A civil rights champion and prolific writer, William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois led the black American Civil Rights movement of the early 20th century in the United States.
Du Bois was a prolific activist, campaigning for African Americans’ right to a full education and equal opportunities in the US. Similarly, as a writer, his work explored and criticised imperialism, capitalism and racism. Perhaps most famously, Du Bois wrote Souls of Black Folk (1903), a major landmark of black American literature.
The US government took Du Bois to court for his anti-war activism in 1951. He was acquitted, though the US later denied him an American passport. Du Bois died a Ghanaian citizen in 1963 but is remembered as a key contributor to American literature and the American Civil Rights movement.
Here are 10 facts about the writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois.
1. W. E. B. Du Bois was born on 23 February 1868
Du Bois was born in the town of Great Barrington in Massachusetts. His mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, belonged to one of the few black families in town that owned land.
His father, Alfred Du Bois, had come from Haiti to Massachusetts and served during the American Civil War. He married Mary in 1867 but left his family just 2 years after William was born.
2. Du Bois first experienced Jim Crow racism at college
Du Bois was generally treated well in Great Barrington. He went to the local public school, where his teachers recognised his potential, and played alongside white children.
In 1885 he started at Fisk University, a black college in Nashville, and it was there that he first experienced the racism of Jim Crow, including the suppression of black voting and lynching prevalent in the South. He graduated in 1888.
3. He was the first black American to earn a PhD from Harvard
Between 1888 and 1890 Du Bois attended Harvard College, after which he gained a fellowship to attend the University of Berlin. In Berlin, Du Bois thrived and met several prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner and Heinrich von Treitschke. After returning to the US in 1895, he earned his PhD in sociology from Harvard University.
4. Du Bois co-founded the Niagara Movement in 1905
The Niagara Movement was a civil rights organisation that opposed the ‘Atlanta Compromise’, an unwritten deal between Southern white leaders and Booker T. Washington, the most influential black leader at the time. It stipulated that southern black Americans would submit to discrimination and segregation while surrendering their right to vote. In return, black Americans would receive basic education and due process in law.
Although Washington had organised the deal, Du Bois opposed it. He felt black Americans should fight for equal rights and dignity.
In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers, many near retirement. That September, the Atlanta race riot broke out as a white mob brutally killed at least 25 black Americans. Combined, these incidents became a turning point for the black American community who increasingly felt that the terms of the Atlanta Compromise weren’t enough. Support for Du Bois’ vision for equal rights rose.
5. He also co-founded the NAACP
In 1909, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), a black American civil rights organisation still active today. He was editor of NAACP’s journal The Crisis for its first 24 years.
6. Du Bois both supported and criticised the Harlem Renaissance
During the 1920s, Du Bois supported the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement centred in the New York suburb of Harlem in which the arts of the African diaspora flourished. Many saw it as an opportunity to promote African American literature, music and culture on a global stage.
But Du Bois later became disillusioned, believing that whites only visited Harlem for a taboo pleasure, not to celebrate the depth and importance of African American culture, literature and ideas. He also thought artists of the Harlem Renaissance shirked their responsibilities to the community.
7. He was tried in 1951 for acting as an agent of a foreign state
Du Bois thought capitalism was responsible for racism and poverty, and he believed socialism could bring racial equality. However, being associated with prominent communists made him a target for the FBI who at the time were aggressively hunting anyone with communist sympathies.
Also making him unpopular with the FBI, Du Bois was an anti-war activist. In 1950, after World War Two, he became chairman of the Peace Information Centre (PIC), an anti-war organisation campaigning to ban nuclear weapons. The PIC were told to register as agents working for a foreign state. Du Bois refused.
In 1951 he was brought to trial, and Albert Einstein even offered to give a character witness, although the high level of publicity convinced the judge to acquit Du Bois.
8. Du Bois was a citizen of Ghana
Throughout the 1950s, after his arrest, Du Bois was shunned by his peers and pestered by federal agents, including having his passport held for 8 years until 1960. Du Bois then went to Ghana to celebrate the new independent republic and work on a new project about the African diaspora. In 1963, the US refused to renew his passport and he instead became a Ghanain citizen.
9. He was most famously a writer
Among plays, poems, histories and more, Du Bois wrote 21 books and published over 100 essays and articles. His most famous work remains Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of essays where he explored themes around black American lives. Today, the book is considered a major landmark of black American literature.
10. W. E. B. Du Bois died on 27 August 1963 in Accra
After moving to Ghana with his second wife, Shirley, Du Bois’ health worsened and he died at his home aged 95. The next day in Washington D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. gave his seminal I Have a Dream speech. A year later, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, embodying many of Du Bois’ reforms.