February 23, 1868 - W. E. B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community, and after completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Earlier, Du Bois had risen to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists that wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth, a concept under the umbrella of Racial uplift, and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

Racism was the main target of Du Bois's polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of American black soldiers in France and documented widespread prejudice and racism in the United States military.


Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, is a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. Borrowing a phrase from Frederick Douglass, he popularized the use of the term color line to represent the injustice of the separate but equal doctrine prevalent in American social and political life. He opens The Souls of Black Folk with the central thesis of much of his life's work: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line."

His 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn is regarded in part as one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published two other life stories, all three containing essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP's journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament.

The United States' Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois. Mary Silvina Burghardt's family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington and had long owned land in the state. She was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors. William Du Bois's maternal great-great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom during the late 18th century. His son Jack Burghardt was the father of Othello Burghardt, who in turn was the father of Mary Silvina Burghardt.

William Du Bois claimed Elizabeth Freeman as his relative; he wrote that she had married his great-grandfather Jack Burghardt. But Freeman was 20 years older than Burghardt, and no record of such a marriage has been found. It may have been Freeman's daughter, Betsy Humphrey, who married Burghardt after her first husband, Jonah Humphrey, left the area "around 1811", and after Burghardt's first wife died (c. 1810). If so, Freeman would have been William Du Bois's step-great-great-grandmother. Anecdotal evidence supports Humphrey's marrying Burghardt; a close relationship of some form is likely.

William Du Bois's paternal great-grandfather was James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, an ethnic French-American of Huguenot origin who fathered several children with slave women. One of James' mixed-race sons was Alexander, who was born on Long Cay in the Bahamas in 1803; in 1810 he immigrated to the United States with his father. Alexander Du Bois traveled and worked in Haiti, where he fathered a son, Alfred, with a mistress. Alexander returned to Connecticut, leaving Alfred in Haiti with his mother.

Sometime before 1860, Alfred Du Bois immigrated to the United States, settling in Massachusetts. He married Mary Silvina Burghardt on February 5, 1867, in Housatonic, a village in Great Barrington. Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after their son William was born. Mary Du Bois moved with her son back to her parents' house in Great Barrington, and they lived there until he was five. She worked to support her family (receiving some assistance from her brother and neighbors), until she suffered a stroke in the early 1880s. She died in 1885.

Great Barrington had a majority European American community, who generally treated Du Bois well. He attended the local integrated public school and played with white schoolmates. As an adult, he wrote about racism which he felt as a fatherless child and the experience of being a minority in the town. But teachers recognized his ability and encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.

He graduated from the town's Searles High School, and when he decided to attend college, the congregation of his childhood church, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, raised the money for his tuition.

 

University education

Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois's first experience with Southern racism, which at the time encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, suppression of black voting, and lynchings; the lattermost reached a peak in the next decade. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890, where he was strongly influenced by professor William James, prominent in American philosophy. Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor's degree, cum laude, in history. In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.

In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work. While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He came of age intellectually in the German capital while studying with some of that nation's most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Heinrich von Treitschke. He wrote about his time in Germany: "I found myself on the outside of the American world, looking in. With me were white folk – students, acquaintances, teachers – who viewed the scene with me. They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world; particularly, the part of the world whence I came." After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies; in 1895 he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Wilberforce and Philadelphia

In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute; he accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change. While at Wilberforce, Du Bois married Nina Gomer, one of his students, on May 12, 1896.

After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an "assistant in sociology" in the summer of 1896. He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia's African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899 while he was teaching at Atlanta University. It was the first case study of a black community in the United States. By the 1890s, Philadelphia's black neighborhoods had a negative reputation in terms of crime, poverty, and mortality. Du Bois's book undermined the stereotypes with empirical evidence and shaped his approach to segregation and its negative impact on black lives and reputations. The results led him to realize that racial integration was the key to democratic equality in American cities. The methodology employed in The Philadelphia Negro, namely the description and the mapping of social characteristics onto neighborhood areas was a forerunner to the studies under the Chicago School of Sociology.

While taking part in the American Negro Academy (ANA) in 1897, Du Bois presented a paper in which he rejected Frederick Douglass's plea for black Americans to integrate into white society. He wrote: "we are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland". In the August 1897 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois published "Strivings of the Negro People", his first work aimed at the general public, in which he enlarged upon his thesis that African Americans should embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society

Atlanta University
In July 1897, Du Bois left Philadelphia and took a professorship in history and economics at the historically black Atlanta University in Georgia. His first major academic work was his book The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a detailed and comprehensive sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on his field work in 1896–1897. This breakthrough in scholarship was the first scientific study of African Americans and a major contribution to early scientific sociology in the U.S. In the study, Du Bois coined the phrase "the submerged tenth" to describe the black underclass. Later in 1903 he popularized the term, the "Talented Tenth", applied to society's elite class. His terminology reflected his opinion that the elite of a nation, both black and white, were critical to achievements in culture and progress. During this period he wrote dismissively of the underclass, describing them as "lazy" or "unreliable", but – in contrast to other scholars – he attributed many of their societal problems to the ravages of slavery.

Du Bois's output at Atlanta University was prodigious, in spite of a limited budget: he produced numerous social science papers and annually hosted the Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. He also received grants from the U.S. government to prepare reports about African-American workforce and culture. His students considered him to be a brilliant, but aloof and strict, teacher.

1900 Paris Exposition
Du Bois was primary organizer of The Exhibit of American Negroes at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris between April and November 1900, for which he put together a series of 363 photographs aiming to commemorate the lives of African Americans at the turn of the century and challenge the racist caricatures and stereotypes of the day. Also included were charts, graphs, and maps. He was awarded a gold medal for his role as compiler of the materials, which are now housed at the Library of Congress.

Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise

In the first decade of the new century, Du Bois emerged as a spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington. Washington was the director of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and wielded tremendous influence within the African-American and white communities. Washington was the architect of the Atlanta Compromise, an unwritten deal that he had struck in 1895 with Southern white leaders who dominated state governments after Reconstruction. Essentially the agreement provided that Southern blacks, who overwhelmingly lived in rural communities, would submit to the current discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement, and non-unionized employment; that Southern whites would permit blacks to receive a basic education, some economic opportunities, and justice within the legal system; and that Northern whites would invest in Southern enterprises and fund black educational charities.

Despite initially sending congratulations to Washington for his Atlanta Exposition Speech, Du Bois later came to oppose Washington's plan, along with many other African Americans, including Archibald H. Grimke, Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar – representatives of the class of educated blacks that Du Bois would later call the "talented tenth". Du Bois felt that African Americans should fight for equal rights and higher opportunities, rather than passively submit to the segregation and discrimination of Washington's Atlanta Compromise.

Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose, which occurred near Atlanta in 1899. Hose was tortured, burned and hung by a mob of two thousand whites. When walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with newspaper editor Joel Chandler Harris, Du Bois encountered Hose's burned knuckles in a storefront display. The episode stunned Du Bois, and he resolved that "one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved". Du Bois realized that "the cure wasn't simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth".

In 1901, Du Bois wrote a review critical of Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery, which he later expanded and published to a wider audience as the essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" in The Souls of Black Folk. Later in life, Du Bois regretted having been critical of Washington in those essays. One of the contrasts between the two leaders was their approach to education: Washington felt that African-American schools should focus primarily on industrial education topics such as agricultural and mechanical skills, to prepare southern blacks for the opportunities in the rural areas where most lived. Du Bois felt that black schools should focus more on liberal arts and academic curriculum (including the classics, arts, and humanities), because liberal arts were required to develop a leadership elite. However, as sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and economists Gunnar Myrdal and Thomas Sowell have argued, such disagreement over education was a minor point of difference between Washington and Du Bois; both men acknowledged the importance of the form of education that the other emphasized. Sowell has also argued that, despite genuine disagreements between the two leaders, the supposed animosity between Washington and Du Bois actually formed among their followers, not between Washington and Du Bois themselves. Du Bois also made this observation in an interview published in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1965

Niagara Movement
In 1905, Du Bois and several other African-American civil rights activists – including Fredrick L. McGhee, Jesse Max Barber and William Monroe Trotter – met in Canada, near Niagara Falls, where they wrote a declaration of principles opposing the Atlanta Compromise, and which were incorporated as the Niagara Movement in 1906.

They wanted to publicize their ideals to other African Americans, but most black periodicals were owned by publishers sympathetic to Washington, so Du Bois bought a printing press and started publishing Moon Illustrated Weekly in December 1905.

It was the first African-American illustrated weekly, and Du Bois used it to attack Washington's positions, but the magazine lasted only for about eight months. Du Bois soon founded and edited another vehicle for his polemics, The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line, which debuted in 1907. Freeman H. M. Murray and Lafayette M. Hershaw served as The Horizon's co-editors.

The Niagarites held a second conference in August 1906, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown's birth, at the West Virginia site of Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Reverdy C. Ransom spoke, explaining that Washington's primary goal was to prepare blacks for employment in their current society: "Today, two classes of Negroes, ... are standing at the parting of the ways.

The one counsels patient submission to our present humiliations and degradations; ... The other class believe that it should not submit to being humiliated, degraded, and remanded to an inferior place ... it does not believe in bartering its manhood for the sake of gain."

The Souls of Black Folk
In an effort to portray the genius and humanity of the black race, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of 14 essays. James Weldon Johnson said the book's effect on African Americans was comparable to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The introduction famously proclaimed that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line".

Each chapter begins with two epigraphs – one from a white poet, and one from a black spiritual – to demonstrate intellectual and cultural parity between black and white cultures.

A major theme of the work was the double consciousness faced by African Americans: being both American and black. This was a unique identity which, according to Du Bois, had been a handicap in the past, but could be a strength in the future: "Henceforth, the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation."

Jonathon S. Kahn in Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of Du Bois shows how Du Bois, in his The Souls of Black Folk, represents an exemplary text of pragmatic religious naturalism. On page 12 Kahn writes: "Du Bois needs to be understood as an African American pragmatic religious naturalist. By this I mean that, like Du Bois the American traditional pragmatic religious naturalism, which runs through William James, George Santayana and John Dewey, seeks religion without metaphysical foundations." Kahn's interpretation of religious naturalism is very broad but he relates it to specific thinkers. Du Bois's anti-metaphysical viewpoint places him in the sphere of religious naturalism as typified by William James and others.

Racial violence
Two calamities in the autumn of 1906 shocked African Americans, and they contributed to strengthening support for Du Bois's struggle for civil rights to prevail over Booker T. Washington's accommodationism. First, President Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers because they were accused of crimes as a result of the Brownsville Affair. Many of the discharged soldiers had served for 20 years and were near retirement. Second, in September, riots broke out in Atlanta, precipitated by unfounded allegations of black men assaulting white women. This was a catalyst for racial tensions based on a job shortage and employers playing black workers against white workers. Ten thousand whites rampaged through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find, resulting in over 25 deaths. In the aftermath of the 1906 violence, Du Bois urged blacks to withdraw their support from the Republican Party, because Republicans Roosevelt and William Howard Taft did not sufficiently support blacks. Most African Americans had been loyal to the Republican Party since the time of Abraham Lincoln.

Du Bois wrote the essay, "A Litany at Atlanta", which asserted that the riot demonstrated that the Atlanta Compromise was a failure. Despite upholding their end of the bargain, blacks had failed to receive legal justice in the South. Historian David Levering Lewis has written that the Compromise no longer held because white patrician planters, who took a paternalistic role, had been replaced by aggressive businessmen who were willing to pit blacks against whites. These two calamities were watershed events for the African-American community, marking the ascendancy of Du Bois's vision of equal rights.

In addition to writing editorials, Du Bois continued to produce scholarly work at Atlanta University. In 1909, after five years of effort, he published a biography of abolitionist John Brown. It contained many insights, but also contained some factual errors. The work was strongly criticized by The Nation, which was owned by Oswald Villard, who was writing his own, competing biography of John Brown. Possibly as a result, Du Bois's work was largely ignored by white scholars. After publishing a piece in Collier's magazine warning of the end of "white supremacy", Du Bois had difficulty getting pieces accepted by major periodicals, although he did continue to publish columns regularly in The Horizon magazine.

Du Bois was the first African American invited by the American Historical Association (AHA) to present a paper at their annual conference. He read his paper, Reconstruction and Its Benefits, to an astounded audience at the AHA's December 1909 conference. The paper went against the mainstream historical view, promoted by the Dunning School of scholars at Columbia University, that Reconstruction was a disaster, caused by the ineptitude and sloth of blacks. To the contrary, Du Bois asserted that the brief period of African-American leadership in the South accomplished three important goals: democracy, free public schools, and new social welfare legislation. He asserted that it was the federal government's failure to manage the Freedmen's Bureau, to distribute land, and to establish an educational system, that doomed African-American prospects in the South. When Du Bois submitted the paper for publication a few months later in the American Historical Review, he asked that the word Negro be capitalized. The editor, J. Franklin Jameson, refused, and published the paper without the capitalization. The paper was mostly ignored by white historians. Du Bois later developed his paper as his ground-breaking 1935 book, Black Reconstruction, which marshaled extensive facts to support his assertions. The AHA did not invite another African-American speaker until 1940.

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Last modified on Friday, 05 February 2021 12:52
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