A Week to Remember: W. E. B. Du Bois

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois

On February 23, 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was born. Du Bois was a sociologist and historian, and an important leader of the early African-American civil rights movement.

Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he attended the integrated public schools. He gave great credit to his teachers for recognizing and encouraging his academic ability, which was not always the case for black students, even in the integrated schools of the northern United States.

The predominantly white congregation of his childhood church also recognized his potential and helped to raise the tuition money for Du Bois to attend Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. He went on to graduate studies at Harvard, and in 1895, became the first African-American student to earn a PhD there, with his dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, 1638-1870 (e-book, print).

While working as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois conducted sociological research in Philadelphia's African-American neighborhoods. In 1899, that research was published as The Philadelphia Negro (e-book), the first significant case study of black Americans. His Philadelphia research greatly shaped the way Du Bois thought about civil rights; he came to believe that segregation had a strong negative impact on the black community and that integration was essential to true equality.

In 1900, Du Bois attended the first Pan-African Conference, a gathering of leaders and scholars of African descent from around the world. While there, he composed an open letter, the "Address to the Nations of the World," which was adopted by the conference and sent to world leaders, urging them to work against racism and colonialism, and to recognize the rights of African nations to self-governance and independence. In that letter, Du Bois wrote that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line."

That thought became a frequent refrain in Du Bois' 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (e-book, e-audio, print, audio), an important work in the history of both sociology and African-American literature, and his most widely read work today. Stephanie J. Shaw's W. E. B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk (e-book) explores the social and political context in which the book was written; Stanley Crouch and Playthell Benjamin look at the book's significance after 100 years in Reconsidering The Souls of Black Folk (print).

At the turn of the century, the African-American civil rights movement was sharply divided. Booker T. Washington, in what came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise," argued for patience, saying that Southern blacks should continue to accept segregation in exchange for basic education rights and more fairness in the justice system. Du Bois strongly disagreed, and his Niagara Movement argued for swift progress towards full equality and integration. Later in life, Du Bois claimed that the disagreement between Washington and himself had always been exaggerated, and was more important to the followers of the two men than it was to either of them.

In 1910, Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He served as editor of the NAACP's monthly magazine, The Crisis, until 1934. During those years, Du Bois continued his own scholarly and personal writing. The Negro (e-book), published in 1915, was the first English-language history of Africa and African-Americans. He wrote two volumes that combined memoir with earlier published essays, Darkwater in 1920 (e-book), and Dusk of Dawn in 1940 (print). His 1935 work, Black Reconstruction in America, was an important look at the post-Civil War era that was largely ignored by white historians until the 1960s.

Du Bois' split from the NAACP was largely rooted in his increasing belief that capitalism was at the heart of America's racial divide. He grew more interested in socialism and Communism, and in anti-war activism. Du Bois ran for Senate from New York on the American Labor Party ticket in 1950 and got 4% of the vote.

In 1951, Du Bois was working as chairman of the Peace Information Center, which advocated for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Justice Department, acting at the height of Cold War paranoia, decided that the PIC must be under foreign control, and tried Du Bois and other PIC leaders for failing to register as agents of a foreign state. The charges were eventually dismissed, but the U.S. government seized Du Bois' passport, which it held for eight years. In 1961, after the United States Supreme Court upheld legislation requiring Communists to register with the government, Du Bois registered as a member of the Communist Party in protest.

DuBois spent the last two years of his life in Ghana, where he hoped to begin work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora, but declining health kept him from beginning the project. He died on August 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana, at the age of 95.

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois (print) was posthumously published in 1968. David Levering Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the first volume (e-book, print) of his 2-volume biography of Du Bois, which covers 1868-1919; the second volume (e-book, print) covers 1919-1963. Du Bois is also the subject of the documentary W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices (streaming).

Also This Week

  • February 24, 1841: John Philip Holland was born. Holland was a schoolteacher who emigrated to the United States in 1873. There, he began the work that would lead him to develop the first submarine commissioned by the United States Navy. Holland's engineering skills were largely self-taught. He submitted his first designs to the Navy in 1875, and would continue improving them for the next twenty years until the Navy finally purchased his plans in 1897. The submarine USS Holland was commissioned in 1900. Lawrence Goldston's Going Deep (e-book) tells the story of Holland and his invention.
  • February 21, 1934: Rue McClanahan was born. McClanahan was a comic actress who had her biggest success in television, where she appeared for six years on Maude and seven years on The Golden Girls. The two roles showed different sides of her comic range; Maude's Vivian was sweetly absentminded, and The Golden Girls' Blanche was a lustful Southern belle. McClanahan tells her life story in My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away (e-book, print).
  • February 24, 1943: Kent Haruf was born. Haruf was a novelist who wrote stories of small-town life in the fictional town, Holt, Colorado. He was praised for the richness of his characters, and the straightforward lyricism of his prose. Haruf wrote six novels, all of which are available as e-books, e-audios, and in print.
  • February 23 is National Banana Bread Day. You may have noticed by now that we do enjoy our baked goods here at "A Week to Remember," and what's not to like about banana bread? Recipes began to appear in American cookbooks during the 1930s. Some food historians believe that it was a creation of the Great Depression when housewives needed a way to use up overripe bananas, which were too expensive to throw out. Eli Hartly's Banana Bread Cookbook (e-book) offers more than 50 variations on the basic recipe.