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The Core Curriculum

W.E.B. Du Bois

1868 CE – 1963 CE

Portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois by C.M. Battey, 1918. (Wikimedia Commons)Portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois by C.M. Battey, 1918. (Wikimedia Commons) William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois. From an early age, Du Bois excelled at school. After graduating valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at Fisk University in Tennessee. Du Bois graduated from Fisk in the spring of 1888.

The following fall, Du Bois continued his education at Harvard, where he had been offered a scholarship, and where he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree cum laude. While at Harvard, Du Bois received a fellowship to pursue graduate work at the University of Berlin, an honor that afforded him the chance to study with some of Germany’s finest scholars and gave him the opportunity to travel throughout Europe. Several years later, in 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Throughout his long life, Du Bois worked tirelessly to combat racism. Early in his career, his efforts came from within the academy: from 1897 to 1910, he taught at Wilberforce College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1910, Du Bois left higher education temporarily in order to serve as director of research for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also worked as the primary editor for the organization’s journal, Crisis.

After nearly 25 years with the NAACP, Du Bois returned to teaching at Atlanta University.  During this stage in his life, Du Bois  became increasingly committed to the cause of progressive labor in the United States – a commitment that did not always sit well with the FBI, which investigated him in 1942 as an alleged socialist. In spite of such pressure, Du Bois continued to take on new political leadership roles. In 1950, at the age of 82, he ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat from New York on the labor party ticket. In 1961, after having traveled extensively through China and Russia, Du Bois joined the Communist Party USA.

That same year, Du Bois was invited to Ghana by President Kwame Nkrumah in order to direct the compilation of the Encyclopedia Africana, a collection of Africana studies. Du Bois became ill during his stay in Ghana, and died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 95, one day before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He is buried in Accra, Ghana.

Written by Patrick Comstock, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teacher's College, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Charles Lemert. “W.E.B. Du Bois,” The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists. George Ritzer, editor. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Natalie Lewis. "The Souls of Black Folk," Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, editors. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005, p. 437.

W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover, 1994.

“William Edward Burghardt Du Bois,” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn, editor. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online.