W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography & Achievements

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois. Image source: Biography.com 

He was a famed writer, a sociology expert and a hero among the American civil rights activists. W. E. B. is an abbreviation of his full name, William Edward Burghardt. Du Bois was born on 23rd February 1868, at Barrington in Massachusetts. The Pan-Africanist had grown up in a community of mixed races. Being a prominent African American intellectual; he became the first American from African descent to receive a doctorate degree from Harvard University.

He was part of the African American leaders who founded the black liberation group NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As an influential Pan-Africanist, Du Bois gained recognition for being a leading member of the Niagara Movement. The movement was created to fight against racial inequality in America at the time.  His 95-year life span was full of a tall list of achievements.

Birth and Early Life

W.E.B. Du Bois was born in 1863, to Mr. and Mrs. Silvana. Du Bois’s father, Alfred was a descendant of slaves shipped to America from West Africa. His mother, Mary Silvana traced her ancestry to three origins – Dutch, African, and English.

In his early days, Du Bois worshipped with a Congregational Church in Barrington, Massachusetts. He funded his college education with the financial support offered to him from church donations. Du Bois was brought up by his mum after his dad quit their relationship.


Du Bois believed in higher education. He was an alumnus of Fisk University in Tennessee. The school was purposefully built for blacks. In his capacity, he edited the student magazine of the school, the Herald. After completing Fisk University, he got admission to Harvard in 1888. There, he was awarded a degree in history.

In 1892, Du Bois attempted to acquire a Ph.D. from Berlin University. Unfortunately, he ran out of finances, before later acquiring his Ph.D. from Harvard University. At Harvard, he fell in love with his student (Nina Gomer) and got married to his first wife in 1896.

Activism: Niagara Movement and the NAACP

Du Bois used his store of knowledge in social sciences, including history, to write a lot of papers to condemn discrimination against blacks. His doctoral thesis was centered on the menace of the slave trade from an African to an American perspective. His investigations dug deep into the roots of the conditions of the black society in America.

He published up to 16 research articles when he was a history professor at Atlanta University in Georgia. Du Bois soon learned that writing and publication of papers weren’t yielding enough results, concerning the social canker he was trying to tackle. Unfair laws, killings and all sorts of race discrimination were still rampant.

Upon this realization, Du Bois started forming social groups such as the Niagara Movement, to stage protests. His resort to demonstration ushered him to clash with a fellow black leader (Booker T. Washington). Booker T did not believe in using protests but rather urged blacks to tolerate discrimination and work harder to succeed.

When he founded the Niagara Movement in 1905, he used every opportunity to oppose Booker T’s preaching. Internal conflicts in the group weakened its purposefulness in 1909. Du Bois then moved ahead to co-found the NAACP. He went on to become a leader who directed the research activities of the group and also edited their magazine titled The Crisis. The NAACP organized a series of protest between 1910 and 1934, with Du Bois masterminding their moves.

Famous African American soldiers during the Civil War

Black Nationalism/Pan-Africanism

W.E.B. Du Bois grew strong in his pride in Africa. He believed that it was important for all blacks to unite under one umbrella to fight for their rights and freedoms. Du Bois played a leading role in the organization of the first Conference on Pan-Africanism, which took place in London in 1900. He used his editorial position at The Crisis magazine to encourage the expansion of African art and literature.

To him, there was beauty in blacks. He even proposed an economic ideology which called on black people to form a cooperative association as a means to fight poverty. His idea proved very useful during the tough economic times of the 1930s. Du Bois was a supporter of Marxist ideas. He gracefully gave up his editorial position in the NAACP and resigned from the group in 1934.

When he went back to Atlanta University, he spent 10 years, educating and opening scholarship opportunities for students.

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Authorship of Books

Du Bois was an accomplished writer who wrote good books such as “Souls of the Black Folk”, “Black Reconstruction”, and “Dusk of Dawn”. “Souls of the Black Folk” gained popularity for its criticism of Booker T’s unresourceful freedom-fighting method. In his book, he stated that Booker T’s counterintuitive preaching would only worsen the plight of the black community.

His “Black Reconstruction” book highlighted the roles played by African Americans during the events of the American Civil War. In “Dusk of Dawn”, he shared an autobiographical piece about his role in racial problems and black liberation. He later rejoined the NAACP from 1944 to 48. He proposed to work on Encyclopedia Africana.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ Death in Ghana, West Africa

The first president of the Republic of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, welcomed Du Bois and his wife to Ghana in 1960. Even though Nkrumah had wanted Dubois to be part of the 1957 independence celebration, the US government confiscated Du Bois’ travel documents and prevented him from traveling.

When he finally landed in Ghana in 1960, Du Bois was determined to complete his African encyclopedia project. His aim was to write down a list of achievements of the African people and fortify unity among black citizens in the Diaspora. Unfortunately, Du Bois was running out of time and money to finish his work.  He died in Accra, Ghana on 27th August 1963, at the age of 95. The Ghanaian government under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah honored Du Bois with a befitting state burial. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed a year after Du Bois’s death.

Famous Quotes by W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Credits: Britannica

FAQs on Du Bois

These questions and answers provide a summary of W. E. B. Du Bois’ life and contributions:

What is the significance of “The Souls of Black Folk”?

“The Souls of Black Folk” is a classic work by Du Bois published in 1903. In it, he introduces the concept of “double consciousness” to describe the inner conflict felt by African Americans due to their racial identity and American citizenship. The work combines history, sociology, and personal narrative to explore the black experience in America.

What was Du Bois’ stance on the “Talented Tenth”?

He believed that the “Talented Tenth” referred to the top ten percent of the African American population who should receive higher education and, in turn, guide the rest in economic and cultural development. This was in contrast to Booker T. Washington’s approach, which emphasized vocational training for the masses.

How did his views differ from Booker T. Washington’s?

While both men were dedicated to the progress of African Americans, they had different philosophies. Washington believed in a more gradual approach to civil rights, emphasizing vocational training and economic self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed in immediate civil rights, higher education, and political activism.

What was the Niagara Movement?

The Niagara Movement, co-founded by Du Bois in 1905, was an early civil rights organization that aimed to address African American rights by opposing the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington. The Niagara Movement laid the groundwork for the creation of the NAACP.

What role did Du Bois play in the NAACP?

Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. He served as the organization’s director of publicity and research and was the founding editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis, where he wrote on various issues facing the black community.

How did Du Bois’ views change over his lifetime?

While Du Bois began with a focus on integration and civil rights within the American framework, he later became more radicalized, particularly after witnessing the decolonization of Africa and the rise of Pan-Africanism. Towards the end of his life, Du Bois joined the Communist Party USA and eventually chose to live in Ghana, where he passed away.

When and where did W. E. B. Du Bois die?

He died on August 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana.

How has his legacy lived on?

Du Bois’ legacy is vast. He’s remembered as a pioneering sociologist, a key figure in the early civil rights movement, and a proponent of Pan-Africanism. His writings, particularly “The Souls of Black Folk,” continue to be studied in academic settings and are considered foundational texts in African American studies.

What is the “color line” as mentioned by Du Bois?

Du Bois famously wrote that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the “color line.” By this, he referred to the racial divide and the systemic racism and discrimination faced by African Americans in the United States.

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