Publication Date

December 6, 2022

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam, Long Overdue


  • United States


African American, Social

W. E. B. Du Bois

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/CC0

On August 27, 1963, our discipline lost William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. The author of 16 books of history, politics, literature, and social criticism, and an activist for racial equality and peace, Du Bois had few professional peers. New England born, his mother’s Black Burghardt ancestry and his father’s Haitian birth encouraged a special sense of self in an only son raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Few American historians of any race rivaled his credentials in the late 19th century: double baccalaureates from Fisk University and Harvard College; graduate study at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität; and his 1896 PhD in history from Harvard University, an African American first. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States (1896), was published as Harvard Historical Series Number 1. In 1897, he became a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. Few 20th-century American historians would surpass Du Bois in interpretive originality, as with The Philadelphia Negro (1899). Long read as social history, it has been appropriated by our sociological kith as a founding monograph in urban sociology.

His revisionist insights were not always appreciated by fellow academics. In the presence of William A. Dunning, whose racist scholarship shaped the study of the post–Civil War South, Du Bois presented “Reconstruction and Its Benefits” at the 1909 AHA annual meeting, prefiguring his now iconic Black Reconstruction in America (1935). This magnum opus inspired, enhanced, and instigated the contemporary consensus about the long socioracial, political, and economic aftermaths of the Civil War. Acknowledgments of his influence from contemporary historians might be seen as posthumous professional consolations to a historian whose political heterodoxy in his final years invited the wrath of the Cold War establishment.

Yet it might not have been inevitable that Du Bois found teaching a woefully inadequate antidote for his country’s dismal race relations. The public display of a lynched Black man’s butchered remains near the Atlanta University campus induced a traumatic understanding in him, as he famously wrote, that “there was no such definite demand for the scientific work of the sort I was doing.” In lieu of social science, Du Bois conceived a unique experiment of history as literature, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which remains an indispensable interpretive template for understanding the American race problem in all its anomalous history of color, gender, caste, law, and otherness.

Du Bois temporarily departed from the academy’s triad of teaching, research, and writing books to co-found the NAACP and serve as founding editor of its magazine, The Crisis, in 1910. Yet he clashed with some distinguished board members when he abjured the organization’s very raison d’être, denouncing the ideal of racial integration as no longer economically realistic during the Great Depression. He returned to academia and Atlanta University in 1933.

In 1944, Du Bois was invited to return to the NAACP as the senior intellectual of his race. But he soon offended board members by petitioning the United Nations to accept An Appeal to the World: A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States. In advance of termination, Du Bois resigned from the NAACP in 1948. He came to believe that the Progressive Party alone could advance genuine domestic racial equality, and negotiate nuclear disarmament and pacific co-existence with the Soviet Union.

In the last 15 years of his life, Du Bois focused on activism for peace and free speech. On the final night of the Waldorf-Astoria Peace Conference in 1949, Du Bois’s remarks at Madison Square Garden eventually led to federal charges of working as an agent of a foreign state. To read his account of his 1951 Smith Act trial, In Battle for Peace, where principled ideals slip the traces of parochial culture and reductionist politics, should prompt concerns in those of us who study the long shadow of history.

DuBois died at age 95 at home in Accra, Ghana, where he and second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, had resided since 1961 as guests of the Republic of Ghana and in self-imposed exile after the American embassy stopped the renewal of his US passport. On the morning following Du Bois’s Ghanaian exit, the executive secretary of the NAACP told the thousands of Americans at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, “It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause.”

David Levering Lewis
New York University

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