...in 1904, W.E.B. DuBois gave a lecture on "the race question" at Harvard, where nine years before he had been the first black person to receive a Ph.D. From his childhood in Great Barrington, where he was relatively sheltered from racism, to his old age in Africa, where he moved to escape it, DuBois devoted his energies and talents to helping his fellow African Americans gain political and economic power. Founder of the NAACP, he later became more militant than most of its members. His involvement in the Pan-African Movement led him to support African independence. He moved to Ghana in his 90s and died there on August 27, 1963, the very eve of the historic civil rights march on Washington.
The great American scholar and activist, William Edward Burghardt DuBois, was born in 1868 on the westernmost edge of Berkshire County. Blacks made up about 1% of Great Barrington's population. The town's relatively tolerant social attitudes allowed him to grow up largely unaffected by racial prejudice and confident of his own abilities.
DuBois's mother was a Burghardt, a family descended from a slave who had settled in the county around 1730 and earned his freedom fighting in the Revolution. Burghardts had owned and lived on Berkshire County land for generations.
The family disapproved when Mary Burghardt chose to marry a man from Springfield, Alfred DuBois. Shortly after the birth of their only child, the elder DuBois left to find work and establish a home in Connecticut. Mary DuBois's family urged her not to follow her husband. "The result," W.E.B. DuBois later wrote, was that "my mother never went and my father never came back to Great Barrington."
Mary and her son lived in "simple comfort, and living was cheap," he recalled. He never went hungry or lacked for clothes or shoes; nor was he ever "made to feel unfortunate in company with my fellow students. That was partly because most village folk were poor or middle class." When he needed new shoes or school books, the money often came from gifts from his uncle or aunts or "less frequently from white families, long closely connected with the Burghardts. . . Our landlord, Mrs. Cass received no rent, I am sure, for long intervals. I think that the rent was . . . accounted for by settlement as a gift when I went to college."
DuBois loved school and excelled there. He measured himself against the other students in terms of academic performance, rather than race or wealth, and his record was almost always superior. He was acknowledged to be the best student in the town's integrated high school and was one of the few deemed worthy of a college education.
A number of individuals in Great Barrington recognized and encouraged his gifts. The high school principal decided early on that DuBois would be one of only three students in his class to take the college preparatory course, which included Latin and Greek. A neighbor stepped in when he could not afford the textbooks, and the principal "quietly open[ed] college doors" for him.
Throughout his childhood, DuBois took part in school, social, and church activities "with no thought of discrimination on the part of [his] fellows." In fact, he remembered that he was "often, if not always, the leader." Looking back years later, he realized that there must have been a "veil of color" in Great Barrington, but as a boy he saw more discrimination against Irish Catholic newcomers than he did prejudice against well-established black families like his own.
DuBois hoped to go to Harvard but could not afford it. Instead, he went to the all-black Fisk University in Nashville on a scholarship. It was at Fisk that he first encountered the full force of racism. Many of his classmates were the children of slaves. He appreciated and readily absorbed their rich cultural and social traditions and began to identity himself as black.
After graduating from Fisk, DuBois received a fellowship to Harvard. He earned a second bachelor's degree in 1890 and a Master's two years later. After studying at a prestigious German university, he returned to Cambridge for a Ph.D. When he received his doctorate from Harvard in 1895, he became the first black person to do so.
Like other nominally integrated American universities, Harvard was highly segregated. On a return to the campus in 1904, he told his audience that he had been "in Harvard but not of it."
In his autobiography, he explained that his time at Fisk had served him well. "Had I gone from Great Barrington high school directly to Harvard I would have sought companionship with my white fellows and been disappointed and embittered by a discovery of social limitations to which I had not been used. But I came by way of Fisk and the South and there I had accepted and embraced eagerly the companionship of those of my own color."
Armed with his Harvard credentials, DuBois embarked on a lifetime of work as a scholar, writer, and social activist. He quarreled with Booker T. Washington, the most powerful African-American of the time, over the best way to improve blacks' standard of living. Washington stressed industrial training designed to help blacks get and keep decent jobs, while DuBois insisted that higher education and political action were the keys to ending racial oppression.
In 1905, frustrated with the slow pace of change as advocated by Washington, DuBois and William Monroe Trotter co-founded the Niagara Movement with a mission to promote "aggressive action on the part of men who believe in Negro freedom and growth." Three years later, the movement was reorganized as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. DuBois was the first editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis.
A brilliant scholar, he conducted path-breaking research into the conditions of African-American life. He was the author of more than 100 articles and 21 books, including the classic The Souls of Black Folk. In the 1930s, he favored a two-fold strategy: he continued to advocate for militant resistance to racial injustice but also supported black-controlled institutions and economic cooperation.
By the 1950s, as DuBois became actively involved in leftist causes, the NAACP distanced itself from him. Convinced the U.S. would never live up to the ideals enshrined in the Constitution, in 1961 he joined the Communist Party and became an expatriate.
Addressing the hundreds of thousands of marchers gathered at the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP said, "Regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. DuBois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause."
The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois, by W.E.B. DuBois (International Press, 1968).
Making Freedom, Book 5, ed. by the staff of Primary Source, Inc. (Heinemann Publishers, 2004).
The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois (New American Library, 1969).
"The Achievement of W.E.B. DuBois," by Kerry W. Buckley.
Harvard University Gazette, "W.E.B. DuBois "I was Happy at Harvard, But for Unusual Reasons," September 25, 1970.