William Edward Burghardt DuBois, to his admirers, was by spirited devotion and scholarly dedication, an attacker of injustice and a defender of freedom.
A harbinger of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, he died in self-imposed exile in his home away from home with his ancestors of a glorious pastAfrica.
Labeled as a “radical,” he was ignored by those who hoped that his massive contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man.”
His Formative Years
W.E.B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. At that time Great Barrington had perhaps 25, but not more than 50, Black people out of a population of about 5,000. Consequently, there were little signs of overt racism there. Nevertheless, its venom was distributed through a constant barrage of suggestive innuendoes and vindictive attitudes of its residents. This mutated the personality of young William from good natured and outgoing to sullen and withdrawn. This was later reinforced and strengthened by inner withdrawals in the face of real discriminations. His demeanor of introspection haunted him throughout his life.
While in high school DuBois showed a keen concern for the development of his race. At age fifteen he became the local correspondent for the New York Globe. And in this position he conceived it his duty to push his race forward by lectures and editorials reflecting upon the need of Black people to politicized themselves.
DuBois was naturally gifted intellectually and took pleasurable pride in surpassing his fellow students in academic and other pursuits. Upon graduation from high school, he, like many other New England students of his caliber, desired to attend Harvard. However, he lacked the financial resources to go to that institution. But with the aid of friends and family, and a scholarship he received to Fisk College (now University), he eagerly headed to Nashville, Tennessee to further his education.
This was DuBois’ first trip south. And in those three years at Fisk (18851888) his knowledge of the race problem became more definite. He saw discrimination in ways he never dreamed of, and developed a determination to expedite the emancipation of his people. Consequently, he became a writer, editor, and an impassioned orator. And in the process acquired a belligerent attitude toward the color bar.
Also, while at Fisk, DuBois spent two summers teaching at a county school in order to learn more about the South and his people. There he learned first hand of poverty, poor land, ignorance, and prejudice. But most importantly, he learned that his people had a deep desire for knowledge.
After graduation from Fisk, DuBois entered Harvard (via scholarships) classified as a junior. As a student his education focused on philosophy, centered in history. It then gradually began to turn toward economics and social problems. As determined as he was to attend and graduate from Harvard, he never felt himself a part of it. Later in life he remarked “I was in Harvard but not of it.” He received his bachelor’s degree in 1890 and immediately began working toward his master’s and doctor’s degree.
DuBois completed his master’s degree in the spring of 1891. However, shortly before that, ex-president Rutherford B. Hayes, the current head of a fund to educate Negroes, was quoted in the Boston Herald as claiming that they could not find one worthy to enough for advanced study abroad. DuBois’ anger inspired him to apply directly to Hayes. His credentials and references were impeccable. He not only received a grant, but a letter from Hayes saying that he was misquoted. DuBois chose to study at the University of Berlin in Germany. It was considered to be one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning. And DuBois felt that a doctor’s degree from there would infer unquestionable preparation