W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868—August 27, 1963) was an American historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist, widely recognized for his historiography on Reconstruction, writings on black subjectivity, and involvement in the Pan-Africanist movement. He was known for his emphasis on the importance of economic, not solely political, justice in combating racial inequality, a project he saw contingent on creating equal educational opportunities across races. Du Bois did not have an extensive relationship with the New School, but he did teach the school’s earliest courses on African American history in 1948.

Although Du Bois’ association with the New School was brief, his attitude towards the institution speak to his wider thoughts on higher education. Du Bois saw the New School’s liberal arts curriculum as not only running counter to the American positivist tradition, but as an alternative to the vocational approach promoted by Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute.[1] Washington, who was the president of Tuskegee, promoted notions of racial solidarity and accommodation, which coalesced in the Atlanta Compromise, an agreement struck by African American leaders and Southern whites in 1895. The so-called compromise articulated an agreement with white Southern leaders that guaranteed African Americans basic education and due process before the law if black leadership would walk back demands for equality, integration, and justice.

Du Bois’ views on education changed throughout his life–even initially accepting the Atlanta Compromise. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, during Reconstruction, Du Bois’s lived between an era of opportunity and the onset of Jim Crow. He was largely raised by his mother, Mary Silvina (née Burghardt), a domestic worker, and his maternal grandparents. Great Barrington was fairly integrated, allowing Du Bois to attend the local public school, but not without some stigma. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois singles out a moment in elementary school, just after the Compromise of 1877, in which he realized, “I was different from the others… like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”[2]

Graduating at the top of his high school class, Du Bois enrolled in Fisk University in 1885, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. But he hadn’t wanted an education from Fisk. Du Bois wanted one from Harvard. Thus, after receiving his first bachelor’s degree, he pursued another one–at Harvard (which would not recognize his credits from Fisk). Du Bois continued on at the university, admitted as a doctoral candidate in the sociology department. Du Bois’ experience in graduate school differed vastly from his undergraduate training in that he received more attention for his abilities. Receiving a scholarship, Du Bois set off to do graduate work at the University of Berlin, studying for two years under prominent social scientists such as Gustav Schmoller and Adolph Wagner. This experience was formative. He not only garnered a new understanding of American racism vis-a-vis the European case and began to foster affinities for socialism, but also, to much historical controversy, expressed sympathies for the strong nationalism present in Germany. Du Bois returned to Harvard, becoming the first African American to receive a doctorate from the university in 1895.

Du Bois left Harvard and secured a long-term professorship at Atlanta University. The many facets of Du Bois’ professional life began to show themselves there: not only did he plant his feet firmly in the emergent world of activism, attending the First Pan-African Conference in 1900 and helping to co-found the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909, he first articulated his views on black education in print. In The Philadelphia Negro (1899), Du Bois used the term the “submerged tenth” to describe the most economically disadvantaged and least educated portion of the black population in the city. This “submerged tenth” became the counterpoint to a “talented tenth.”[3] For Du Bois, this latter term described, firstly, the chances of a black man to become a leader of their race (i.e. one out of ten), and, secondly, the process through which the transformation of this proportion of the population would happen: classical education. The implication of this dichotomy was that this classically educated “talented tenth” would lift up the “submerged” fraction.

In the mid-1900s, Du Bois’ ideas about education and activism began to morph; he came to believe that work from below was just as important as leadership from above. That said, his activism and scholarly attention had been largely directed elsewhere. In addition to continuing his work in the Pan-African movement and NAACP, an organization which he helped co-found, Du Bois became increasingly more public with his socialist tendencies and critical of the close relationship between racism and capitalism. He published his seminal work Black Reconstruction in America (1935), which corrected the dominant narrative of Reconstruction at the time by illustrating how the end of this era failed to come out of political consensus but instead a uniting of white Northern financiers and white Southern politicians in response to the political power of a newly enfranchised black population.

On the heels of this publication, and somewhat late in his career, Du Bois found himself at the New School. The first occasion was in 1947, as a guest lecturer in Lawrence Dunbar Reddick’s class The Negro in American Life. The next year this relationship expanded, with DuBois taking on a class of his own. This course, loosely modeled off a class of the same title he taught at Spelman College, the historically black women’s college, roughly a decade earlier, merged Du Bois’ interests in the economic foundations of race in America and the transnationalist valences of this foundation. Unfolding over fifteen sessions and featuring invited lectures by others, the class started with a session on “Africa and Europe (1600-1800)” and moved through the “Cotton Kingdom (1820-1861),” “Reconstruction (1865-67),” the “Color Caste (1876-1900),” “The Negro Church,”, “Negro Education,” and ended with “The Future.”

Du Bois’ course differed from other New School curricula addressing race in the 1940s in that the class confronted systemic racial oppression through a materialist longview. For example, Alain Locke’s “Social Philosophy: Minority Group Relations” and Sterling Brown’s section on literature for “The Negro Contribution to American Culture” looked at black aesthetics in conversation with notions of cultural pluralism and relativism (particularly for Locke). What united the three, however, is that the courses were, in some respects, blips in the school’s early history. Issues of race were not sufficiently addressed in the New School curricula until the 1960s. (What’s more, Du Bois only offered the course one semester, due to the school’s small pay.)

Du Bois passed away on August 27, 1963, in Ghana. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a commemorative address at Carnegie Hall in 1968, “History cannot ignore W. E. B. Du Bois. Because history has to reflect truth and Dr. Du Bois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths.”[4]

[1] Du Bois, W.E.B. Autobiography of W. E. B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, (New York: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1968), pp. 212-213.

[2] Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2007), 33.

[3] Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Talented Tenth”. The Negro Problem. ed. Booker T. Washington (NY: James Pott & Co., 1903), pp. 31-75.

[4] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Honoring Dr. DuBois.” Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 23, 1968.

Photo: W.E.B. Du Bois. 1946., Carl Van Vechten—Library of Congress.