W. E. B. Du Bois Biography

W.E.B. Du Bois, an American sociologist and civil rights activist, was a prominent leader of the Niagara Movement and one of the most significant African-American activists of the first half of the 20th century. As a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, he dedicated his life to fighting for equal rights for blacks. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a tolerant community and excelled academically, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate. His passion for sociology led him to conduct groundbreaking research on the treatment of blacks in America, publishing the first case study of a black community in the United States. Du Bois’s activism extended beyond research, as he became the leader of the Niagara Movement and later served as the director of research and editor of the NAACP’s magazine, ‘The Crisis’.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: W.E.B. DuBois, W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Died At Age: 95
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Nina Gomer Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois
    • Father: Alfred Du Bois
    • Mother: Mary Silvina Du Bois
  • Born Country: Ghana
  • African American Men
  • African American Authors
  • Died on: August 27, 1963
  • Place of death: Accra, Ghana
  • Founder/Co-Founder: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Niagara Movement
  • More Facts
  • Education: Harvard University, Fisk University, Humboldt University of Berlin, Harvard College
  • Awards:
    • 1920 – Spingarn Medal
    • 1959 – Lenin Peace Prize

Childhood & Early Life

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois. He was of mixed race, and identified himself as a “mulatto”. His father left the family when William was just two years old, and his mother moved in with her parents.

The community he grew up in was a relatively tolerant one. He attended a local integrated public school where he became friends with white students. He was a bright young boy and his talents were duly recognized by his white teachers. Still, as a person of mixed race, he was subjected to some racism.

Education and Early Career

He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1885 to attend Fisk University from where he earned his bachelor’s degree. It was here that he became aware of the rampant racism that blacks faced and was deeply disturbed by the incidents of bigotry, lynching and suppression of black rights.

He attended Harvard College from 1888 to 1890 and earned a second bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history. As he hailed from a modest background, he had to pay for his education by working in summer jobs and borrowing funds from friends.

He excelled in studies and received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work in 1892. He travelled extensively while studying at Berlin, and studied with some of the country’s most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Heinrich von Treitschke.

In 1895, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and his doctoral dissertation, ‘The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870’, was published in 1896.


W.E.B. Du Bois accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio where he became acquainted with Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change.

From Wilberforce he moved to the University of Pennsylvania as an “assistant in sociology” in 1896 and performed sociological field research in Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhoods.

He became a professor of history and economics at the Atlanta University in Georgia in 1897. There he published the first case study of an African-American community, ‘The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study’ (1899), which was based on the field work he did in 1896–1897.

He proved to be a prolific writer and published several papers over the ensuing years. He also emerged as a prominent voice of the African-American community in early 20th century, next only to Booker T. Washington who was the director of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

The two men, however, had different ideologies regarding civil rights activism, and when Washington proposed the Atlanta Compromise, Du Bois and several others like Archibald H. Grimke, Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar vehemently opposed him.

In 1903, he published ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ which went on to be considered a seminal work in the history of sociology. The book contains several essays on race, many of them covering Du Bois’ own experiences as an African-American in the American society.

Du Bois teamed up with several other African-American civil rights activists like Jesse Max Barber and William Monroe Trotter, and held a conference in Canada, near Niagara Falls. The meeting marked the beginning of what was incorporated as the Niagara Movement in 1906. This new movement opposed the Atlanta Compromise and called for full and equal rights in every realm of a black person’s life.

He attended the National Negro Conference in New York in May 1909 following which the National Negro Committee was created. The committee was dedicated to campaigning for civil rights, equal voting rights, and equal educational opportunities. In 1910, the attendees formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Du Bois soon took up the position of Director of Publicity and Research in NAACP after resigning from the Atlanta University. In this position, he edited the association’s monthly magazine, ‘The Crisis’ which became phenomenally successful and reached a circulation of 100,000 in 1920.

As the editor of ‘The Crisis’, he wrote many hard-hitting articles calling for equal rights for not just the blacks, but also the women. He encouraged the development of black literature and urged the blacks to develop a separate “group economy” as a tool for fighting economic discrimination and black poverty. While his radical ideologies made him immensely popular as a powerful voice for black rights, it also led to numerous ideological clashes within NAACP. He eventually resigned from the editorship of ‘The Crisis’ and the NAACP in 1934.

He then returned to the Atlanta University and spent the next several years teaching. He published numerous literary works during the 1930s and 1940s, and returned to the NAACP in a research position in 1944.

Major Works

Du Bois was a prolific author and one of his best known works is the ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, considered to be a seminal work in the history of sociology. One of the early works in the field of sociology, it contains several essays on the basic rights of the blacks, including right to vote, the right to a good education, and to be treated with equality and justice.

He was the editor of ‘The Crisis’, the highly successful official magazine of the NAACP. Primarily a current-affairs journal, ‘The Crisis’ also included poems, reviews, and essays on culture and history. For as long as he was the editor, the journal published the work of many young African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Personal Life & Legacy

W.E.B. Du Bois married Nina Gomer on May 12, 1896. The couple was blessed with two children. Nina died in 1950.

He married Shirley Graham, an author, playwright, composer and activist, in 1951. Shirley had a son from a previous relationship, David. Some historians allege that Du Bois also had several extramarital relationships.

W.E.B. Du Bois moved to Ghana in his later years, and died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 95, and still active in his work.

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