Special Documents


Du Bois: freedom fighter
Jennifer Wager

HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.

This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colour-line, so wrote one of most eminent Pan African thinkers, W E B Du Bois in one of his seminal works, The Souls of Black Folk.
He was born on February 23, 1868 to Mary Silvina and Alfred Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt.

Du Bois was raised in a small but long established Black community in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. An avid student, Du Bois was published in the community’s newspaper by the age of fourteen.

He graduated from High school early and enrolled at Fisk University. Upon receiving his baccalaureate degree, Du Bois accepted a scholarship at the University of Berlin, where he studied for two years.

Following this, he went to Harvard, where he received his doctoral degree, being the first African American to do so.

His dissertation, approved in 1895, was published as The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.
Regarded as a masterpiece of historiography, this work remains an outstanding example of Du Bois’ scholarship.

By the turn of the century, Dr. Du Bois was on his way to becoming a career academician. From 1894 to 1896, Du Bois served as professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio. After his term was completed, he accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania, as an assistant instructor teaching sociology. It is of course during this time that he conducted the research for his landmark work, Philadeiphia Negro (1899). It was characteristic of the times that Du Bois was not allowed to stay on the segregated campus.

In 1896, Du Bois married Nina Gomer, who would later bear him two children, Burghardt (who died at the age of three) and Yolande. From 1897 to 1910, he served as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University. He served as chairman of the sociology department there from 1934 to 1944.

Du Bois did not invest all his energy in the rigours of academia. He began to carve out a role for himself as a scholar activist.

In 1900, he attended and helped organise the First Annual Pan-African Congress; he was involved in subsequent sessions as well, in 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1945. In 1911 he attended and helped organise the First Universal Races Congress, held in London, England. Inn 1905, Du Bois and a group of pioneering African American scholars and leaders met to discuss the issue of civil rights. This group, known as the Niagara Movement, eventually led to the formation of the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1910. As a founding father of the NAACP, Du Bois also edited the organisation’s journal, The Crisis, from its inception in 1910 to his initial resignation from the organisation in 1934. During that time, he also served as Director of Publicity and Research for the NAACP.

Following his departure, Du Bois remained a vital intellectual force, continually committed to solving “the twentieth century’s problem of the colour line.” Increasingly, he became involved with progressive socialist thinkers and activists who related the problems of Africa in terms of capitalist oppression. In his work, Black Folk, Then and Now, Du Bois proposed that the masses of the world proletariat were African and their upraising would elevate the peoples of the world. Du Bois returned to the NAACP in 1944 as Director of Special Research, but controversy was far off.

Disagreements with the organisation’s leaders and their political manipulations were followed by antagonistic measures perpetrated by the American government. In 1951, Du Bois was indicted under the McCarran Act, one in a long series of legislation instituted as a means to curtail personal and intellectual freedoms, in retaliation for calling upon the United Nations to hear the crimes of the US government against its own people. With the help of his dedicated followers and various human rights organisations, Du Bois was cleared of the charges levied against him.

Du Bois continued to believe that the crimes of racism and exploitation necessitated the unity of Africans throughout the world.

In 1961, he joined the Communist Party USA. That same year, he left the United States with his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, herself a noted writer, and emigrated to Ghana, where he became a full citizen. In 1963, he died peacefully, after ninety-five years of faithfully serving humanity.

He was accorded a funeral befitting a head of state by his close friend, the great Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah. Dignitaries the world over attended the ceremonies, but typical fashion, the US government sent no one to pay tribute.

W E B Du Bois remains one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. He produced over 4 000 works and his life and legacy continue to inspire a new generation of men and women to assume the task he so mightily undertook.

In his own words: “Peace will be my applause.”
Courtesy of the Daily Mirror of 5 October, 2004

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