W. E. B. Du Bois

The activist, writer, and intellectual William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, was born in the rural western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington on February 23, 1868, his New England roots extending back before the Revolution and including ancestors of French, Dutch, and African American heritage. From early in life, Du Bois was recognized for his extraordinary intellectual talents. Educated in the local public schools, he graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1884, and with the financial assistance of friends and family, entered Fisk University as a sophomore in 1885. Thoroughly a northerner, Du Bois’ experiences in Nashville were crucial in galvanizing his understanding of American race relations. To earn additional money for his education, Du Bois taught in country schools in Tennessee during the summer months, where he saw firsthand the bitter influence of segregation and the harshest expressions of American racism. The more subtle discrimination he had faced in Massachusetts coupled with this more menacing aspect encouraged Du Bois to take a more aggressive stance against social injustice.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Fisk in 1888, Du Bois continued his studies at Harvard, enrolling as a junior and receiving his second bachelor’s degree in 1890, followed by his MA in 1891 and PhD in 1895. As he had in Great Barrington and Nashville, Du Bois distinguished himself in Cambridge as a scholar. Like most Americans at the time intent upon an academic career, Du Bois enhanced his scholarly credentials by studying abroad. At the University of Berlin between 1892 and 1894, Du Bois was introduced to contemporary German social scientific theory and, more generally, he internalized the German scholarly tradition of a synthetic approach to social issues, blending history, philosophy, economics, and politics in the study of human social relations. Enamored of German culture, Du Bois also began to recognize the international dimensions of the struggle for racial justice and the connections between racial oppression and imperialist domination.