Du Bois, W.E.B.

A pioneer in black political thought, W.E.B. Du Bois was considered a central figure in the history of African-American politics.


William Edward Burkhardt Du Bois (pronounced "Du Boyce"; 1868-1963) was a novelist, poet, public speaker, author, editor, scholar, teacher, leader, radical, pragmatist, and romantic. He was a pioneer in black political thought and regarded by many as a central figure in the history of African-American politics. A champion of reform, he challenged the established system of education that restricted the advancement of African Americans (Reed, 1997).

Historic Roots

Du Bois' controversial career led him to live and work on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Born to poverty on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois was of French Huguenot, Dutch, and Afro-American ancestry. He graduated from high school in 1884 as a penniless orphan. However, upon the insistence of the principal of his school, who recognized Du Bois' intelligence and talent, he sought a college education. Through working part-time and with a scholarship donated by members of his church, Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee (Reed, 1997 & Logan, 1971). During his time at Fisk, Du Bois was exposed to racism and lynchings, as well as the scientific ideas of truth by way of empirical investigation and statistical methods. These experiences spurred his interest in the use of science and scholarship in the struggle for social justice. Du Bois realized that scientific inquiry could be a powerful tool in the quest to transform society and obtain equality for blacks (Franklin, 1990).

After graduating from Fisk in 1888 with an A.B. degree, Du Bois attended Harvard College for his junior year and obtained an A.B., cum laude, in 1890. He then went on to study at the University of Berlin. After spending two years in Berlin, he finished his dissertation and became the first African American to graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard (Logan, 1991).

Du Bois taught at several universities before settling in as head of the sociology department at Atlanta University. One of his works during this time period was a famous empirical sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). In the study, Du Bois examined the city's African American population and made recommendations on a number of things, including school reform. This study was dedicated to "combating the pseudo-science of racial bigots"(Franklin, 1990, p. 53). Du Bois stated that the "problem was in my mind a matter of systematic investigation and intelligent understanding. The world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity"(Du Bois, 1940, p. 58). Du Bois deeply believed in the power of basic research to reveal truth, such as natural laws that in turn would dictate a plan of action to overcome racial injustices. From this research he decided upon an action plan of "self help, duty and discipline, efficiency, thrift, interracial economic cooperation, and group pride" to help his race (Tuttle, 1973, p. 9).


In 1905 Du Bois was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement. The Movement was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He went on to become the editor of the NAACP magazine and its first Director of Public Relations (Franklin, 1990; Tuttle, 1973 & Logan, 1971). Through the efforts of the NAACP and the organization's belief in equality of education for all school children, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in the public schools in the landmark ruling Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka (Ornstein & Levine, 1993).

In the years proceeding the founding of the NAACP, Du Bois launched into controversy as he joined the Socialists Party and became a candidate for the United States Senate on the American Labor (Communist) Party ticket. He also wrote novels, letters, and opinion pieces as well as organized the first meeting of the Pan-African Congress, whose purpose was to improve the situation of indigenous Africans (Franklin, 1990). Du Bois also initiated the concept of the "talented tenth" where he called for ten percent of the African American population to receive a traditional college education so they could become educated and assume leadership positions within society (Ornstein & Levine, 1993).

Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois is an American hero who deeply believed that a person's "vocational calling should be dictated by ability and choice, not by race" (Ornstein & Levine, 1993, p. 181). He, unlike Booker T. Washington, demanded immediate, drastic change, and was not afraid to challenge both blacks and whites on social and educational issues to accomplish change. His activism set the stage for future changes in American race relations.

Related Concepts

Mason Dixon Line, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Talented Tenth, Brown et al. V. Board of Education of Topeka, Desegregation, Niagara Movement, Racism, The Pan-African Congress.

Suggested Lesson Plans

  1. For students of any age. Students divide into small groups to investigate and play the roles of great African American leaders Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The student groups then come together to discuss, from their character's perspective, their views and beliefs at the time each lived.

  2. Students form small groups, discuss and write down their thoughts on why Du Bois thought scientific research was the key to dispelling false beliefs about the races. Students then share their conclusions with their classmates.


Baulding, L. (Producer). (1992). W. E. B. Du Bois of Great Barrington. [Videorecording]. WGBY-TV Springfield: PBS Video

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1907). Economic cooperation among Negro Americans. In D. C. Hammack (Ed.), Making the nonprofit sector in the United States: a reader (pp. 265-280). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Franklin, R. M. (1990). Liberating visions: Human fulfillment and social justice in African American thought. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Logan, R. W. (1971). W. E. B. Du Bois: a profile. New York: Hill and Wang.

Ornstein, A. C. & Levine, D. U. (1993). Foundations of Education. (5th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Reed, A. L. (1997). W. E. B. Du Bois and American political thought: fabianism and the color line. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Tuttle, W. M. (1973). W.E.B. Du Bois. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Related Web Sites

http://www.webdubois.org/ This biographical site contains links to articles written by W. E. B. Du Bois and primary source documents.

https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_people_dubois.html This PBS site includes biographical information about W.E.B. Du Bois in the context of Jim Crow stories.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.