William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the Civil War and lived to see the incipient days of the Civil Rights movement. A thinker, scientist, and activist, Du Bois was an integral part of moving from one era to the next—not only by contributing a remarkable amount to the public discourse on racial inequity, but also by putting his beliefs into practice as an organizer. His legacy is cemented by his social scientific efforts and the groups he founded to fight for social justice. Here are 10 facts about W.E.B. Du Bois.
Du Bois attended the historically Black college Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 before seeking a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. In 1892, he earned a John F. Slater Fund grant to study at the University of Berlin, but he wasn’t tired of academia yet. He returned to the United States and, in 1895, became the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard with his dissertation, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638-1871.” During his undergrad years at Harvard, Du Bois was taught by the preeminent American philosopher and pioneer in psychology William James, who had an effect on Du Bois’s thinking and writing.
“The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study,” which was published in 1899, was the result of Du Bois’s survey of the city’s Black population from 1896 to 1897. The study, which involved 5000 personal interviews, sought to identify the social problems unique to the Black population. Not only was it the first case study of any Black community, it was also an early effort of sociological research as a data-driven, statistically-based social science.
Du Bois’s conclusion was that the root of the multivariate problems lay in how Black Americans were perceived, noting that the problems would ease if white people would see their Black neighbors as peers instead of inferior: “Again, the white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.”
He also noted the historical causes of the so-called “Negro Problem,” including the legacy of systemic slavery and biased housing policies that left Black members of society paying more rent for worse accommodations.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discussed his concept of “double consciousness,” an existential state experienced by persecuted groups in oppressive societies, marked by sensing your identity is divided. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Du Bois’s former professor James praised The Souls of Black Folk upon its release. He also reportedly sent a copy of Du Bois’s landmark work to his brother, the iconic American novelist Henry James.
During the Reconstruction Era in the South, Black Americans experienced a greater amount of social freedom and political participation, but nearing the turn of the century, southern states began restricting voting rights and segregating facilities. Eventually, in response, Booker T. Washington helped lay out the Atlanta Compromise—a principle that Black Americans should avoid protesting for civic rights so long as they had access to criminal justice and jobs.
In response to Washington’s tactic of capitulation, Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group to found the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for equal treatment, equal economic opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and “manhood suffrage.”
Between September 22 and 24, 1906, in response to unsupported reports about Black men raping four white women, more than 10,000 white people stormed through Atlanta, beating every Black person they could find. The riots resulted in a number of deaths (the exact number could be as low as 10 or as high as 100) and, as an outright betrayal of justice, spat in the face of Washington’s brand of going along to get along.
After the riots, Du Bois wrote the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” and bought a shotgun in response. Du Bois and others felt that President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, should have sent in troops to prevent more violence.
After an incident involving soldiers in Brownsville, Texas, that also occurred in 1906, Du Bois proclaimed in 1908 that if Taft received the Republican nomination, Black Americans should drop their support for the Republicans (a party they’d been faithful to since Abraham Lincoln), proclaiming an “avowed enemy [is] better than false friends.”
Four years after the Niagara meeting, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside figures such as journalist Mary White Ovington and lawyer Moorfield Storey. It was created as a biracial organization that would protest and lobby for equality (much like its forerunner, the Niagara Movement). Its earliest battles included fighting Jim Crow laws in the South (which segregated public facilities), opposing President Woodrow Wilson’s segregation in federal workplaces, and lobbying for the right of Black Americans to serve as military officers in WWI. Five years after its founding, it had 6000 members in 50 branches. From 1910 to 1934, Du Bois acted as the director of publicity and research, was on the board of directors, and edited its monthly magazine, The Crisis, which covered arts and politics.
Du Bois’s interest in equality extended beyond his own national borders. He helped organize multiple Pan-African Conferences after attending his first in 1900 in London. There, he penned the “Address to the Nations of the World,” which urged the United States and European nations to fight systemic racism and to end colonialism. He was also a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP to the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. As a writer and activist, he fought for freedom and equality for the whole of the African diaspora and for Africans themselves.
The FBI started a file on Du Bois, an avowed Socialist, in 1942. When McCarthyism was at its peak in the 1950s, Du Bois—who served as chairman of the anti-nuke Peace Information Center—and four others were charged with failing to register the organization with the government. If they had been convicted, they could have faced five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
The jury didn’t get to render a verdict, however, because the judge threw the case out after defense attorney Vito Marcantonio informed him that Albert Einstein would testify as a character witness for Du Bois. (The two were pen pals, and Einstein even wrote an essay for The Crisis.)
The fallout from the McCarthy-era government repression was profound. Several of Du Bois’s colleagues kept their distance, including the NAACP, which never publicly rose to his defense. Plus, despite the lack of a conviction, the government still revoked Du Bois’s passport for eight years. After getting it back, Du Bois traveled to Ghana in 1961 (at the age of 93) to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1963, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in symbolic protest. He’s sometimes erroneously included in lists of famous people who have renounced their American citizenship, but Du Bois never formally did so.
Du Bois was 95 when he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963. (Du Bois’s house in Accra, where he’s buried, was turned into the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, a small museum dedicated to his time in Ghana.) The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he shared his dream. It seems fate isn’t without a sense of poetry.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.