W. E. B. Du Bois was a prolific writer and profoundly original thinker who was influenced by his years in Tennessee as a student at Fisk University and by his public school teaching in rural Tennessee communities. Du Bois in his career produced studies on American democracy and race relations that were decades ahead of the scholarship in several academic disciplines. As editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he advanced and advocated the culture and history of, by, and for African Americans.
Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. He came to Nashville in 1884 with a scholarship to study at Fisk University, where he finished his degree in 1888. Du Bois then studied at Harvard, the University of Berlin, and earned his Ph.D. in 1895 from Harvard, the first African American to do so. He was the student and colleague of some of the most brilliant men of his time, including William James and Max Weber. Establishing his leadership and legacy in civil rights for African Americans primarily and uniquely through the written word, he was a prodigious scholar. His twenty-two books, fifteen edited books, and almost two thousand essays, articles, and poems analyzed and chronicled American race relations more extensively and insightfully than any other writer.
Du Bois's intellectual and social development at Fisk shaped a brilliant mind and indomitable spirit. Much later, he would assert emphatically that African American colleges, as places where African Americans created an “inner culture,” provided salvation for both the South and blacks. This certainly applied to Du Bois. At Fisk, during the morning prayers attended by two to three hundred fellow students, he realized “that this great assembly of youth and intelligence are the representatives of a race which twenty years ago was in bondage.” He found increased pride in his race and solace that he could stand among colleagues who did not judge him by the color of his skin. Teaching stints in rural Wilson County at the Wheeler School significantly influenced his later work, especially the classic The Souls of Black Folk. Because institutions such as Fisk had their own cultural identity, Du Bois regarded them as the best space for an exchange of the views of black and white Americans.
Du Bois's scholarship led the way in several fields. His dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade was published as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Monograph Series. His book The Philadelphia Negro pioneered the field of urban sociology for which the University of Chicago would become famous. While on the faculty of Atlanta University he conducted studies and conferences that documented the condition and institutions of African Americans, including economics, health, family, and church. This work preceded the monumental study of American race relations by Gunnar Myrdal, The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, by more than forty years. Myrdal recognized the scholarship and scholarly contributions of Du Bois much more than most other white social scientists and historians. Myrdal even included an appendix to his study that chastised American social science for its aversion to questions of racial equality and its giving legitimacy to racial inequality. This was a mild rebuke compared to Du Bois's essay, “The Propaganda of History.” In piercing prose that penetrated the mind and heart, Du Bois analyzed the falsification of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction to cover the shame of the Southern battle to perpetuate slavery and the Northern reliance on black troops to “save the Union, abolish slavery, and establish democracy.” Only with the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s would his work Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 win the level of recognition and acceptance Myrdal provided it.
Du Bois wrote for general audiences as well as scholars in order to create shared spaces for blacks and whites. His series of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, used the image of a “veil” as a literary device to explain the meaning of being African American in the early twentieth century. Du Bois sought to explain both sides of the veil to enable readers of both races to see the other more clearly.
In Souls he chose to explain life “within the Veil” of race through his personal experiences as a teacher in Tennessee near Watertown. As was customary for the students of Fisk, Du Bois taught school to about thirty children for two summers in rural Wilson County. His schoolhouse was a log crib used otherwise to store corn, and his instruction provided the only schooling for area African American children. Attending services at Seay Chapel Methodist Church in Alexandria influenced Du Bois's understanding of the preacher and the power of African American religion in rural communities. Ten years later, during a visit to Fisk, Du Bois returned to Watertown to renew acquaintances and learn how his students had fared. His favorite student, Josie, had died, one event in the “heap of trouble” her family had endured since Du Bois's departure. Josie's brother had fled from the legal enforcement of unfair labor arrangements of blacks and whites. The school remained derelict except for the now regular class sessions. While some families prospered, others had lost their farms, or made a poor living from the stingy soil. Others had moved to Nashville to find work. Marriage, children, and violence were intertwined in the lives of the community. Du Bois reflected on his time near Watertown and wrote in a style that inspired major African American writers of the twentieth Century: “How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and how human and real! And all this life and live, and strife and failure,–is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day? Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow Car.”
Souls catapulted Du Bois into national prominence. An essay critical of Booker T. Washington, the most prominent African American leader of the time, initiated a break in the public deference accorded Washington. Du Bois articulated the views of professional, intellectual, and wealthy African Americans who experienced racial repression of the Jim Crow era as caste restrictions. Du Bois chided Washington for accommodating these repressive measures in exchange for support of incremental changes, including support for the schools and activities Washington sponsored. The emerging polemicist appeared in this essay, as Du Bois prophesied, “A double life with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism.”
Du Bois used his new national stature to establish organizations to advocate revolt and radicalism and to litigate for the rights of African Americans. In 1905 he led in the formation of the Niagara Movement, and in 1909 he helped found the NAACP. He served as editor of the organization's journal The Crisis from 1910 to 1934. More an agitator than an organization man, Du Bois spent his time in the NAACP and at Atlanta University mired in controversy exacerbated by his conflicts with federal authorities. He argued that desegregation was not enough and advocated a distinctly African American culture to resist assimilation into white institutions. By the time he left the NAACP in 1934, he was championing changes on behalf of the lower classes of African Americans, having moved beyond the mere removal of caste restrictions for the elite. He moved around–Atlanta University, back to the NAACP, international travel–looking for a platform for ideas that became more radical in the context of incremental integration and civil rights.
By the time of his death in 1963, Du Bois had bridged a century from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement. Du Bois had undergone a journey as well. He began as a scholar; evolved to a political critic of the gap between the ideals and practice of American democracy; and finally became an expatriate. After profound harassment during the McCarthy era, he joined the Communist Party in 1961 and moved to Ghana, where he became a citizen. He died there on August 27, 1963. The next day, as Ghana conducted a state funeral for him, the greatest civil rights demonstration in American history, the March on Washington, occurred. Undoubtedly, had he been there, he would have praised and goaded the leaders of that demonstration by reminding them of the principal ideal of Frederick Douglass that was his own beacon of thought and action: “ultimate assimilation through self-assertion, and on no other terms.”