David Levering Lewis, a biographer, wrote, "In the course of his long, turbulent career, W.E.B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity."
Read The Negro by W. E. B. Du Bois, one of six of his works available free from Project Gutenberg.
Celebrate Black History Month with The Courier Family history
W.E.B. Du Bois was born on Church Street on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington at the south-western edge of Massachusetts, to Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois, whose February 5, 1867, wedding had been announced in the Berkshire Courier. Alfred Du Bois had been born in San Domingo, then under the rule of Haiti, now the independent Dominican Republic. Their son was born one year after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and added to the U.S. Constitution. Alfred Du Bois was descended from ethnically mixed free people of color, including the slave holding Dr. James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, a physician. In the Bahamas, James Du Bois had sired three sons, including Alfred, and a daughter, by his slave mistress.
Du Bois was also the great-grandson of Elizabeth Freeman (“Mum Bett”), a slave who successfully sued for her freedom, laying the groundwork for the eventual abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
Du Bois was born free and did not have contact with his biological father. He blamed his maternal grandparents for his father’s leaving because they did not take kindly to him. Du Bois was very close to his mother, Mary. Du Bois moved frequently when he was young, after Mary suffered a stroke which left her unable to work. They survived on money from family members and Du Bois' after-school jobs. Du Bois wanted to help his mother as much as possible and believed he could improve their lives through education. Some of the neighborhood whites noticed him, and one allowed Du Bois and his mother to rent a house from him in Great Barrington.
While living there, Du Bois performed chores and worked odd jobs. Du Bois did not feel differently because of his skin color while he was in school. In fact the only times he felt out of place was when out-of-towners would visit Great Barrington. One such incident occurred when a white girl who was new in school refused to take one of his fake calling cards during a game. The girl told him she would not accept it because he was black. He then realized that there would always be some kind of barrier between whites and others.
Young Du Bois may have been an outsider because of his status, being poor, not having a father and being extremely intellectual for his age; however, he was very comfortable academically. Many around him recognized his intelligence and encouraged him to further his education with college preparatory courses while in high school. This academic confidence led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.
After graduating from Fisk University in 1888, Du Bois took a bachelor's degree cum laude from Harvard College in 1890 (Harvard having refused to recognize the equivalency of his Fisk degree), and in 1892 received a stipend to attend the University of Berlin. While a student in Berlin, he travelled extensively throughout Europe, and came of age intellectually while studying with some of the most prominent social scientists in the German capital, such as Gustav von Schmoller. In 1896, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. After teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio and the University of Pennsylvania, he established the department of sociology at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University).
Du Bois wrote many books including three major autobiographies. Among his works considered most significant were The Philadelphia Negro in 1896, The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, John Brown in 1909, Black Reconstruction in 1935, and Black Folk, Then and Now in 1939. His book, The Negro (published in 1915) influenced the work of pioneer Africanist scholars as Drusilla Dunjee Houston and William Leo Hansberry.
In 1940, at Atlanta University, Du Bois founded Phylon magazine. In 1946, he wrote The World and Africa: An Inquiry Into the Part that Africa has Played in World History. In 1945, he helped organize the historic Fifth Pan-African Conference in Manchester, England.
Du Bois was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.
While prominent white voices denied African American cultural, political and social relevance to American history and civic life, in his epic work, Reconstruction Du Bois documented how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. He demonstrated the ways Black emancipation—the crux of Reconstruction—promoted a radical restructuring of United States society, as well as how and why the country turned its back on human rights for African Americans in the aftermath of Reconstruction. This theme was taken up later and expanded by Eric Foner and Leon F. Litwack, the two leading contemporary scholars of the Reconstruction era.
Du Bois began writing about crime in 1897, shortly after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard (Zuckerman, 2004, p. 2). His first work involving crime was A Program of Social Reform was shortly followed by his second, The Study of the Negro Problems (Du Bois, 1897)(Du Bois, 1898). The first work that involved in depth criminological study and theorizing was The Philadelphia Negro, in which a large section was devoted to analysis of the black criminal population in Philadelphia (Du Bois, 1899).
Du Bois(1899) sets forth three significant parts to his criminological theory. The first major part is that Negro crime is caused by the strain of the ‘social revolution’ experienced by black Americans as they began to adapt to their new found freedom and position in the nation. This theory is very similar to Durkheim’s(1893) Anomie theory, but applied specifically to the newly freed Negro. This similarity is particularly interesting since Du Bois could not have read Durkheim's theory prior to publishing his own work. Du Bois(1900a, p. 3) credits emancipation with causing the boom in crime in the Negro population. He explains “the appearance of crime among the Southern Negroes is a symptom of wrong social conditions- of a stress of life greater than a large part of the community can bear”(Du Bois, 1901b, p. 745). He separates out the strains on southern Negroes from those on northern Negroes because the problems of city life were very different from those of the rural sharecropper.
Du Bois’ (1904a) theory’s second major part is that Negro crime declined as the American Negro population moved towards status. This idea, referred to later as stratification, is strikingly similar to Merton’s (1968) structure-strain theory of deviance. In The Philadelphia Negro and later statistical studies, Du Bois found direct correlations between level of employment, level of education and criminal activity.
The final part of the theory is that the Talented Tenth or the ‘exceptional men’ of the black race would be the ones to lead the race and save it from its criminal problems (Du Bois, 1903, p. 33). Du Bois sees the evolution of a class system within black American society as necessary to carry out the improvements necessary to reduce crime in the black population (Du Bois, 1903). He sets forth a number of solutions to crime that this Talented Tenth must endeavor to enact (Du Bois, 1903, p. 2). Du Bois postulated early in his career that Negro crime was caused by the strain of the ‘social revolution’ experienced by black Americans as they began to adapt to their new found freedom and position in the nation (1899). He is perhaps the first criminologist to combine historical fact with social change, and use the combination to postulate his theories. He credited the crime increase after the civil war to “increased complexity of life,” competition for jobs in industry, and the mass exodus from the farmland and immigration to the cities (Du Bois, 1899). Du Bois(1899, p. 64) states in The Philadelphia Negro: "Naturally then, if men are suddenly transported from one environment to another, the result is lack of harmony with the new conditions; lack of harmony with the new physical surroundings leading to disease and death or modification of physique; lack of harmony with social surroundings leading to crime (p. 64)."
Civil rights activism
Du Bois was the most prominent intellectual leader and political activist on behalf of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. A contemporary of Booker T. Washington, the two carried on a dialogue about segregation and political disenfranchisement. He was labeled "The Father of Pan-Africanism."
In 1905, Du Bois helped to found the Niagara Movement with William Monroe Trotter but their alliance was short-lived as they had a dispute over whether or not white people should be included in the organization and in the struggle for Civil Rights. Du Bois felt that they should, and with a group of like-minded supporters, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
In 1910, he left his teaching post at Atlanta University to work as publications director at the NAACP full-time. He wrote weekly columns in many newspapers, including the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News, three African-American newspapers, and also the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle.
For 25 years, Du Bois worked as Editor-in-Chief of the NAACP publication, The Crisis, which then included the subtitle A Record of the Darker Races. He commented freely and widely on current events and set the agenda for the fledgling NAACP. Its circulation soared from 1,000 in 1910 to more than 100,000 by 1920.
Du Bois published Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. As a repository of black thought, the Crisis was initially a monopoly, David Levering Lewis observed. In 1913, Du Bois wrote The Star of Ethiopia, a historical pageant, to promote African-American history and civil rights.
The seminal debate between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois played out in the pages of the Crisis with Washington advocating an accommodational philosophy of self-help and vocational training for Southern blacks while Du Bois pressed for full educational opportunities.
Du Bois became increasingly estranged from Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, and began to question the organization's opposition to racial segregation at all costs. Du Bois thought that this policy, while generally sound, undermined those black institutions that did exist, which Du Bois thought should be defended and improved, rather than attacked as inferior. By the 1930s, Lewis said, the NAACP had become more institutional and Du Bois, increasingly radical, sometimes at odds with leaders such as Walter White and Roy Wilkins. In 1934, after writing two essays in the Crisis suggesting that black separatism could be a useful economic strategy, Du Bois left the magazine to return to teaching at Atlanta University.
During World War I, Du Bois was offered an Army commission as an officer. He accepted but failed to pass the physical.
American Historical Association
In 1899, the American Historical Association (AHA) convened in Boston and Cambridge. According to David Levering Lewis, "The Association then numbered fifteen hundred members and was presided over by James Ford Rhodes, successful Ohio businessman and even more successful author of the arbitral, multi-volume History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. At this 1899 meeting, there were no Jews, no Negroes, no women to speak of, and all the gays were in the closet."
In 1909, W.E.B. Du Bois addressed the AHA. "His would be the first and last appearance of an African American on the program until 1940."
In a review of Part II of Lewis's biography of Du Bois, Michael R. Winston observed that one historical question not often addressed is also fundamental to an understanding of American history. That questions is "how black Americans developed the psychological stamina and collective social capacity to cope with the sophisticated system of racial domination that white Americans had anchored deeply in law and custom."
Winston continued, "Although any reasonable answer is extraordinarily complex, no adequate one can ignore the man (Du Bois) whose genius was for 70 years at the intellectual epicenter of the struggle to destroy white supremacy as public policy and social fact in the United States."
Du Bois became impressed by the growing strength of Imperial Japan following the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Du Bois saw the victory of Japan over Tsarist Russia as an example of "colored pride". According to historian David Levering Lewis, Du Bois became a willing part of Japan's so-called "Negro Propaganda Operations" run by Japanese academic and Imperial Agent Hikida Yasuichi.
After traveling to the United States to speak with University students at Howard University, Scripps College and Tuskegee University, Yasuichi became closely involved in shaping Du Bois's opinions of Imperial Japan. In 1936, Yasuichi and the Japanese Ambassador arranged a junket for Du Bois and a small group of fellow academics. The trip included stops in Japan, China, and the Soviet Union, although the Soviet leg was canceled because Du Bois' diplomatic contact, Karl Radek, had been swept up in Stalin's purges. While on the Chinese leg of the trip, Du Bois commented that the source of Chinese-Japanese enmity was China's "submission to white aggression and Japan's resistance", and he asked the Chinese people to welcome the Japanese as liberators. Du Bois joined a large group of African American academics that cited the Mukden Incident to justify Japan's occupation and annexation of the formerly European held southern Manchuria.
Du Bois was investigated by the FBI, who claimed in May of 1942 that "[h]is writing indicates him to be a socialist," and that he "has been called a Communist and at the same time criticized by the Communist Party."
Du Bois visited Communist China during the Great Leap Forward. Also, in the 16 March 1953 issue of The National Guardian, Du Bois wrote "Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature."
Du Bois was chairman of the Peace Information Center at the start of the Korean War. He was among the signers of the Stockholm Peace Pledge, which opposed the use of nuclear weapons. In 1950, he ran for the U.S. Senate on the American Labor Party ticket in New York and received 4% of the vote. He was indicted in the United States under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and acquitted for lack of evidence. W.E.B. Du Bois became disillusioned with both black capitalism and racism in the United States. In 1959, Du Bois received the Lenin Peace Prize. In 1961, at the age of 93, he joined the Communist Party USA.
Citizen of Ghana
Du Bois was invited to Ghana in 1961 by President Kwame Nkrumah to direct the Encyclopedia Africana, a government production, and a long-held dream of his. When, in 1963, he was refused a new U.S. passport, he and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, became citizens of Ghana, making them dual citizens of Ghana and the United States. Du Bois' health had declined in 1962, and on August 27, 1963, he died in Accra, Ghana at the age of ninety-five, one day before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.