The Educational Life of W.E.B. Du Bois
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.”
–W.E.B. Du Bois
Intellectual. Author. Teacher. Civil rights advocate. Socialist. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, better known as W.E.B. Du Bois (pronounced Do-Boyce), was all of these things and more.
Descended from a Dutch colonial slave and a white slave-owner, Dr. Du Bois did as much as any single figure in the long and arduous civil rights movement to advance equality for “people of color.” The historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 contained many of W.E.B. Du Bois’ ideals and conditions for attaining true social equality among all races in the United States.
Born on February 23, 1868, in Massachusetts, Du Bois became the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University in 1895. A few years later, he launched his prolific writing career with his book “The Philadelphia Negro,” a landmark study of an urban black community. As he applied his expertise in social science to document the oppression against Reconstruction-era blacks in the industrialized North, Du Bois also articulated his concept of “the talented tenth,” which proposed that educators should help nurture opportunities for one-in-10 black Americans to advance into leadership roles.
This idea put him in direct opposition with another prominent black reformer of the era, Booker T. Washington, who led the progressive Tuskegee Institute at the turn of the 20th century. Washington firmly believed that all-black schools should focus on teaching industrial arts, especially agricultural skills. He also argued that black Americans needed to accept racial discrimination as a necessary evil and earn the respect of whites through hard work and financial success.
Du Bois considered this an inferior strategy for civil rights progress and committed himself to gaining full equality for black Americans under the aegis of the 14th Amendment. He voiced his ardent disagreement in a collection of essays called “The Souls of Black Folk,” many of which contradicted Washington’s philosophy by advocating that black schools should provide students with a liberal arts education to develop more black leaders and educators in the community.
Other Notable Achievements
After attending the National Negro Conference in 1910, W.E.B. Du Bois helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that year, successfully lobbying to use the word “Colored” instead of “Black” in the name to embrace what he termed “dark-skinned people everywhere.”
Accepting the job of director of publicity and research for the newly formed NAACP, Du Bois resigned his teaching position at Atlanta University and moved to New York, where he established The Crisis, a monthly magazine that became a platform for commentary on what he called “the danger of race prejudice.” The Crisis enjoyed surprising success, with a circulation reaching 100,000 by 1920. One courageous editorial from a 1911 edition launched a nationwide initiative to make lynching a crime in the U.S.
Du Bois also created a popular children’s magazine in 1920 called The Brownies’ Book to expose black children to their own history and culture.
Steeped in Controversy
Committed to what some considered radical ideas about furthering racial equality in America, Du Bois become more combative with other activists of his day. He wrote several essays that advocated voluntary segregation in schools, reasoning that black children would learn better from black teachers. This philosophy ran counter to the educational reforms advocated by NAACP President Walter White in the mid-1930s, and as their debate grew more contentious, Du Bois resigned his editorship of The Crisis in protest.
Around this time, Du Bois also began to praise and endorse the socialist theories of Karl Marx. Du Bois visited the Soviet Union in 1926, penned several essays about capitalism’s destructive influence on the struggle for racial equality, and considered himself a passive socialist for the rest of his life.
Du Bois’ anti-war activism and alleged Communist leanings prompted investigations by the FBI in the 1950s; his passport was revoked for eight years. Once it was restored, he traveled to the newly formed Republic of Ghana in 1961 to begin work on an ambitious encyclopedia of the African Diaspora.
When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1962, Du Bois renounced his U.S. citizenship as a symbolic gesture and became an honorary citizen of Ghana. He died there in 1963 at the age of 95 and was buried in the city of Accra on the Gulf of Guinea.
To learn more about this great black activist and intellectual, visit an excellent website devoted to his life and work at WEBDuBois.org.