Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 23: “the problem of the color line”

Do you know who this is?
-He was one of the founders of the NAACP.
-He has been identified as one of America’s hundred greatest African-Americans.
-He would become a naturalized citizen of Ghana.

He was a brilliant thinker, an author, a revolutionary, and highly educated. He grew up in an atmosphere of equality between the races, but was one who would become embroiled in the early African-American civil rights movement in the United States. He would eventually seek the equality that was promised in communism by embracing that theory of government, and would die in Africa – having by the time of his death made his mark on American history, helping to set the stage for the successful civil rights efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. Wikipedia provides the statement that 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, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity."

William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was born to Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, located in the western portion of Massachusetts. His parentage was termed ‘mixed race’ in the 19th century, a heritage leaving him with light skin and blue eyes. He would late write that it included "a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but, Thank God! No 'Anglo-Saxon'...."

His father would desert the family by the time William was two. While he was still young, his mother would suffer a stroke, becoming unable to work regularly. The family was impoverished, and was often supported by family as well as William’s after-school jobs. Very early in his life William learned about responsibility, hard work, and became convinced that education was the key to improvement. He would set himself to that task, encouraged by many of his teachers.

While he grew up in a racially tolerant neighborhood that did not accurately reflect the racial attitudes of the 1870s and 1880s. Most of As he became exposed to racism, William came to believe that he would and should use his goal of higher education to help the move to equality between African-American and white society.

“Had it not been for the race problem early thrust upon me and enveloping me, I should have probably been an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the established social order into which I was born. But just that part of this order which seemed to most of my fellows nearest perfection seemed to me most inequitable and wrong; and starting from that critique, I gradually, as the year went by, found other things to question in my environment.” -W.E.B Du Bois
After high school, Du Bois wanted to attend Harvard University, but could not afford it. He attended Fisk University, a historically all-black school in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. Fisk exposed him to “what it meant to be a Negro in a white dominated land”. He applied to Harvard as a junior in 1888 on a $250 scholarship, and would graduate with a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in 1890. He would spend two years at the University of Berlin, then in 1895, he would become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. His dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870" was published in 1896 as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Studies series.

He would teach at African-American colleges in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and would – in 1897 – accept a position at Atlanta University. Using the University as his base, he would spend thirteen years there in his field of sociology studying African-American morality, urbanizations, business, crime, and a host of other social forces – conducting studies to help in creating social reform. This was an ideal time for this effort as America was in the middle of the Progressive Era.

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” –W.E.B. DuBois
In July 1905 a group of men organized what became known as the Niagara Movement – the fore-runner of the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which was created in 1909. These organizations urged full equality – economic, social, and political – for African Americans. William was a key element in both of these organizations – and as director of publications and research, Du Bois was the only African American among its early officers. He would be the publications director for the NAACP for a quarter century, publishing numerous pamphlets, articles, and newspaper releases advocating the cause of equality. He also published a number of books, the most famous of which is probably The Souls of Black Folk (1903), as well as founding The Crisis – the association’s magazine.

"By 'Freedom' for Negroes, I meant and still mean, full economic, political and Social equality with American citizens, in thought, expression and action, with no discrimination based on race or color." –W.E.B. DuBois
Increasingly, Du Bois looked beyond American race relations to international economics and politics. In 1915 he wrote The Negro, a sociological examination of the African diaspora. In 1919 he helped organize the second Pan-African Congress. Visiting Africa in the 1920s, Du Bois wrote that his chief question was whether "Negroes are to lead in the rise of Africa or whether they must always and everywhere follow the guidance of white folk." His writing would become more militant during starting in the 1920s, and he would become an admirer of the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany during the 1930s. In the late 1940s he would criticize American foreign policy, take a stand against the atomic bomb, and would be dismissed from the membership of the NAACP in 1948. He continued to support the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and received the Lenin Peace Prize in Moscow in 1959. Eventually he would move to Ghana, accepting Ghana national citizenship six months before his death on August 27, 1963.

The W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center wrote a fitting summary of W.E.B. DuBois: “Labeled as a "radical," he was ignored by those who hoped that his massive contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man."


Lewis, David L., W.E.B. Du Bois : The Fight For Equality and the American Century 1919-1963


1. Portrait Library of Congress digital ID cph.3a53178
2. Office portrait: University of Michigan, Harlem Collection
3. Niagara Movement: University of Massachusetts Library Collection. DuBois is second from the right in the middle row.
4. Souls of Black Folks cover: Wikipedia


  1. Thank you once again, very interesting about a person I knew nothing about. Still catching up on your older posts since I only recently "discovered" you. All good but please no testing, I know how you teachers are. Wondering if you have or are writing a book? People you should know or something, you certainly are on the track.

  2. David:

    No books, just the joy of learning, and remembering that we would celebrate historical birthdays when I was in the classroom.

    Thank you for the kind comments! Keep reading, and feel free to comment - plus bake a birthday cake to celebrate these famous historical birthdays.