The Soul of Black Folk: A Tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois

By Jeff Berger

In this year that the Republican Party is hell-bent on trying to prevent schools from teaching about the history of racism in this country, I am perpetually in awe of what African Americans have had to endure. I think about what I was taught in school during the 1960s. I vaguely remembered something about Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), but those were the only two Negroes that I knew by name who lived before Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). (The word “Negro” was in common usage until the late 1960s, when the culture shifted to Black and African American.) As an adult I came across an occasional reference to W.E.B. Du Bois, but I still didn’t understand who he was—that is, until I read David Levering Lewis’s book, W.E.B. Du Bois, A Biography 1868-1963, published in 2009. Lewis is one of Du Bois’s most notable biographers, and he has published several editions of his work on one of the most influential Black intellectuals and activists in American history. In this article, I wish to pay tribute to this great (but flawed) man.

I don’t think my ignorance of Du Bois is unusual, and not just because I am white. And yet, having now learned about him, I view him as being the most significant African American leader during a span of a half century, beginning with Douglass’s death in 1895 and lasting until the emergence of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s. His drift into Marxism and his opposition to the United States during the Cold War during the latter part of his life damaged his legacy. Nevertheless, Du Bois is best remembered for his positive contributions during the first half of his life. 

Du Bois’s Life in Brief

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, just three years after the Civil War. He became the first Negro in the United States to earn a Ph.D. (in History). He studied for two years at Frederick Wilhelm University in Berlin, at a time when German universities were more prestigious than American universities. Even though his doctorate was granted by Harvard University in 1894, Du Bois became known as a German scholar. It was during those two years that Du Bois experienced going “beyond the veil,” as he called it. The veil was American racism. There was no such racism against Negroes in Europe at the time. For Du Bois, every time that he left the United States it felt like a breath of fresh air.

Du Bois studied philosophy, history, and economics, but he became known primarily as a historian and sociologist. Most of his teaching years were spent at Atlanta University, in two different stretches from 1899 to 1909 and from 1934 to 1944. He was a prodigious author of books, both nonfiction and fiction, and articles—always about racism. He also published two autobiographies in his name. His works were translated into other languages, and he became famous throughout the world, especially among scholars. White people who regarded Negroes as inferior thought Du Bois was a radical, but in many ways he was quite moderate compared to some of his peers. In time, he became increasingly respected by white political powers—so much so that in 1933, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau invited him to become an advisor to the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Du Bois turned him down because he knew his advice would be ignored and he was right; other Negro advisors were indeed ignored. 

Du Bois was a bitter enemy of American labor unions because they were a bastion of racism. White laborers viewed Negroes as a threat to their jobs. Since the American Federation of Labor (AFL) excluded Negroes, Du Bois encouraged them to cross picket lines to become scabs. The failure of the AFL to accept Negroes was a tragedy for the American worker because they remained disunited. In this instance, Du Bois found himself on the side of the corporations.

By the time Frederick Douglass died, children of the old pre-Civil War abolitionists had come to view “the Negro problem” as a southern problem. And yet, by then many Negroes were already leaving the South and moving into northern cities like Philadelphia, which was suffering from urban decay. Most white people thought the problem was the inherent inferiority of Negros. The University of Pennsylvania hired Du Bois to analyze the situation. For a full year in 1896-1897, Du Bois did exhaustive survey interviews of Negroes. (That was also the year that the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v Ferguson, which made “separate but equal” the law of the land, thereby sanctioning Jim Crow laws and giving northern cities carte blanche to implement segregation.) Du Bois published his survey data in a book called The Philadelphia Negro. He didn’t explicitly criticize Jim Crow, but he knew that Jim Crow was at the root of the problem. The southern problem had become a northern problem, precisely because of the failures of Reconstruction. 

Du Bois divided Negroes into four economic classes. At the top was the so-called Talented Tenth, which included himself. Du Bois was an elitist; his students thought he was aloof. Lewis tells of one incident in which Du Bois experienced racism while riding a train in the Deep South, in spite of wearing a suit. It was a rude awakening to realize that being a gentleman did not immunize him from Jim Crow.

Du Bois’s Ph.D. thesis was about slavery. He was the first to demonstrate that the South had been illegally smuggling slaves into the country. He also claimed that the founding fathers were complicit in condoning slavery. He did an extensive study of Reconstruction, first publishing a long article in 1910 and then a book called Black Reconstruction in the 1930s. The thrust of his argument was that the failure of Reconstruction—if indeed it was a failure—was the fault of white people, not Black people. as commonly thought. This was an important distinction because memories of Reconstruction were taught in schools. These lies about history are what led to The Birth of the Nation in 1915, the most reprehensively racist film in Hollywood history.

In 1912, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, in which he observed that Black people always feel like white people were asking them, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This book, too, went into detail about the history of Negroes. It presaged the black pride movement of the 1960s. At a time when White Anglo Saxon Protestants equated “Americans” with WASPs, Du Bois argued that it was possible for a Negro to be both African and American, and they were better people because of it.

In recent years there has been lots of talk about the Tulsa race riot of 1921. But such riots had been occurring for many years. In all instances, white racists found some pretext to go on a rampage. One of these occurred in Atlanta in 1906, while Du Bois was working at Atlanta University but when he was out of town. The race riot which inspired the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) occurred in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. Ironically, Springfield was the city of Abraham Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech. (This house is still divided, and it is still struggling to stand.) The Springfield riot was like a clarion call for liberals and progressives to finally act.

The Creation of the NAACP

Du Bois was a co-founder of the Niagara Movement (1905-1910), which was a group of the Talented Tenth whose goal was to achieve Civil Rights. But after the Springfield riot, a group of progressive white people allied themselves with some Negroes to form the NAACP in 1909. The NAACP was initially funded by white liberals and progressives, and its board of trustees consisted of white people. However, they brought several Negroes into the NAACP, including Du Bois. It was their intent for the NAACP to become a self-sustaining Negro organization, not dependent on white philanthropy. Incidentally, it was Du Bois who chose the NAACP name, rather than having it refer to “Negroes” or “African Americans.”

Therein lay one of his future disputes with the NAACP. Du Bois’s use of “Colored” referred to all non-Caucasians. Du Bois often thought about international issues, especially about Africa. But his peers at the NAACP wanted to focus its energy on the nation, which is why it is the “National Association” and not the “International Association.”

When we refer to Progressivism in this context, we need to recognize that not all progressives were liberal when it came to racism. Teddy Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party in 1912, but Du Bois hated Roosevelt because he believed Negroes were inferior. Woodrow Wilson was no better, and yet Du Bois endorsed him for President, only to become bitterly disappointed. Later when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for President, Du Bois did not trust him. As all Presidents before him, FDR would not risk losing the southern vote. However, Eleanor Roosevelt would prove to be a mitigating force and in preparation for World War II, FDR would make noise about integrating the military. Thus, Du Bois did endorse FDR in 1940.

Du Bois studied the ancient history of Africa in order to show that African Americans had a lineage of advanced civilizations that included the great Egyptians, long before the existence of Romans and Greeks.  In 1911 he produced a pageant called “The Star of Ethiopia,” which was performed in several cities around the country during the next few years. Outlining the history of African Americans throughout time, it was a form of educational theatre, intended to not only teach African Americans the meaning of their history, but also enlighten whites as to “reveal the Negro…as human.” The spectacle was considered a critical and artistic success.

Following World War I, Du Bois travelled to Europe during the Paris peace negotiations. There he organized the first meeting of the Pan-African Congress (PAC). The purpose of PAC was to bring together Black African leaders to share their experiences, hopes and aspirations. In the beginning they did not demand independence from the European colonists, but that is clearly where they were headed. The Europeans ignored PAC during the 1920s and PAC became dormant after 1926. But circumstances radically changed in the wake of World War II, and Du Bois helped to establish another PAC conference in 1946.


No story about W.E.B. Du Bois can avoid the subject of Booker T. Washington. Washington became Du Bois’s biggest nemesis between 1905 and 1915. It was a complicated relationship. While Du Bois had been born a free man in 1868, Washington had been born a slave in 1856. So, Du Bois could not help but respect all the difficulties that the elder statesman faced. But Du Bois thought that Washington was a puppet or stooge of white supremacists who were willing to purchase his cooperation. White philanthropists funded Booker’s Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, which Du Bois referred to as the Tuskegee Machine. He labeled Washington “the Great Accommodator.”

Booker T. Washington

In 1895, the same year that Frederick Douglass died, Booker T. Washington made his “Atlanta Compromise” speech, which brought him national fame. He called for Black progress through education and entrepreneurship; white philanthropy would help achieve those goals. In exchange, he consented to Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South. He preached self-help, as did Douglass, but under Washington’s leadership, Negroes would not fight for their civil rights.

The white philanthropists were happy to fund the training of Negroes to become laborers, but they discouraged the teaching of liberal arts education to Negroes. In effect, they did not want to teach Negroes to do professional work—to become doctors, dentists, lawyers, professors, or statesmen. The Talented Tenth represented the kind of “uppity nigger” they hated. As a result, money was being drained away from the teaching of liberal arts to Negroes. However, during the first few years of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington’s goals were not always clear. In 1902, he hired Roscoe Bruce for the alleged purpose of creating a liberal arts curriculum, only to refuse Bruce’s efforts. Similarly, Washington initially offered Du Bois a job, assuring him that he could continue his sociological studies at Tuskegee, only to subsequently withdraw the offer when the white trustees prevented it.

Washington had the ear of all Presidents from William McKinley to Woodrow Wilson. But his ideology was not necessarily the problem. His mastery of the American political system allowed him to manipulate the media, raise money, distribute funds, and reward his supporters. With his political power he spied on his enemies and to smear them, sometimes ruining their careers. He nearly destroyed Du Bois’s career. Besides reneging on a job offer to Du Bois, Washington may have contributed to preventing Du Bois from obtaining a job as Superintendent of Colored Schools in Washington DC. Still, for the next three years Du Bois tried to compromise with Washington while Washington tried to co-opt Du Bois, or to at least neutralize him.

In 1905, Du Bois and Washington had a firm break in their relationship. That was the year the Niagara Movement was formed. Following the Atlanta riot of 1906, Washington’s response was to apologize for the rioters and to criticize Du Bois for being absent. It was typical of Washington’s kowtowing to white people, but this time he lost a lot of his Negro support.

The NAACP Years

Du Bois had been teaching at Atlanta University (AU) since 1898, but in 1909 Andrew Carnegie made an offer of $10,000 to the university conditional on Du Bois leaving. (Carnegie’s views came closer to Booker T. Washington’s.) It was an awkward situation for the university. Fortunately, a timely solution was offered by Oswald Villard, a co-founder of the NAACP, who would later become the owner and editor of The Nation magazine. Oswald asked Du Bois to become the NAACP’s Director of Publicity and Research, a position that would make Du Bois the organization’s leading voice. Du Bois was also assigned to edit the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, which became the flagship NAACP publication and Du Bois’s megaphone. During that first decade of the NAACP’s existence, readership grew to 100,000. Both Blacks and whites wanted to read it. Revenue from readers and advertisers helped to launch the growth of the NAACP. After World War 1, however, readership gradually began to diminish.

Walter White

In 1918, Walter White joined the NAACP as the assistant to James Weldon Johnson, Secretary of the NAACP (analogous to a CEO). He served as Secretary from 1929 to 1955. White traveled to the South to investigate lynchings and riots. He was able to do so, because he was white enough to “pass” as white. White oversaw the plans and organizational structure of the fight against public segregation and would later find an ally in President Harry Truman.

Nevertheless, Du Bois never liked Walter White. It is hard to fathom the reasons, but there were issues about funding priorities. During the 1920s, when Crisis readership gradually diminished and when the Great Depression hit, the magazine could no longer sustain itself. Revenue from membership contributions had become more important. White wanted to spend the money on lobbying, litigation, and legal defense. For a year White tried to lobby the government to outlaw lynching, but Du Bois thought it was a waste of effort.

By this time Du Bois was becoming less relevant. He turned 60 years old in 1928. White invited him to write in the Crisis about Black culture (e.g., arts and literature). At first he did so, but he began to dislike the idea, as well as living in Harlem. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, the age of Prohibition, Negro jazz and big bands. Du Bois became critical of the fact that exclusively white audiences were coming uptown to Harlem to see Negro performers at the Savoy and Cotton Club. The popularity of Negro culture could have a profound effect on white acceptance of Negroes, even if segregation remained. But Du Bois had trouble accepting these changes.

Du Bois left the NAACP in 1934 and he was rehired at AU. He was happy to be back teaching again, and happy to be out of Harlem. Aside from the occasional book he wrote, however, his influence continued to diminish. 

In 1936, he travelled to Berlin, Moscow, China and Japan. Since the Germans were getting ready for the Olympics, they had toned down their anti-Semitism, but Du Bois still knew how bad the Nazis were. It was in China where Du Bois was his most reprehensible. In Shanghai he spoke to a Chinese audience and told them they were fortunate to have exchanged their European masters for the Japanese. His audience was dumbstruck. It showed how angry he was about European imperialism that he would become friendly to the Japanese imperialists simply because they were “colored” and were successful.

During the 1930s Du Bois also continued his long slow gradual drift towards Marxism. In his modified view of Marxism, he added his theories about race.

The Cold War

In 1944, AU decided it was time for Du Bois to retire. He was 76 years old, but still vibrant. The NAACP rehired him, and he moved back to Harlem. During Du Bois’s 10-year absence the NAACP had mushroomed in size and its legal department hired Thurgood Marshall. During the first year Du Bois got along well with Walter White. They both attended a United Nations conference in San Francisco, but their détente did not last, because of the emerging Cold War. Du Bois was critical of the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO. He was critical of the $400 million Truman spent to prevent Greece and Turkey from falling into the Soviet orbit. He hated the growing US military industrial complex. In spite of Truman’s close cooperation with White, Du Bois hated Truman. In 1948 it was time for him to go.

After Du Bois’s first wife Nina died in 1950, Du Bois married a communist. In 1952, as the Korean War commenced, Du Bois joined the American Peace Institute, which the US government believed was a communist front. When Du Bois refused to say that he was a foreign agent, this 84-year old man was indicted and put on trial for violation of the Smith Act. The judge threw out the case for lack of evidence. But the government took away his passport and did not return it to him until the US Supreme Court forced the government to do so in 1959.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed the depths of Stalin’s crimes. In 1956 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. None of these events altered Du Bois’s opinion of the Soviet Union. He continued to believe that communism was the future. In 1954 he was elated by the NAACP’s victory in Brown v Board of Education, but he remained antagonistic towards his country. In 1961, at age 93, Du Bois officially joined the Communist Party of the USA and soon became an ex-patriot in Ghana, where he died in 1963. He was friends with Kwame Nkrumah, the President of this newly formed country, and Du Bois knew him to be corrupt. But what could an old man who was slowly dying do?


Du Bois died in an obscure foreign land, just a few hours before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Had A Dream” speech in Washington. Those were my formative years as a child. It is no surprise that no one talked about Du Bois when I was in school. Everyone was talking about King.

Jeff Berger and Saphire

Jeff Berger is a tech writer, public speaker, and engineer. He earned Masters degrees in statistics and operations research from the University of California, Berkeley, and was employed by IBM for more than 30 years. He developed an interest in history and economics during the 1990’s and now wonders if he might have chosen the wrong career.

Comments are encouraged.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s