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Published: May 19, 2011

W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963)

African-American educator, sociologist, author, social reformer and the first African American to demand equal educational equality for American blacks. To that end, DuBois was a cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was instrumental in ending racial segregation in American public schools.
Of African, Dutch and French ancestry, DuBois was born to an old, propertied, New England family, in the small farming community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War and his father in the Civil War. An academic prodigy, he mingled freely with his white classmates, who paid little attention to his light, tan skin. After he graduated from high school at the head of his class at 16, however, his teachers discouraged him from applying to Harvard because of his race, and he enrolled at Fisk University, an all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee, where for the first time in his life, he found himself in an all-black community, surrounded by hostile whites. The shock changed his life. “No one,” he wrote, “but a Negro going into the South without previous experience of color caste can have any conception of its barbarism.”
W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963)

W. E. B. DuBois (Atlanta University Archives)

The following summer, DuBois went into the backwoods of Tennessee to teach in local schools. There, he saw a level of poverty and ignorance that stoked his anger for the rest of his life. Returning to Fisk, he founded the school newspaper, The Fisk Herald, and wrote “An Open Letter to the Southern People,” which warned of racial conflicts to come if the South did not grant African Americans equal opportunities. It was the first of what would be a lifetime of protests. DuBois graduated from Fisk in three years and earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a second B.A. in 1890. He went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D., for which he produced a thesis on slave trade laws, which was published by the American Historical Society. DuBois was elected its first black member. He then enrolled in Berlin University for two years, where his studies of socialism convinced him that black equality in the United States would be impossible while whites controlled industry. He linked the struggle for black equality in America with the black African struggle for independence from European colonial powers. At 25, he returned to the United States to teach and lead the struggle for African-American equality.
After two years at Wilberforce College in Ohio, he was appointed the first African- American sociologist in the United States by the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where he published The Philadelphia Negro. His work was acclaimed as the first study to prove that history and environment, not genetics, were responsible for African- American poverty in the North. In 1897, ATLANTA UNIVERSITY, then a small African- American college in Georgia, invited DuBois to head its sociology department and serve as professor of economics, history and political science. While there, he produced an ongoing study of African Americans that eventually grew into an encyclopedia of black life in the United States. His work earned worldwide attention, and in 1900, a grand prize and gold medal at the World’s Fair in Paris, France. The studies embarrassed the United States and the South, however, and the Southern Education Board, which funded black colleges, cut off Atlanta University’s funding until DuBois agreed to abandon his work.
Infuriated, DuBois called for a nationwide black protest. He urged blacks to boycott all white businesses and to organize themselves into economic cooperatives. In 1903, he wrote his most successful and most widely read book, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he attacked BOOKER T. WASHINGTON’s philosophy of “accommodation” with whites. For several decades, Washington had advocated massive programs of vocational education to teach blacks the skills and trades most needed by white employers. DuBois argued that Washington’s approach would make African Americans as dependent on whites as they had been during slavery. DuBois demanded nothing less than equal educational opportunity, whereby blacks could obtain the same broad scientific and liberal arts education as whites through equal access to primary and secondary schools and colleges and universities. Less than that, he said, would condemn African Americans to perpetual serfdom.
In 1905, DuBois organized the “Niagara Movement” at a Niagara Falls conference of 29 African-American leaders, who, with DuBois, repudiated Washington’s policy of “accommodation” and demanded complete political, educational and social equality for African Americans. After several years of race riots in the South and Midwest raised fears of a new civil war, a group of social leaders of both races met in New York in 1909 to replace the Niagara Movement with the new, interracial National Negro Committee, whose goal was racial peace and justice. In 1910, they changed the name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and named DuBois director of publications and research to write all the organization’s pamphlets and magazines.
In 1910, he left Atlanta University to found The Crisis magazine, the official publication of the NAACP. He built the circulation of The Crisis to more than 100,000 readers and made it the most influential journal of protest in the United States. The Crisis urged African Americans across the United States to abandon Booker T. Washington’s policy of “accommodation” in favor of a new protest movement. “If we are to die,” DuBois wrote, “in God’s name let us perish like men and not like bales of hay.” In 1915, Washington died, and, with him, his policy of accommodation. DuBois emerged as the nation’s most influential black leader, demanding nothing less than equal education, equal justice and equal rights for African Americans. His magazine was one of the few publications in the United States to report on the thousands of lynchings and other atrocities committed against African Americans. DuBois also reported on the achievements of African Americans, who were largely ignored by the white-owned press. He wrote on African cultures and encouraged African- American authors to submit poetry, fiction and nonfiction articles, thus spawning the so-called Harlem Renaissance of black writers. The Crisis encouraged young African Americans to pursue higher education, and he called on the African-American community to support Negro colleges.
The protest movement, however, brought DuBois nothing but bitter disappointment for almost the rest of his life. In 1916, the federal government rebuffed his efforts to allow African Americans to enlist in the Army. Later, more than 80,000 African Americans were drafted into the Army, only to be segregated into separate units from whites. In 1919, when race riots erupted in Illinois, Nebraska, Texas, Arkansas and Washington, D.C., DuBois demanded, in vain, “to have the Constitution of the United States thoroughly and completely enforced.”
World War I not only failed to win freedom for blacks in the United States, it failed to win freedom for Africans from European colonial powers in Africa, and in 1919, with the support of the NAACP, DuBois organized the first Pan-African Congress in Paris, where for the first time African Americans discussed mutual problems with Africans and West Indians. While Africans and West Indians demanded self-rule from European colonial powers, DuBois and the NAACP demanded nothing less than full integration of African Americans into white society.
In 1936, discouraged by the effects of the Depression on African Americans, DuBois left the NAACP and returned to Atlanta University, determined to build black higher education as a vehicle for African Americans to achieve equality. Although he convinced the presidents of 20 African-American colleges to cease competing with each other and cooperate, his voice in national affairs began to fade without The Crisis as a medium, and he never again wielded the same influence as a leader of his race.
After more than one million African- American servicemen were forced to serve in segregated units during World War II and after their service failed to earn them new freedom in the United States, DuBois once again raised his voice in protest. At 75, he left Atlanta University in 1944 and rejoined the NAACP. He traveled widely, lecturing, writing articles and stirring African Americans everywhere to protest white injustice, even appealing to the United Nations “to take cognizance of a situation which deprives [millions of African Americans] of their rights as men and citizens. . . .”
Embarrassed by his constant harangues, the federal government arrested him in 1951, accusing him of being an agent of the Soviet Union. He was tried and acquitted, but the government responded by stripping him of his passport and right to travel and voice his views overseas. In 1954, however, his words echoed through the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down racial segregation of American public schools in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, the landmark case brought by the NAACP that he had helped found. After the government indicted him as an enemy agent in 1961, DuBois and his wife fled the United States for good, accepting an invitation from Ghanian president Kwame Nkrumah “to come home” to his forebears in Africa, where he directed the publication of the Encyclopedia Africana.
Scorned by white Americans, he was honored by Africans everywhere; he became a Ghanian citizen in 1963. He died in Accra on August 27, 1963, and was buried on the same day that more than one-half million black and white Americans were assembling for the March on Washington, best remembered for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s demand for racial equality in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Before the march began, the throng bowed their heads in remembrance of DuBois, whom the NAACP later eulogized this way: “He created what never existed before—a Negro intelligentsia. . . .” His most important books include The Souls of Black Folk (1903), The Negro (1915), Black Reconstruction (1935), Dusk of Dawn (1940), Color and Democracy (1945), Encyclopedia of the Negro (ed., 1933–45) and Autobiography of W. E. B. DuBois (posthumous, 1968).
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