WEB Du Bois

Reflecting back, WEB Du Bois believed that his life had gained meaning through fighting back against white supremacy and Jim Crow. Du Bois was a monumental figure in the fight for racial advancement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Facing official Jim Crow laws such as segregation and unofficial ones such as lynching, Du Bois' writings made sense of a nation fundamentally divided over race. 

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Table of contents

    WEB Du Bois Timeline

    1868Born in Massachusetts.
    1888Studied at Harvard, where he became the first African American to receive a PhD from the university.
    1892Studied at the University of Berlin.
    1897Published The Conservation of Races which argued against biological understandings of race.
    1899Published The Philadelphia Negro, a sociological study into black living conditions in Philadelphia.
    1903Published The Souls of Black Folk which conceptualised the colour line, double consciousness, and the idea of a veil separating whites and blacks.
    1909Co-founded the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP.
    1910Founded and became editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's official newspaper.
    1914 - 1918First World War.
    1919Published "Returning Soldiers," an article in response to the First World War. It condemned the US for supposedly promoting peace and democracy abroad when African Americans were lynched and denied voting rights at home.
    1920Published Darkwater: Voices from within the veil, a book of essays that sought to get into the African American perspective and experience of racism.
    1926Visited the Soviet Union for the first time. He was astonished at how dedicated the Russians were to uplifting the poor and fighting against imperialism.
    1935Published Black Reconstruction which rejected the popular idea that Reconstruction was a failed experiment and that African Americans were not ready for the vote.
    1939 - 1945Second World War.
    1945Cold War began.
    1951Arrested due to his Communist sympathies. Later acquitted.
    1961Joined the American Communist Party. Accepted President Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation to live in Ghana.
    1963Renounced his US citizenship. Died aged 95.

    WEB Du Bois Education

    Du Bois was born in 1868 and was the first person in his extended family to attend high school. After school, he left the Northeast to study at the University of Tennessee, where he was shocked by the barbarism of southern racism.

    In 1888 he went to Harvard and became the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard. In 1892 he studied at the University of Berlin, where he first experienced life beyond the United States colour line.

    WEB Du Bois Portrait WEB Du Bois StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of WEB Du Bois

    6 Key Works of WEB Du Bois

    Du Bois works were and remain to this day some of the most critical evaluations of race relations in America. Ever the academic, Du Bois used his work to understand the state of black life in America and what could be done to improve it. Here are 6 key WEB Du Bois Works.

    1897WEB Du Bois The Conservation of RacesIn this book, Du Bois rejected the idea that African Americans were biologically inferior. He did, however, argue that African Americans had a unique spirit that tied them together.
    1899WEB Du Bois The Philadelphia NegroA sociological study looking at living and working conditions of black Philadelphians.
    1903WEB Du Bois The Souls of Black FolkA book of essays analysing the history and politics of African Americans. It sought to explain the reality of racism in America.
    1919Returning Soldiers WEB Du BoisA newspaper article criticising America's push for democracy and peace in Europe after the First World War, while restricting the vote and lynching African Americans.
    1920WEB Du Bois Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil A book reflecting Du Bois' move away from sociology and statistics. Made up of essays and poems, it sought to reflect on African Americans and white violence from a literary perspective.
    1935Du Bois WEB Black ReconstructionA historical work aimed to counter the racist myth that giving African Americans the vote and positions in government had gone disastrously.

    WEB Du Bois - Booker T. Washington Debate

    Booker T. Washington was regarded as the African American leader in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was seen as black America's spokesman.

    What did Booker T. Washington believe in?

    Washington held that if black people helped themselves - by embodying entrepreneurial values of thrift and economy, by acquiring skills in trade - they would have the money and power to persuade white Americans to accept them. Because of this, Washington promoted vocational education in trade industries, as opposed to higher, liberal arts education.

    Crucially, Washington was against resistance to Jim Crow laws. He argued that it alienated white Americans and that self-help was enough to combat prejudice. He believed that bending to prejudice was the best way to help African Americans advance in society. When pressed on the matter of lynching, Washington urged African Americans to prevent the 'crimes' that led to lynching.

    Washington's emphasis on diligent work and acceptance of racism meant he was widely regarded amongst white Southern segregationists.

    Du Bois rejected Washington's view that self-help would get African Americans out of racism and poverty. He argued that entrepreneurial values were helpless against racism from whites. Du Bois believed that Washington's views blamed African Americans for their own subjection.

    The Social Theory of WEB Du Bois

    Having gone to university himself, it is not surprising that Du Bois resisted an emphasis on trade education. Du Bois was proof that African Americans could and should take to higher education and liberal arts. In response to Washington's emphasis on industrial education, Du Bois came up with the social theory of the Talented Tenth:

    The Talented Tenth

    The African American educated elite. Du Bois believed that the talented tenth had a duty to lead and educate the black community out of poverty and racism.

    As Du Bois wrote:

    The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”

    - WEB Du Bois, The Negro Problem, 19031

    For Du Bois, the talented tenth was about leadership. He believed that good, educated leaders would pull the black community towards racial equality. It is important to note, however, that Du Bois' conception of leadership was male. Though Du Bois' intention was to counter the myth that black people should not gain a higher education, his prizing of the top 'tenth' of the community does carry elitist connotations.

    WEB Du Bois, Civil Rights, and the NAACP

    In contrast to Washington's passive acceptance of Jim Crow, Du Bois believed in active resistance. In line with this, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP in 1909 - America's oldest and largest civil rights organisation.

    Did you know?

    Before the rise of Martin Luther King and the black churches in the South, the NAACP was the main organisation for racial advancement. It campaigned through legal trials, fund-raising, and lobbying to erode Jim Crow laws.

    In 1910, Du Bois became the founder and editor of the NAACP newspaper The Crisis. Du Bois' position reflected his emphasis on advancing racial rights through academic writing. In 1919 Du Bois would write and publish 'Returning Soldiers' in The Crisis, which criticised America for promoting democracy in Europe while failing to enforce it at home.

    The Crisis was very popular and by 1920 around 100,000 copies circulated throughout America. The newspaper reflected on Du Bois' own evolving politics: it increasingly focused on labour unions and African American worker's rights, in line with Du Bois' growing Communist sympathies.

    Did you know?

    The Crisis still educates American society about civil rights, history, politics, and culture. It sheds light on issues that trouble communities of colour in the US.

    WEB Du Bois and the Influence of Communism

    Du Bois became increasingly influenced by Communist, anti-colonialist, and militant ideas throughout the twentieth century. When the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917, Du Bois had initially been hesitant to support it. But in 1926 he had the chance to visit the Soviet Union himself.

    WEB Du Bois' visit influenced him greatly. He saw little poverty and was stunned at the egalitarian attitude of the Russians. That Lenin was a committed anti-imperialist and opposed the colonisation of the Western powers appealed to Du Bois. As the professor in African American studies Monteiro said:

    The Russian Revolution changes the international equation and, for the first time, a great power in the modern era [was] supporting anti-colonialism."

    - Anthony Monteiro, Professor of African American Studies2

    In the late 1940s the Cold War began and McCarthyism, the persecution of those suspected of Communist sympathies, raged throughout the country.

    In 1951 Du Bois was arrested on suspicion of being an "agent of a foreign principal." Although he was acquitted of this charge, the US government refused to release his passport for 7 years. In 1961, aged 93, Du Bois joined the American Communist Party. That same year he accepted President Kwame Nkrumah's invitation to live in Ghana. Du Bois renounced his US citizenship shortly before his death in 1963.

    Importance of WEB Du Bois

    WEB Du Bois is one of the most influential black American intellectuals. His ideas on the 'colour line' and 'double consciousness' continue to resound in an America still divided by race. Du Bois advocated for good quality higher education for African Americans, at a time when their intellectual abilities were called into question. And his co-founding of the NAACP helped build the most important organisation for African American rights in the first half of the twentieth century.

    Du Bois reclaimed Reconstruction and rejected the myth of black unreadiness in political and governmental life. Du Bois' sharp characterisations and understanding of America and its race relations make him an indisputable giant in American history.

    WEB Du Bois - Key Takeaways

    • Du Bois emerged as an intellectual leader of the African American community through his opposition to Booker T. Washington.

    • Unlike Washington, Du Bois believed that African Americans should access higher education and that protest and resistance were effective ways of advancing African Americans.

    • In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Du Bois popularised the concepts of the colour line, double consciousness, and the veil which divided whites from other races.

    • In 1909, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

    • In 1910, he founded and became editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's official newspaper.

    • He published his pivotal Black Reconstruction in 1935 which deconstructed the myth that Reconstruction failed because African Americans were not ready for the vote.

    • Du Bois moved away from his earlier position of the 'talented tenth' and embraced Communism.


    1. WEB Du Bois, The Negro Problem, 1903.
    2. Anthony Monteiro, Professor of African American Studies at Temple University, "Du Bois and the Soviet Union" 2013. You can watch the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weqBtgefu5o
    Frequently Asked Questions about WEB Du Bois

    How did W.E.B Du Bois believe black people should overcome racism?

    Du Bois rejected Booker T. Washington's belief that racism would be overcome once the black community lifted itself out of poverty. Du Bois believed that racism would not allow black people to rise out of poverty in the first place. 

    Du Bois believed that racial protest and resistance in the law courts would help black people overcome racism.

    How influential was WEB Du Bois? 

    WEB Du Bois was highly influential during his life and even after his death. He practically invented the field of race philosophy and was a co-founder of the NAACP. 

    Why did WEB Du Bois oppose Booker T Washington?

    Washington believed that African-Americans should not push and force social change because economic improvement would eventually yield results. In an 1895 speech known as the Atlanta Compromise, Washington stated that African-Americans should ‘not agitate for political or social equality.’ Whereas Du Bois strongly believed that the only way to improve race relations in America was social change. He wanted to push for the system to change.

    How was W.E.B Du Bois central to the Niagara movement?

    In July 1905, Du Bois and a group of other promising African-American intellectuals met in Ontario near Niagara Falls. Du Bois sent out a newsletter that called for African-American men who disagreed with Booker T. Washington to meet at this convention. Around 29 African-Americans from 14 states attended. In this meeting, they discussed the formation of an organisation that would fight for the civil and political rights of African-Americans and effectively incite social change. This became the Niagara movement.

    Was W.E.B Du Bois the most important leader?

    WEB Du Bois was certainly an important leader in African American circles. However, he was joined by other great leaders such as Ida B Wells and Archibald Grimke. 

    Du Bois was a rival to Booker T. Washington and is now certainly regarded as more important than Washington. However, at the time, Washington enjoyed immense prestige and fame, especially from white circles. 

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