Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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W. E. B. Du Bois was an African American intellectual, sociologist, poet, and activist whose fierce commitment to racial equality was the seminal force behind important sociopolitical reforms in the twentieth-century United States.

Although Du Bois may not have the same name recognition as FREDERICK DOUGLASS or MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., he is regarded by most historians as an influential leader. King himself praised Du Bois as an intellectual giant whose "singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people." Reflecting on Du Bois's legacy, playwright Lorraine Hansberry noted that "his ideas have influenced a multitude who do not even know his name."

Born February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, during the Reconstruction period following the U.S. CIVIL WAR, Du Bois was of African, French, and Dutch descent. His tremendous potential was apparent to his fellow townspeople, who raised money in the local churches to send him to Tennessee's Fisk University, a predominantly African American school. Du Bois earned a bachelor of arts degree from Fisk in 1888. He then attended Harvard University, where his professors included George Santayana and WILLIAM JAMES. An outstanding student, Du Bois received three degrees from Harvard: a bachelor's in 1890, a master's in 1891, and a doctor's in 1895.

Du Bois traveled extensively in Europe during the early 1890s and did postdoctoral work at the University of Berlin, in Germany. It was there that he pledged his life and career to the social and political advancement of African Americans. When Du Bois returned to the United States, he accepted his first teaching position at Ohio's Wilberforce University. He later taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Atlanta University.

Du Bois made his mark as an accomplished sociologist and historian, publishing groundbreaking studies on African American culture. In The Philadelphia Negro (1899), he interviewed 5,000 people to document the social institutions, health, crime patterns, family relationships, and education of African Americans in northern urban areas. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black

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Folk, he published a beautifully written collection of essays on the political history and cultural conditions of African Americans.

Although his success in academe was well recognized, Du Bois chose to cut a bolder swath as a passionate social activist. He became a symbol of principled social protest...

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