W. E. B. Du Bois

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Du Bois, W. E. B.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt Du Bois) (dəboisˈ), 1868–1963, American civil-rights leader and author, b. Great Barrington, Mass., grad. Harvard (B.A., 1890; M.A., 1891; Ph.D., 1895). Du Bois was an early exponent of full equality for African Americans and a cofounder (1905) of the Niagara Movement, which became (1909) the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Unlike Booker T. Washington, who believed that unskilled blacks should focus on economic self-betterment, and Marcus Garvey, who advocated a “back to Africa” movement, Du Bois demanded that African Americans should achieve not only economic parity with whites in the United States but full and immediate civil and political equality as well. Also, he introduced the concept of the “talented tenth,” a black elite whose duty it was to better the lives of less fortunate African Americans.

From 1897 to 1910, Du Bois taught economics and history at Atlanta Univ. In 1910 he became editor of the influential NAACP magazine, Crisis, a position he held until 1934. That year he resigned over the question of voluntary segregation, which he had come to favor over integration, and returned to Atlanta Univ. (1934–44). His concern for the liberation of blacks throughout the world led him to organize the first (Paris, 1919) of several Pan-African Congresses. In 1945, at the Fifth Congress in Manchester, England, he met with the African leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. In 1961 he became a member of the American Communist party, and shortly thereafter he renounced his American citizenship. In the last two years of his life Du Bois lived in Ghana. His books include The Souls of Black Folks (1903), The Negro (1915), Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Color and Democracy (1945), The World and Africa (1947), and In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday (1952).


See his autobiography, ed. by H. Aptheker (1968); selected writings, ed. by N. Huggins (1986); correspondence, ed. by H. Aptheker (3 vol., 1973–78); biography by D. L. Lewis (2 vol., 1993–2000); studies by G. Horne (1985), M. Marable (1987, repr. 2005), A. Reed, Jr. (1997), and L. Balfour (2011).

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Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt)

(1868–1963) editor, historian, sociologist, political activist, author; born in Great Barrington, Mass. Supported by the local school headmaster and the Congregational Church in Great Barrington, he was educated at Fisk University (1885–88), where he was shocked by the racial segregation he experienced in the South. He went on to take a Ph.D. at Harvard (1895), with two years at the University of Berlin (1892–94). Under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania, he studied black life in the Philadelphia ghetto, writing The Philadelphia Negro (1899). A professor of economics, history, and sociology at Atlanta University (1898–1910), he sponsored an annual conference for the Study of the Negro Problem and wrote essays, compiled in The Soul of Black Folk (1903), calling for an activist African-American middle class to change racial politics. Founding the Niagara Movement (1905) to fight segregation, he also organized its official magazine, Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line (1907–10). He resigned from teaching (1910) to serve as director of publications and research for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York, editing Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races (1910–34), a magazine that was credited with encouraging many early civil rights activists. However, when he argued that African-Americans should voluntarily segregate themselves to organize economically during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he alienated the NAACP leadership, so he resigned in 1934. He returned to Atlanta University to chair the sociology department (1934–44), where he founded a scholarly journal, Phylon: A Review of Race and Culture (1940–44), and completed his autobiography, Dusk of Dawn (1940). Forced to retire at age 76, he returned to the NAACP, serving as director of special research (1944–48), leaving when his Marxist politics became a liability. Chairman of the Peace Information Center, an antinuclear weapons group, he was indicted as a foreign agent in 1951 and although acquitted, his passport was revoked (1952–58). He later toured Europe, China, and the Soviet Union, where he received the Lenin Peace Prize (1959). After joining the Communist Party (1961), he moved to Accra, Ghana, becoming a naturalized citizen just before he died.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.