“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” This now famous statement written in 1903 in Du Bois’s searing portrait of Black America in The Souls of Black Folk framedDu Bois’s work from when he left Great Barrington at the age of seventeen until his death in 1963 in Ghana, Africa, at ninety-five.
During his prolific career, Du Bois confronted racism, poverty, the subordination of women, environmental degradation, the horror of war, and nuclear weapons. He promoted education as a fundamental right and was a central figure in twentieth-century movements for world peace, civil rights, and self-determination for people of African descent. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s story begins on his birthday—February 23, 1868—in the small rural town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The life and values of rural New England and its small African American community, some of whose members fought in the famous all-Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, shaped Du Bois’s early years and his ideas about democracy, education, and family.
In 1885, Du Bois left home for Fisk University, studied in Berlin, and became the first African American to graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, in 1895.
By age thirty-five, Du Bois had published The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, The Philadelphia Negro, and The Souls of Black Folk, his seminal work. He was a founder and leader of the Niagara Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Pan-African Congresses. Du Bois served as the editor of The Crisis magazine for twenty-four years and lectured throughout the world well into later life.
Du Bois’s vision was of a world without human exploitation and with equality for all. He understood that the struggle for the equality of Black Americans was part of a larger struggle for freedom and equality for all people. His prominence and ideas were threatening to some, and in the 1950s during the McCarthy era, he was falsely accused of being an agent of a foreign power and later exonerated of all charges.
At the invitation of President Nkrumah, Du Bois moved to Ghana at the age of ninety-three to undertake writing the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois’s Promethean life ended on August 28, 1963, in Accra, Ghana, where he was honored with a state funeral. His passing occurred on the eve of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington, at which Roy Wilkins, leader of the NAACP, proclaimed to the 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial: “At the dawn of the 20th century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause.”
To explore this remarkable man’s life and works further, visit the links below:
W.E.B. Du Bois’s personal and professional papers are housed in Special Collections at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, libraries, and some are online:
Du Bois Central, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/dubois/
Library of Congress, W.E.B. Du Bois: Online Resources
Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail
W.E.B. Du Bois Global Resource Collection