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The writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, including the first study of urban blacks in the United States, had a huge impact on African American communities during the 1900s. Du Bois believed in Pan- Africanism and played a major role in founding the NAACP. Although he left the United States for political reasons, he remained (and still does nearly fifty years after his death) an influential presence.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was one of the most important African American leaders in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. He made significant contributions as a journalist, sociologist, historian, novelist, pamphleteer, civil rights leader, and teacher. Among his many publications are sociological studies as well as studies of the slave trade (1896), John Brown (1909), and Reconstruction (1935).
Du Bois was born on 23 February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In 1884, he graduated from Great Barrington High School as valedictorian of his class. In 1888, Du Bois graduated from Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee. It was while in Tennessee that Du Bois first experienced overt racial discrimination. Du Bois earned a second bachelor’s degree (1890) and a master of arts degree (1892) from Harvard University. From 1892 to 1893, he studied at the University of Berlin, where he was greatly influenced by the socialist scholar Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932). Du Bois remained sympathetic to Marxism for the rest of his life.
In 1895, W. E. B. Du Bois was awarded the first doctorate to be granted to an African American by Harvard. His doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, was published in 1896. It constitutes a pioneering application of economic analysis to history. Previous studies of slavery had given little attention to slavery’s indissoluble connection to the cotton market.
After receiving his doctorate from Harvard, Du Bois served as a professor at Wilberforce University (1894–1896) and as an assistant instructor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania (1896– 1897). But he is best known for his long association with Atlanta University, where he was a professor of economics and history from 1897 to 1910 and served as the chair of the sociology department from 1934 to 1944.
Between 1897 and 1914, Du Bois completed multiple sociological investigations of African Americans, including The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), which is the first case study of an urban African American community ever conducted in the United States.
Du Bois’s views on civil rights clashed with those of another prominent African American leader, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). Washington urged African Americans to accept discrimination for the time being and encouraged them to elevate themselves through hard work. At first, Du Bois agreed with Washington; he applauded the famous 1895 Atlanta speech in which Washington argued for “segregated equality.” But changes within African American communities militated against Washington’s position as African American migration accelerated the growth of black ghettoes. Du Bois addressed Washington’s position in a chapter of his most widely known book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), cogently arguing that Washington’s strategy could serve only to perpetuate the further oppression of African Americans.
The Souls of Black Folk also gave first expression to Du Bois’s most abiding theoretical contribution to African American studies. He underscored the characteristic dualism of African Americans: “One ever feels his ‘two-ness’—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two irreconcilable strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (1996, 58).
In 1905, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement. This small organization, which met annually until 1909, was seriously weakened by internal squabbles. Nevertheless, it is significant as the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Du Bois played a major role in founding the NAACP in 1909 and became the association’s director of research. As founding editor of its magazine The Crisis, he wrote editorials that resulted in a number of changes to public policy: the admission of African Americans to officers’ training schools, establishment of legal procedures against those accused of lynching African Americans, and the creation of a federal work plan to benefit African American veterans.
Du Bois’s nationalism took a variety of forms. He was a strong advocate of Pan-Africanism—a political ideology based on the belief that all people of African descent had common interests and should work together in a common struggle for freedom. In 1900, Du Bois served as an organizer of the first Pan- African Conference, which was held in London. He was also the architect of four subsequent congresses held between 1919 and 1927.
In addition, Du Bois was an advocate of economic nationalism. He asserted that African Americans needed to develop a separate “group economy” of producers and consumers. Others within the NAACP did not see it this way. Du Bois’s ideas brought about an intense ideological split within the organization, and in 1934 Du Bois resigned from the NAACP.
After leaving the NAACP, Du Bois returned to Atlanta University, where he devoted the next ten years of his life to teaching and research. In 1940, he founded the magazine Phylon: The Atlanta University’s Review of Race and Culture. He also produced two major books: Black Reconstruction (1935) and Dusk of Dawn (1940). Black Reconstruction provided an innovative and exhaustive treatment of a pivotal period in African American history. Dusk of Dawn was autobiographical and recounted Du Bois’s role in the civil rights struggle.
Following a decade of teaching at Atlanta University, Du Bois returned to the NAACP, where he held a research position from 1944 to 1948, but this affiliation ended in yet another bitter debate.
In the 1890s, Du Bois had been an outspoken supporter of capitalism, publicly urging African Americans to support African American businesses. By 1905, however, he became thoroughly convinced of the advantages of socialism. He joined the Socialist Party in 1912 and remained sympathetic to socialist ideals for the rest of his life.
After 1948, Du Bois moved further leftward politically. He began to identify with pro-Russian causes and was indicted in 1951 as an “unregistered agent for a foreign power.” Although acquitted of all charges, Du Bois became increasingly disillusioned with the United States. In 1962, he renounced his American citizenship and moved to Ghana, where he was to serve as editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Africana. The encyclopedia was never completed.
W. E. B. Du Bois died on 27 August 1963, in Accra, Ghana. The majority of his personal papers are archived at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1896). The suppression of the African slave trade to the United States. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899). The Philadelphia Negro: A social study. New York: Benjamin Blom.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1940). Dusk of dawn: An essay toward and autobiography of a race concept. New York: Harcourt Brace.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1996). The souls of black folk. New York: Modern Library. (Original work published 1903)
- Horne, G., & Young, M. (Eds.). (2001). W. E. B. Du Bois: An encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Lewis, D. L. (1993). W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868–1919: Biography of a race. New York: Henry Holt.
- Lewis, D. L. (2000). W. E. B. Du Bois, 1919–1963: The fight for equality and the American century. New York: Henry Holt.
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