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W. E. B. Du Bois
Carte-de-visite of Du Bois, with beard and mustache, around 39 years old
Carte de visite by James E. Purdy, 1907
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

(1868-02-23)February 23, 1868
Died August 27, 1963(1963-08-27) (aged 95)
Accra, Ghana
  • United States
  • Ghana (from 1961)
Known for
Children 2, including Yolande
Awards Spingarn Medal
Lenin Peace Prize
Scientific career
Institutions Atlanta University
Thesis The Suppression of the African Slave-trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (1896)
Doctoral advisor Albert Bushnell Hart
W.E.B. DuBois Signature.svg

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

Early life

Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
As a child, Du Bois attended the Congregational Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Church members collected donations to pay Du Bois's college tuition.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. He was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois.

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. 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. 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.

He graduated from the University of Berlin and Harvard University, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate. Du Bois became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University.


Du Bois strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment.

He 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 a leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who 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.

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 idea 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.

Later life

WEB Du Bois 1946
Du Bois in 1946, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Du Bois was a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP that attended the 1945 conference in San Francisco at which the United Nations was established. The NAACP delegation wanted the United Nations to endorse racial equality and to bring an end to the colonial era. The NAACP proposal received support from China, India, and the Soviet Union, but it was virtually ignored by the other major powers, and the NAACP proposals were not included in the final United Nations Charter.

In late 1945, Du Bois attended the fifth, and final, Pan-African Congress, in Manchester, England. The congress was the most productive of the five congresses, and there Du Bois met Kwame Nkrumah, the future first president of Ghana, who would later invite him to Africa.

Du Bois helped to submit petitions to the UN concerning discrimination against African Americans.

Du Bois was a lifelong anti-war activist, but his efforts became more pronounced after World War II.

In the spring of 1949, he spoke at the World Congress of the Partisans of Peace in Paris. He traveled to Moscow as its representative to speak at the All-Soviet Peace Conference in late 1949.

During the 1950s, the U.S. government's anti-communist McCarthyism campaign targeted Du Bois because of his socialist leanings. Historian Manning Marable characterizes the government's treatment of Du Bois as "ruthless repression" and a "political assassination".

The FBI began to compile a file on Du Bois in 1942, investigating him for possible subversive activities. In 1950 he became chair of the newly created Peace Information Center (PIC), which worked to publicize the Stockholm Peace Appeal in the United States. The primary purpose of the appeal was to gather signatures on a petition, asking governments around the world to ban all nuclear weapons.

In , the U.S. Justice Department alleged that the PIC was acting as an agent of a foreign state, and thus required the PIC to register with the federal government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Du Bois and other PIC leaders refused, and they were indicted for failure to register.

He was finally tried in 1951. The case was dismissed before the jury rendered a verdict as soon as the defense attorney told the judge that "Dr. Albert Einstein has offered to appear as character witness for Dr. Du Bois". Even though Du Bois was not convicted, the government confiscated Du Bois's passport and withheld it for eight years.

In 1958, Du Bois regained his passport and with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, traveled around the world. They visited the Soviet Union and China, to much celebration. Du Bois later wrote approvingly of the conditions in both countries.

Death in Africa

Du Bois 95th birthday in Ghana 1963
Du Bois (center) at his 95th birthday party in 1963 in Ghana, with President Kwame Nkrumah (right) and First Lady Fathia Nkrumah

Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.

While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with its president about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife traveled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia. In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he made the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana.

While it is sometimes stated that Du Bois renounced his U.S. citizenship at that time, and he stated his intention to do so, Du Bois never actually did. His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana; and he died on August 27, 1963, in the capital, Accra, at the age of 95.

Du Bois was given a state funeral on August 29–30, 1963, at Nkrumah's request, and was buried near the western wall of Christiansborg Castle (now Osu Castle), then the seat of government in Accra. In 1985, another state ceremony honored Du Bois. With the ashes of his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois, who had died in 1977, his body was re-interred at their former home in Accra, which was dedicated the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture in his memory. Du Bois's first wife Nina, their son Burghardt, and their daughter Yolande, who died in 1961, were buried in the cemetery of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, his hometown.

Personal life

Du Bois was organized and disciplined: his lifelong regimen was to rise at 7:15, work until 5:00, eat dinner and read a newspaper until 7:00, then read or socialize until he was in bed, invariably before 10:00. He was a meticulous planner, and frequently mapped out his schedules and goals on large pieces of graph paper. Many acquaintances found him to be distant and aloof, and he insisted on being addressed as "Dr. Du Bois". Although he was not gregarious, he formed several close friendships with associates such as Charles Young, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Hope, Mary White Ovington, and Dr. Albert Einstein.

His closest friend was Joel Spingarn – a white man – but Du Bois never accepted Spingarn's offer to be on a first-name basis. Du Bois was something of a dandy – he dressed formally, carried a walking stick, and walked with an air of confidence and dignity. He was relatively short, standing at 5 feet 5.5 inches (166 cm), and always maintained a well-groomed mustache and goatee. He enjoyed singing and playing tennis.

Du Bois married Nina Gomer (b. about 1870, m. 1896, d. 1950), with whom he had two children. Their son Burghardt died as an infant before their second child, daughter Yolande, was born. Yolande attended Fisk University and became a high school teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father encouraged her marriage to Countee Cullen, a nationally known poet of the Harlem Renaissance. They divorced within two years. She married again and had a daughter, Du Bois's only grandchild. That marriage also ended in divorce.

As a widower, Du Bois married Shirley Graham (m. 1951, d. 1977), an author, playwright, composer, and activist. She brought her son David Graham to the marriage. David grew close to Du Bois and took his stepfather's name; he also worked for African-American causes. The historian David Levering Lewis wrote that Du Bois engaged in several extramarital relationships.


Although Du Bois attended a New England Congregational church as a child, he abandoned organized religion while at Fisk College. As an adult, Du Bois described himself as agnostic or a freethinker, but at least one biographer concluded that Du Bois was virtually an atheist.

Although Du Bois was not personally religious, he infused his writings with religious symbology. Many contemporaries viewed him as a prophet.

Honors and legacy

W.E.B. DuBois Mary White Ovington
W. E. B. Du Bois, with Mary White Ovington, was honored with a medallion in The Extra Mile.
WEB DuBois bust at Clark Atlanta University
Bust of W. E. B. Du Bois at Clark Atlanta University

Selected works

Non-fiction books

  • The Study of the Negro Problems (1898)
  • The Philadelphia Negro (1899)
  • The Negro in Business (1899)
  • The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  • "The Talented Tenth", second chapter of The Negro Problem, a collection of articles by African Americans (September 1903)
  • Voice of the Negro II (September 1905)
  • John Brown: A Biography (1909)
  • Efforts for Social Betterment among Negro Americans (1909)
  • Atlanta University's Studies of the Negro Problem (1897–1910)
  • The Negro (1915)
  • The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (1924)
  • Africa, Its Geography, People and Products (1930)
  • Africa: Its Place in Modern History (1930)
  • Black Reconstruction in America (1935)
  • What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas (1936)
  • Black Folk, Then and Now (1939)
  • Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945)
  • The Encyclopedia of the Negro (1946)
  • The World and Africa (1946)
  • The World and Africa, an Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (1947)
  • Peace Is Dangerous (1951)
  • I Take My Stand for Peace (1951)
  • In Battle for Peace (1952)
  • Africa in Battle Against Colonialism, Racialism, Imperialism (1960)


  • Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil (1920)
  • Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940)
  • The Autobiography of W. E. Burghardt Du Bois (1968)


  • The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911)
  • Dark Princess: A Romance (1928)
  • The Black Flame Trilogy:
    • The Ordeal of Mansart (1957)
    • Mansart Builds a School (1959)
    • Worlds of Color (1961)

Archives of The Crisis

Du Bois edited The Crisis from 1910 to 1933, and it contains many of his important polemics.


  • The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America: 1638–1870, (Ph.D. dissertation), Harvard Historical Studies, Longmans, Green, and Co. (1896)

Archival material

The W. E. B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst contains Du Bois's archive, consisting of 294 boxes and 89 microfilm reels; 99,625 items have been digitized.

See also

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