote The Souls of Black Folk which serves as the underpinning to  many of his ideas.  Two years later, in 1905, DuBois took the lead in founding the “Niagara Movement,” which was dedicated chiefly to attacking the platform of Booker T. Washington. This small organization met annually until it disbanded in 1909. Despite the establishment of 30 branches and the achievement of a few scattered civil-rights victories at the local level, the Niagara Movement suffered from organizational weakness and lack of funds as well as a permanent headquarters or staff, and it never was able to attract mass support.  Nevertheless, the Niagara Movement was significant as an ideological forerunner and direct inspiration for the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909. DuBois played a prominent part in the creation of the NAACP and became the association’s director of research and editor of its magazine, The Crisis. In this role he wielded an unequaled influence among middle-class blacks and progressive whites as the propagandist for the black protest from 1910 until 1934. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, W.E.B. DuBois continued to work as an author, lecturer and educator. His teachings were an important influence on the Civil Rights Movement. DuBois and his wife, former student Nina Gomer, stayed in Atlanta until 1910, even though they never felt truly comfortable there. While in Atlanta, the DuBois’ lost a young son. Sixteen months later Nina gave birth to their daughter, Yolande. Shortly thereafter Nina suffered a stroke and consequently died in 1950. Dubois remarried Shirley Graham in 1951 who traveled extensively with her husband. In the final years of his life, he renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a Ghanian citizen. In 1961, at the age of 93, he became a member of the Communist Party. He believed that the party embodied the solution for blacks and poor white people. On August 27, 1963, DuBois died in Accra, Ghana. Ironically, DuBois died on August 27, 1963 the eve of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Actor and playwright Ossie Davis read an announcement of his death to the 250,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument on August 28th.

W.E.B. DuBois and Mary White Ovington Medallion
Photo: Points of Light

W.E.B. DuBois and Mary White Ovington co-founders of the NAACP in 1909 have been memorialized with a plaque in the The Extra Mile — Points of Light Volunteer Pathway located on the sidewalks of downtown Washington, D.C. The Extra Mile is a program of Points of Light Institute, dedicated to inspire, mobilize and equip individuals to volunteer and serve. The Extra Mile was approved by Congress and the District of Columbia. It is funded entirely by private sources.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): W.E.B. DuBois. United States History. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1613.html.

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4 Responses to DuBois, W.E.B. (1868-1963)

  1. skye says:

    this is great it helped me for my research project for to kill a mockingbird.

  2. […] and discrimination around the nation.  They were joined in this venture by black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois.  Long a critic of the “social uplift” agenda advocated by black educator Booker T. […]

  3. […] she studied employment and housing problems in black Manhattan. During her investigations she met W.E.B. Du Bois and was introduced to the founding members of the Niagara […]

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