Born into Reconstruction
Five years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery, W.E.B. Du Bois is born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “Racism there was subtle and genteel,” writes contemporary sociologist and scholar Aldon Morris. Despite his mother’s family — part of the town’s very small population of free Black people — owning land,
Du Bois experiences racial discrimination at the local integrated school he attends. But he does well academically, and comes to believe he can use his knowledge and abilities to improve the lives African Americans, still suffering greatly under anti-Black Jim Crow laws.
Heads south for university
Du Bois graduates top of his class at Great Barrington High school, with his heart set on Harvard. He lacks the funds, though neighbors and churches in his home town raise enough money to cover his tuition at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville Tennessee. Here, he edits the school newspaper and develops a passion for public speaking. Today, the Fisk honors program is named for Du Bois.
Continues his studies at Cambridge, Mass.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Fisk, Du Bois furthers his education at Harvard. The Cambridge college doesn’t accept his credits from Fisk, so Du Bois earns a second bachelor’s degree (cum laude, paid for through summer jobs, scholarships and loans) in 1890 and an MA in sociology in 1891.
Studies sociology in Europe
Thanks to a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen, Du Bois attends the University of Berlin for graduate work. He studies the work of prominent German social scientists, and comes to know Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology.
"I found myself on the outside of the American world, looking in. With me were white folk — students, acquaintances, teachers — who viewed the scene with me. They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world; particularly, the part of the world whence I came."
— W.E.B. Du Bois
Receives his groundbreaking Ph.D. from Harvard
After returning from Europe, Du Bois completes his graduate studies and becomes the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. His doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, is published the following year.
Du Bois accepts a position as professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University, where he establishes the country’s first school of sociology.
Publishes “The Philadelphia Negro”
This landmark study, the first case study of a Black community in the US, is based on field research he conducted in 1896 as an assistant in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. By mapping social characteristics onto Philadelphia neighborhoods through statistical analysis, Du Bois’ work was ahead of its time (by about two decades — the Chicago school of sociology, best known for recognizing the role of social structures, rather than genetics, in shaping human behaviour, wouldn’t rise to prominence until 1915).
Designs “The Exhibit of American Negroes” for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris
Prominent Black lawyer Thomas Calloway, a former classmate of Du Bois’ from Fisk, asks him to contribute a social study about African American life to the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Working with Calloway, educator Booker T. Washington, the assistant librarian at the Library of Congress Daniel Murray and current and former students at Atlanta University, Du Bois creates “The Exhibit of American Negroes” in just four months.
The exhibit, which aims to celebrate Black life at the turn of the century and challenge racist stereotypes, includes hundreds of photographs of daily life, 400 official patents by African Americans, an African American bibliography by the Library of Congress, a statuette of Frederick Douglass, as well as 63 handmade charts and graphs comprising two sociological studies. It’s a critical and popular success — though one that’s largely ignored by the white press — and is remembered as a landmark in the fields of both sociology and information design.
Publishes The Souls of Black Folk
This collection of 13 non-fiction essay and one short story is now viewed as one of the most important and influential works on the African American experience ever written. In it, Du Bois elaborates on the themes that would dominate his life’s work: the color line, difficulty of life behind “the Veil” that kept opportunities from being available to Black people, and the concept of “double consciousness,” which is the internal conflict that comes from living as a subordinate, colonized group within an oppressive society.
Co-founds the Niagara Movement
To fight against racial segregation and disenfranchisement, Du Bois starts this Black civil rights organization along with newspaper editor and businessman William Monroe Trotter and other vanguard African American leaders. Though it only lasts for six years due internal squabbles and the opposition of Booker T. Washington, the Niagara Movement is seen as an important frontrunner to the NAACP.
Starts the NAACP
After the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, civil rights activists call for a major conference on race relations. The conference, held in New York in 1909, laid the foundation for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAAP), which was founded by Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and others. Du Bois was the association’s director of research and edited its magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934, become an influential propagandist for Black protest.
Leaves academia, becomes a socialist
No longer viewing the study of sociology as a sharp enough tool in the face of increasing violence against Black people, Du Bois leaves Atlanta University and shifts his focus from academia to full time activism.
"One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved." — W.E.B. Du Bois
He also briefly joins the Socialist Party of America — believing capitalism to be a main cause of racism, he’d long supported their principles — but resigns his official party membership in 1912 denouncing the racism of party leaders. However, he remains sympathetic to Marxist ideas throughout the rest of his life.
Resigns from the NAACP and The Crisis
Believing the organization and its magazine to be too interested in the “Black bourgeoisie” while ignoring the problems of the masses, Du Bois resigns from both.
Publishes Black Reconstruction in America
His magnum opus — a Marxist interpretation of the years following the American Civil War which saw the reorganization of the Southern states according to the wishes of congress — challenges the prevailing view that Black people were responsible for the failures of the era. In it, he emphasizes the agency of Black people and and sees the period as one rife with potential for a worker-fueled economy to replace the slavery-based plantation economy.
Publishes Dusk of Dawn
The title of his second autobiography refers to the hope Du Bois has that Black people are exiting a period of racism and entering a new era of equality. Through autobiographical, historical and sociological lenses, Du Bois uses his own experience and career as a case study to illustrate the complexity of “the race problem.”
Still published today, Du Bois founds this semi-annual peer-reviewed academic journal covering culture from a Black perspective.
Returns to the NAACP
Du Bois rejoins the organization as director of the Department of Special Research. But with the Cold War ramping up, the NAACP wants to distance itself from Communists to protect its reputation (and funding). Du Bois’ continued association with prominent Communists is a liability, and he resigns for a second time in 1948.
Sets his sights on an Encyclopedia Africana
Du Bois publishes the “Preparatory Volume” of a projected encyclopedia, described by contemporary literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as “a scientific and comprehensive work on Africa and peoples of African descent that would refute the Enlightenment notion of Black [people] as devoid of civilization and the hallmarks of humanity.”
Targeted, indicted, dismissed
During the 1940s and 50s, Du Bois is targeted by the US government’s anti-Communist McCarthyism campaign for his socialist leanings. As leader of the anti-nuclear Peace Information Center, he’s indicted in 1951 for failure to register an agent of a foreign state, but the case is dismissed when the judge is informed by the defense that “Dr. Albert Einstein has offered to appear as character witness for Dr. Du Bois.”
Becomes Communist, moves to Ghana
Incensed by the government’s decision to uphold a key piece of McCarthyism, Du Bois applies to and is accepted as a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America. That same year, he moves to Ghana to begin work on the Encyclopedia Africana. It’s a project he’ll never finish, though Gates, Jr. takes up the mantle and publishes his version in 1999.
Du Bois dies in Ghana
Du Bois dies on on August 27, 1963 — the day before the civil rights March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. deliers his “I Have a Dream” speech. His death is announced at the march by civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, who honors Du Bois with a moment of silence.