Educational History: Dr William Edward Burghardt Du Bois 1868 to 1963

Dr William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, or ‘Doctor Du Bois’ as he insisted on being addressed, was a great scholar, historian, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, and pacifist. He was a picture of the modern intellectual and scholar engaging eclectically in philosophies ranging from Calvinism to Socialism. His thought was to shape the world after it emerged in America against the backdrop of considerable racial barriers.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois


His first publication was a collection of essays examining the complexities of race in the United States. It was called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ and has become regarded by some as a seminal work in the history of sociology as well as a significant foundation of African-American literary history.


Published in 1903, the mixture of essays draws upon his experiences as an African-American in context with the culture he encountered. He sets out arguments for the right to vote, the right to a good education and the right to be treated as an equal and to have access to justice.


In the book he discusses the metaphor of a veil which is to become famous through usage. He coins what he refers to as “double consciousness” which is


“…a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder….”


He was to take a situation of disadvantage and create from it a blistering sociology that revealed – and reveals – the conditions of prejudice in all their nuanced circumstances. His contribution to thought has given into the public domain tools for which we can use to open up the deeper truths around human behaviour and activity. Dr DuBois was to set an example of intellectual composure that speaks of the soul of problem-based learning and could arguably provide an historical lineage to Action Research.


When he wrote of the metaphor of the veil it functioned on multiple levels. Firstly it was to illustrate that the world was physically demarcated for those with dark skin, one which kept him out from the ‘normal’ social activities granted to everyone of light skinned origin: “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”


Also the veil is used as a metaphor of how people are segregated through a prejudice which can paradoxically liberate those disadvantaged from understanding human behaviour in simple ways: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world”


Earlier publications he wrote included ‘The Suppression of the African Slave Trade’ (1896), and the ‘The Philadephila Negro’ (1899). ‘The Suppression of the African Slave Trade’ was borne out of a dissertation he produced at Harvard. This examination of the economic and historical dimensions of the slave trade goes into great depth, at points being critical of the ‘spotty’ application of the law along with the apathy of the authorities to enact it. It was the first volume published in the Harvard Historical Series and is regarded a model of methodological approach as well as a key text for the study of the African slave trade.


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‘The Philadelphia Negro’ was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania and published in 1899. It is an early example of sociology utilising statistics to formulate analyses and provide foundations for observations. It is regarded by many as the inception of Black Sociology and it came of an extensive house-to-house investigation of the social conditions of the Black population of Philadelphia’s seventh ward.


It was pioneering, not just for the application of statistics and evolution of sociological techniques, but also for its use of information graphics to communicated complex information. The area of study – the Seventh Ward – was bounded by Spruce Street on the north, South Street on the south, Sixth Street on the east, and Twenty-Third Street on the west. At that time, the Seventh Ward contained the largest population of Blacks in the city. This map was created as part of the study:


Philadelphias seventh ward


Dr DuBois represented someone who shifted the boundaries of thinking that had chained a whole world. His writings advanced a young science – that of sociology – when it was emerging as a credible and important academic pursuit, ultimately opening up generations of people to an intelligent questioning of the ingroup/outgroup behaviours of racism. To understand how this man achieved such great things in a time when most people of the African diaspora were condemned to be uneducated, disenfranchised, oppressed and damned as inferior, we need to look at his story.

William Burghardt Du Bois as a child
William Burghardt Du Bois as a child

His Beginnings

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on 23rd of February 1868 in a place called Great Barrington which is situated in Massachusetts. His parents were Mary Burghardt Du Bois, an African American domestic and laundress and Alfred Du Bois, a French-Haitian barber.


He had decided to adopt his mothers maiden into his, and she had represented a powerful supporter of his learning and education from a young age. Situated in the north of America, he did not encounter the extremities of the overt racism, violence and murder which was encountered by the Black populations of the deep south. In comparison, he was raised in a relatively benevolent racial environment, but one which, nevertheless, was prejudiced in its very structure.


As a young boy he displayed exceptional abilities, getting encouraged and supported by his high school principle who ensured he got access to Greek and other texts which would prepare him later to get into Fisk University. The realities of racial discrimination would offer him subtle opportunities to develop his thinking later on where he would de-construct the impact and effects of race and gender in numerous studies, journal articles, novels and documentary histories.


He was to graduate from high school with full honours and was the first Black graduate of the school. His mother was to die soon after. On her passing, various members of the white community volunteered financial support for him to have a college education. He had wanted to go into Harvard University but however, his white benefactors rejected his choice, selecting Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee instead. His white benefactors had agreed to pay 100 dollars annually to support his education, but this came along with the price of their mandates.


This kind of paternalism was not uncommon, and Dr DuBois was to challenge this throughout his life. Arguing that everyone should have access to education, the issue of the futures of Blacks and the best methods for insuring racial justice and equality would bring him to heavily criticise government policy. He took issue with the ideological views which imposed limits on the intellectual aspirations of African-Americans and the poverty of industrial education, and this would be a lasting theme in his life.


Thus at the age of 17 he first started attending Fisk. He described how he had ‘stepped within the veil’ (see The Souls of Black Folk for an account). Fisk was very different to what he had been used to in high school, and he was surrounded by Black cultures in learning:


“I started out and went into Tennessee at the age of seventeen to be a sophomore at Fisk University. it was to me an extraordinary experience. I was thrilled to be for the first time among so many people of my own color or rather of such various and such extraordinary colors, which I had only glimpsed before, but who it seemed were bound to me by new and exciting and eternal ties. Never before had I seen young men so self-assured and who gave themselves such airs, and colored men at that; and above all for the first time I saw beautiful girls” [page 11, Dusk of Dawn (The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois) By W. E. B. Du Bois, ISBN: 0199386714]


Dr Du Bois at Fisk University
Dr Du Bois at Fisk University


Dr Du Bois would study the traditional classical edcuation which included Latin, Greek, physics, literature, European languages, mathematics, rhetoric, sciences and the arts. Whilst he excelled, he noticed that other Black students were unprepared for the curriculum and noted this to be as a direct result of their caste status and lack of educational opportunities. Emancipatory education would be a central theme in his work throughout his career.


His view of universities was such: “The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.” (The Souls Of Black Folk)


In his book ‘The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906 – 1960‘, he lays down much of his thoughts on education and its importance in liberating African-Americans (as well as others). The book is a collection of essays from across his career set out so that people can see the reaction that he had throughout the span, rather than later adapting his work to where his thinking had arrived. Education was to be seen as a process which teaches certain timeless values such as moderation, but equally he perceived it not to be value-neutral, thus it is/was partisan and therefore fundamentally subversive.


His main point in the book is a call for great energy and initiative: “I have chosen a theme tonight which seems to me most weighty and important – that contains in a way the kernel of that message which I have been called to give to men. I am to speak of Self-Assertion and the Higher Education: I am going to point out the Great Lack which faces our race in the modern world, Lack of Energy; and the Great Fear that consciously and unconsciously grips the world lest that lack be supplied” [page 22, The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques]


He makes a call for African Americans to take control of their own lives and to continually experiment and innovate in their thinking whilst holding in mind a knowledge of educations fundamental nature. The work reflects on over 50 years during which time the social, political, cultural changes which had taken place were monumental. In his narratives he returns to the notions of striving for excellence, living a life of service to learning what is necessary, and that although there are hardships associated, the sacrifices will lead to fulfilment. Only by leading such a life of dedication can we truly live.


Tennessee map
Map with Tennessee highlighted

His first formal transition from student to teacher was during the summer holidays whilst he was studying at Fisk: “I determined to know something of the Negro in the coutnry districts; to go out and teach during the summer vacation. I was not compelled to do this, for my scholarship was sufficient to support me, but that was not the point. I had heard about the coutnry in the South as the real seat of slavery. I wanted to know it.


I walked out into east Tennessee ten or more miles a day until at last a little valley near Alexandria I found a place where there had been a Negro public school only once since the Civil War; and there for two successive terms during the summer I taught at $28 and $30 a month. It was an enthralling experience.


I met new and intricate and unconscious discrimination. I was pleasantly surprised when the white school superintendent, on whom I had made a business call, invited me to stay for dinner; and he would have been astonished if he had dreamed that I expected to eat at the table with him and not after he was through.


All the appointments of my school were primitive; a windowless log cabin; hastily manufactured benches; no blackboard; almost no books; long, long distances to walk. And on the other hand, I heard the sorrow songs sung with primitive beauty and grandeur. i saw the hard, ugly drudgery of country life and the writhing of landless, ignorant peasants. I saw the race problem at nearly its lowest terms” [page 16, Dusk of Dawn (The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois) By W. E. B. Du Bois, ISBN: 0199386714]


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Dr Du Bois shared what he had learned with those he had found in the country side; teaching the classics in plain English to children, teens and adults who had hardly the beginnings of literacy. He continued teaching what he knew, and absorbed what he could from the Black communities which were recently liberated from technical slavery. He was taken by the beauty of the ‘sorrow songs’ and religious rituals in the hill churches; he noted how the music contrasted with the Episcopalian and Congregational religious ceremonies he was used to.


In 1888, prior to graduating at Fisk, he decided to attend Harvard University to pursue doctoral studies. He was admitted as a junior and was awarded a grant from the Price Greenleaf Fund to cover his expenses. His academic studies florished under the tutorage of Albert Bushnell Hart who introduced him to the traditional rigorous methods of scholarship of German universities. Working in this environment helped him evolve his thinking ro a more fully formed liberal cosmopolitan perspective.



Dr Du Bois Travels The World

In 1890 he completed his bachelor’s degree; the following year he completed his master’s and in 1895 he completed his doctorate. His time at Harvard University opened up further opportunities and new horizons. He went to Germany to continue his studies and travel the world to make connections with Black people of all cultures forging intellectual and ideological bonds with progressive thinkers.


During his time in Friederich Wilhelm University in Berlin, from 1892 to 1894, he mixed with scholars such as Gustav von Schmoller, Adolf Wagner, Heinrich Rudolf von Gneist and Max Weber. He was inspired by their work and was influenced by the introduction of new economic theories left-of-centre thinking. On his return to the United States he felt ready to teach in a Black university, develop a department of history and social science, and dedicate his time to finding dedicated young Black students to study scientifically the race question – past and present – with a view to find the best solutions.


Although laws gave lip service to mandated ‘separate but equal facilities’ in the United States, in reality most schools were under-funded – if funded at all, teachers were inadequately prepared, and facilities and materials were poor. There were some attempts to provision the Black communities, a mixture of individuals and organisations consisting of abolitionists, missionaries, and free Blacks.


He would refuse a mathematics teaching position at the Tuskegee Institute and famously go head to head with the most powerful black man in America – Booker T. Washington – another African-American educator, author, orator, as well as advisor to presidents of the United States. Washington was founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. He was to champion black progress through education and entrepreneurship avoiding any challenge the Jim Crow laws – the laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States.


Dr Du Bois was to challenge Booker T. Washington’s political standing by attacking the Atlanta Compromise, an agreement forged in 1895 between Booker T. Washington, other African-American leaders, and Southern white leaders. The agreement laid out that Southern blacks would work meekly and submit to white political rule, while in return Southern whites would guarantee that blacks would receive basic education and due process in law. It represented a compromise for the status quo that offered a only a type of education – manual and industrial – which would maintain the caste status of Black peoples.


Washington’s view was that it was not the time to challenge segregation and the disfranchisement of black voters in the South and spent his time building a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, white philanthropists and politicians, to improve economic conditions and sense of identity via a focus on self-help and schooling.


Dr Wiliam Du Bois with Nina Gomer
Dr Wiliam Du Bois with Nina Gomer

Dr Du Bois took a chair of the classics department at Wilberforce University which was one of the notable pre-civil war institutions of higher education for Black people and children of progressive plantation owners.


Although teaching Latin, Greek, Mathematics and other courses, he was not allowed to develop the courses and vision he had for sociology. This led to tensions and friction with university officials over traditional matters such as curriculum and the ‘appropriate behaviour of faculty members’.


He married a student – Nina Gomer – a few months before leaving Wilberforce and taking a research position at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at this point that he did the work which was to become his landmark book ‘The Philadelphia Negro’.


He and Nina were to live amongst the poor Black communities which were the focus of the study. The research focused on the documentation of life for Blacks in Philadelphia. In the work he took a position counter to solely blaming Black people for criminality arguing for educational, economic, cultural and political behaviours that would lead to improvement. Once finished, the study was published in 1899.


Next Dr Du Bois was to accept a teaching position at Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia where he was professor of economics, history and sociology. Here he was to generate a programme of research on the race question, organize various conferences and start journals such as ‘The Moon’ and ‘Horizon’. ‘The Moon; Illustrated Weekly’ was a liberal journal which was to publicize the Niagara Movement’s views. The first issue was published in December 1905 but failed to reach a large audience and it stopped a half year later.


‘The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line’ – to give it it’s full title – was a monthly journal published from 1907 to 1910 and represented the primary communication outlet for the Niagara Movement. The Niagara Movement was a Black civil rights organization which had been founded in 1905 and which opposition to racial segregation and disenfranchisement, and to policies of appeasement and conciliation promoted by African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington.


Dr Du Bois provided an articulate counterpoint to Washington’s position when in 1909 – along with Moorfield Storey and Mary White Ovington – they created the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This was a critical African-American civil rights organization that held as its aim “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination”.


Atlanta University had provided the creative environment which Dr Du Bois had sought to develop his teaching, learning and thinking. A far cry from the industrial and manual education which was prescribed by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, he got to work in an atmosphere created by progressive educators such as Edmond Asa Ware – first president of Atlanta University (1837 – 1885)- who promoted intellectual openness.


It was at his time in Atlanta University that he wrote ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ where upon it being published in 1903, it was applauded by various Black intellectuals such as James Weldon Johnson, Bejamin Brawley, Jessie Redmon Fauset Ida Wells- Barnett, and Professor William James. As a text it had succeeded to free up discourse about the status of Black people in America.


He had raised doubt and concern about the harm brought about by the silencing of opposition voices and the elevation of Washington’s aspiratons, tenets and beleifs for an entire people. Dr Du Bois viewed the move towards reconciliation and capitulation as a repudiation of the legitimate demands of an oppressed and mistreated people. He also gave life to the critique of Washington’s particular commitment to industrial education, and although he recognized the need for such education, he felt it must always be in combination with university education.


Dr Du Bois coined the term ‘the Talented Tenth’ to describe the likelihood of 1 in 10 Black people becoming leaders of their race in the world, via methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. Some found this idea contravercial and out of step, however, the ideas which he communicated in his essays crystalised much needed opposition to Washington and assisted in preventing the entire subjugation of black educational aspirations.


Dr DuBois was unsuccessful in achieving the political shift he wanted whilst Washington was still alive, but after his death in 1915 the Civil Rights Movement moved away from such policies as the Atlanta Compromise towards a more militant approach. He became the director of research in the NAACP and would coordinate actions in the streets, courts and offices of influential individuals. Over time this contributed to the increased awareness of the human rights issues and the alternative thinking about the complicity which pervaded the society at the time.


He would help organise the magazine ‘Crisis’, the official publication of the NAACP. This would provide reportage on lynchings of Black people and the push for the equality and enactment of law against such brutal crimes. He and others would bolster the pioneering work of Ida B. Wells-Barnet an African-American journalist, editor, suffragist, and sociologist, who was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement.


She was well known for documenting the lynchings that happened in the United States, showing that it was often used as a way to control or punish blacks who competed with whites, rather than being based on criminal acts by blacks, as was mostly claimed by white mobs.


W.E.B. DuBois and the Editorial and Advisory Boards of the. Encyclopedia .
Dr W.E.B. DuBois and the Editorial and Advisory Boards of the. Encyclopedia Africana

Encyclopedia Africana

Dr Du Bois resigned from the NAACP in 1934 over internal political issues and returned to Atlanta university to each and write. He was to become interested in the teachings of Karl Marx and this brought negative attention from the US State Department and FBI in a climate which was hostile to these intellectual leanings. In the 1950s amongst a climate of McCarthyism, the State Department took his passport from him, although it was restored when he filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.


In 1961 he joined the American Communist Party and left the country to accept an invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah to relocate to Ghana to work on a comprehensive encyclopedia of African people. Although some have ventured to say that he gave up his associations with the United States, Dr Du Bois never renounced his American citizenship.


It was scholar Mike Forrest Keen who documented through governmental archives that the State Department had only just started the action to take away his citizenship when he died in 1963. This was on the eve of the Civil Rights March on Washington. [page 90, Bernard A. Drew, 100 Most Popular Nonfiction Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies, ISBN: 1591584876]


An interesting insight is offered to us by David Levering Lewis who suggests in his book ‘Biography Of A Race’ that many people found him to be distant and aloof as he insisted on being addressed as “Dr. Du Bois”. One of his closest friendships was apparently Joel Spingarn – a white man – however Dr Du Bois never accepted Spingarn’s offer to be on a first name basis. Thus, as might be fitting, in this article he has been referred to with his appropriate title…


Perhaps a good way to finish this potted history of the man would be to look at the aspiration of how he saw the way in which people should be valued: “….a morning when men ask of the workman, not “Is he white?” but “Can he work?” When men ask artists, not “Are they black?” but “Do they know?” Some morning this may be, long, long years to come….” [The Souls of Black Folk]