W.E.B. Du Bois was an influential African American rights activist during the early 20th century. He co-founded the NAACP and wrote ‘The Souls of Black Folk.’
Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?
Scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895. He wrote extensively and was the best-known spokesperson for African American rights during the first half of the 20th century. Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Early Life and Education
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, better known as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
While growing up in a mostly white American town, Du Bois identified himself as mulatto, but freely attended school with white people and was enthusiastically supported in his academic studies by his white teachers.
In 1885, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow laws. For the first time, he began analyzing the deep troubles of American racism.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Fisk, Du Bois entered Harvard University. He paid his way with money from summer jobs, scholarships and loans from friends. After completing his master’s degree, he was selected for a study-abroad program at the University of Berlin. While a pupil in Germany, he studied with some of the most prominent social scientists of his day and was exposed to political perspectives that he touted for the remainder of his life.
Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895.
He went on to enroll as a doctoral student at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (now Humboldt-Universität). He would be awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Humboldt decades later, in 1958.
Writing and Activism
Du Bois published his landmark study — the first case study of an African American community — The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), marking the beginning of his expansive writing career.
In the study, he coined the phrase “the talented tenth,” a term that described the likelihood of one in 10 Black men becoming leaders of their race.
W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington
While working as a professor at Atlanta University, Du Bois rose to national prominence when he very publicly opposed Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise,” an agreement that asserted that vocational education for Black people was more valuable to them than social advantages like higher education or political office.
Du Bois criticized Washington for not demanding full equality for African Americans, as granted by the 14th Amendment. Du Bois fought what he believed was an inferior strategy, subsequently becoming a spokesperson for full and equal rights in every realm of a person’s life.
‘The Souls of Black Folks’
In 1903, Du Bois published a seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of 14 essays. In the years following, he adamantly opposed the idea of biological white superiority and vocally supported women’s rights.
In 1909, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis.
A proponent of Pan-Africanism, Du Bois helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to free African colonies from European powers.
Du Bois died on August 27, 1963 — one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington — at the age of 95, in Accra, Ghana, while working on an encyclopedia of the African Diaspora.