W.E.B. Du Bois - Important Figures in US History

One of the greatest African-American intellectuals to ever live died in Ghana in 1963 after becoming disillusioned with his U.S. place of birth.

Early Life

W.E.B (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois was born on February 23rd, 1868, in Great Barrington, a town in western Massachusetts. His Haitian-born father, Alfred, was of combined European and African ancestry, and therefore had light skin. Growing up in Great Barrington, where the majority of people were of White European descent, Du Bois went to a local, integrated, public school, and got along with his white schoolmates and respected his white teachers there. It was when he travelled to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University that he first experienced the systematic racism and racial segregation caused by the "Jim Crow" laws in place there and the rest of the South. Graduating from Fisk with a Bachelor's Degree, he attended Harvard College from 1888 to 1890, and also carried out graduate studies in Europe for a short while. He returned to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1895, making him the first African American to accomplish that achievement.


After receiving his Ph.D., Du Bois taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio for two years, and then completed a temporary research stint at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1897, he received a professorship and started to teach at Atlanta University, a historically black post-secondary school in Atlanta, Georgia which is today part of Clark Atlanta University. He soon published an influential work on race and racism, The Philadelphia Negro, as a book in 1899. As a young and accomplished scholar, he attended the First Pan-African Conference in 1900 in London, and the inspiration he received from that influential experience was evidenced in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. At the same time, he became very involved in activism and fought racial discrimination in real life. He was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) until his death.

Major Contributions

Du Bois was one of the most important trailblazers of his era in African American academia and civil rights activism. Du Bois helped created the NAACP, and was the director of its research and editor of its magazine, The Crisis. He successfully spread his beliefs and aspirations to middle-class African Americans and progressive whites, who became an important force in the civil rights protests in the following decades. He also advanced Pan-Africanism, urging all people of African descent across the world to recognize their common interest and work together for liberation. Elements of this movement later developed into black nationalism, which calls for those of African descent to develop a separate "group economy", to fight against economic discrimination and poverty among them.


Du Bois radicalized his position after the World War II, and embraced Socialist ideas, believing that they were the real answers to the emancipation and liberation of black people around the world. His stance was questioned within the NAACP, which was more moderate and focused on the reality of the middle class African-Americans at the time. As a result of such divergency, Du Bois left his positions in the NAACP in 1934, saying that the organization ignored the problems of the masses, especially the most powerless ones. He returned to the Atlanta University thereafter, but his belief in Socialist Marxist ideologies saw him identify more and more with pro-Russian causes, which led to him being accused a foreign spy. Becoming completely disillusioned with the U.S., in 1961, Du Bois left the country and moved to Ghana.

Death and Legacy

Du Bois died on August 27th, 1963, in Accra, Ghana, at the age of 95. He was the forefather of many new areas of African sociocultural studies, and provided profound resources to related disciplines. His major works, such as The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction in America, and The Encyclopaedia of the Negro, have had huge influences on critical studies of race and racism, and still remain important readings of these subjects even today. He is also considered to be one of the greatest civil rights activists for African Americans' rights in the 20th Century. He was awarded numerous honors and awards, and many schools and universities have been named after him. He left a profound legacy that still guides many minority groups' respective struggles for social justice. He is remembered as a promoter of black identity and intellectual achievement in the U.S. and in Africa, which was rapidly undergoing de-colonialization during the final years of his life.

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