W.E.B. Du Bois: Co-Founder of the NAACP

A few days ago, I was watching Fox News and I saw a representative of the NAACP get verbally destroyed by two commentators on the news cast.  Not to say that I agree on either side but the Fox commentators had more negatives to say about what the NAACP has become compared to what it stood for.  So, I began to do research of my own and I saw the name W.E.B Du Bois. I had seen the name before in other research and I’ve heard a friend refer to him once or twice.  I decided I wanted to know more about this person and who he was. I’m glad I did.

Scholar and activist William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  In 1895, he became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote extensively and was one of the best known spokesperson for African-American rights during the first half of the 20th century next to Booker T. Washington.  He co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)in 1909.

Growing up, Du Bois attended the local integrated public school.  His teachers encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African-Americans.  Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888.  His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois’s first experience with Southern racism, which encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, and lynchings.  After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College.  In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history.  In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work.  In 1895 he was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  He accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio.  After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an “assistant in sociology”.  Not long after, Du Bois published his landmark study—the first case study of an African-American community—The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), marking the beginning of his expansive writing career.  In the study, he coined the phrase “the talented tenth,” a term that described the likelihood of one in 10 black men becoming leaders of their race.  People often ask where our leaders are, I believe this guy has a good idea as to who they should be.  Du Bois produced numerous social science papers and annually hosted the Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems.  W.E.B. Du Bois rose to national prominence when he very publicly opposed Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise,” an agreement that asserted that vocational education for blacks was more valuable to them than social advantages like higher education or political office.  Du Bois criticized Washington for not demanding equality for African-Americans, as granted by the 14th Amendment.  Many African-Americans opposed Washington’s plan, including DuBois, Archibald H. Grimke, Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar.  In 1901, Du Bois wrote a review critical of Washington’s book Up from Slavery, which he later expanded and published to a wider audience as the essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk.  One of the major contrasts between the two leaders was their approach to education:  Washington felt that African-American schools should limit themselves to industrial education topics such as agricultural and mechanical skills.  Du Bois felt that black schools should also offer a liberal arts curriculum, because liberal arts were required to develop a leadership elite.

In May 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York.  In the spring of 1910, at the second National Negro Conference, the attendees created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Du Bois’s suggested, the word “colored”, rather than “black”, in order to include “dark-skinned people everywhere.”  NAACP leaders offered Du Bois the position of Director of Publicity and Research.  He accepted the job in the summer of 1910, and moved to New York after resigning from Atlanta University.  His primary duty was editing the NAACP’s monthly magazine, which he called The Crisis.  The Crisis carried editorials by Du Bois that supported the ideals of unionized labor but excoriated the racism demonstrated by its leaders, who systematically excluded blacks from membership.  Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential race, in exchange for Wilson’s promise to support black causes.

Du Bois, employing the sarcasm he frequently used, commented on a lynching in Pennsylvania:  “The point is he was black.  Blackness must be punished. Blackness is the crime of crimes…It is therefore necessary, as every white scoundrel in the nation knows, to let slip no opportunity of punishing this crime of crimes.  Of course if possible, the pretext should be great and overwhelming – some awful stunning crime, made even more horrible by the reporters’ imagination.  Failing this, mere murder, arson, barn burning or impudence may do.”

In 1911 he attended the First Universal Races Congress in London and he published his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece.  In 1915, Du Bois published The Negro, a general history of black Africans.

Du Bois used his influential role in the NAACP to oppose a variety of racist incidents.  The private sector was not the only source of racism: under President Wilson, the plight of African-Americans in government jobs suffered. Many federal agencies adopted whites-only employment practices, the Army excluded blacks from officer ranks, and the immigration service prohibited the immigration of persons of African ancestry.  Du Bois traveled to Europe in 1921 to attend the second Pan-African Congress.  A proponent of Pan-Africanism, Du Bois helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to free African colonies from European power.

Back in the world of academia, Du Bois was able to resume his study of Reconstruction, the topic of the 1910 paper that he presented to the American Historical Association.  In 1935, he published his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America.  Du Bois documented how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and also showed how they made alliances with white politicians.  In 1932, Du Bois was selected by several philanthropists – including the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, and the General Education Board – to be the managing editor for a proposed Encyclopedia of the Negro, a work Du Bois had been contemplating for 30 years.  After several years of planning and organizing, the philanthropists cancelled the project in 1938, because some board members believed that Du Bois was too biased to produce an objective encyclopedia.

Du Bois was married twice, first to Nina Gomer (m. 1896, d. 1950) and had two children, a son Burghardt (who died as an infant) and a daughter Yolande, who married Countee Cullen.  As a widower, he married Shirley Graham (m. 1951, d. 1977), an author, playwright, composer and activist. She brought her son David Graham to the marriage. W.E.B. Du Bois died on August 27, 1963 at the age of 95, in Accra, Ghana one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

This man’s legacy lives on through the NAACP and what the organization stood for.  Du Bois did not settle for less, demanding equality for all races.  He made it known if he disagreed and what his views were.  We should be admonished to follow the path that he set forth.

Onyx Contributor:  R.L. Knight

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