This Day In History: February 23rd
W.E.B Du Bois helped to transform the view of African-Americans in society through his activism and groundbreaking studies. Much of his work refuted myths of racial inferiority and aimed to gain equal treatment for those affected by the diaspora.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His intellect was evident from a young age and he became the first person in his family to attend high school. Du Bois attended Fisk University with the help of churches in his hometown. He continued his education at Harvard University where he graduated with honors.
He pursued a fellowship at the University of Berlin but returned to the United States without completing the program. He completed his studies at Harvard and became the first African American to receive a doctorate from the university in 1895.
Du Bois began working as an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania where he conducted sociological studies on the Seventh Ward of Pennsylvania. The study was an early example of utilizing data for sociological purposes which made him a leading scholar. The Philadelphia Negro was published in 1899, and Du Bois found that lack of education, crime and poverty were amongst the biggest threats to the African-American community.
Following his success in Pennsylvania, Du Bois began teaching at Atlanta University and conducting studies with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He also taught at Tuskegee University until leaving after disagreements with Booker T. Washington (the university’s President and a fellow activist). During this time Du Bois published one of his most popular works, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of essays examining their experience in America. He published The Talented Tenth in the same year and it further separated his views from those of Washington.
He went on to form the Niagra Movement with other intellectuals who disagreed with Washington. The group called for civil and political rights for African-Americans but was unsuccessful. It was a forerunner to the NAACP, an organization that Du Bois also helped to create. Du Bois was the founder and editor of The Crisis, the organization’s monthly magazine. He resigned from the NAACP in 1934 but returned to serve as the director of special research from 1944 to 1948.
He expanded his interest in Pan-Africanism and explored the global conditions of people of African descent. With Pan-Africanism in mind, he proposed the Encyclopedia Africana. The encyclopedia sought to highlight the achievements of people of African descent while bringing a sense of unity to the diaspora.
Du Bois was even active in placing grievances before the United Nations on behalf of the African-American community. He served as a consultant to the UN founding convention in 1945. Du Bois was invited to move to Ghana and in his final Pan-African gesture, he decided to take up citizenship there in 1961. President Kwame Nkrumah offered him a chance to further the proposed encyclopedia with a role working as director of the Encyclopedia Africana.
Du Bois died on August 27, 1963, in Ghana and was unable to complete the encyclopedia. His efforts helped to advance people of African descent and he was even labeled “a phenomenon” by Nkrumah. Du Bois received a state funeral and remains a celebrated scholar.