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On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Education Twitter account posted a quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP and leading African-American intellectuals of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In that tweet, they spelled his name wrong.

 

The Department of Education then tweeted an apology—in which they misspelled “apologize.” This is the second gaffe that the Trump administration has committed regarding a major African-American civil rights leader in just two weeks. Last week, we covered how neither President Trump or his press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to know who Frederick Douglass was.  While many Americans know about Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other black civil rights leaders, they may not be familiar with the life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois. So let’s take this opportunity to remind everyone, including whoever proofreads the Department of Education’s tweets, about why we should remember W.E.B. Du Bois in the first place.

  • Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois (pronounced doo-boyz) was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard University with a PhD. His 1895 doctoral thesis explored the efforts to suppress the Atlantic slave trade to the United States. During his graduate studies, Du Bois studied history, economics, and became a leader in the emerging field of sociology.
  • In 1899, Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro, a pioneering sociological examination of the African-American community in Philadelphia based on hundreds of hours of interviews. Using empirical evidence, the book repudiated the beliefs of white supremacists who argued that all blacks were criminals, immoral, and unsuited for political rights.
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Du Bois in 1918. 

  • In 1897, Du Bois accepted a position at the historically black Atlanta University in Georgia. While at Atlanta, Du Bois became an outspoken opponent of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. In a speech to a primarily white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Washington had called for African-Americans to accept disenfranchisement and segregation in exchange for educational opportunities and jobs. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed that African-Americans should never stop fighting for integration, equal rights, and against segregation.
  • In 1903, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays describing the experience of African-Americans in the United States. He outlined the idea of the “double consciousness” of African-Americans. He believed that African-Americans had their identity divided into two different components: African and American. Because Americans had enslaved, denigrated, and repressed blacks, it was nearly impossible to reconcile the African and American into a unified identity. As Du Bois explained, “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” African-Americans, he stressed, struggled to balance their role as Americans—even in an America that treated blacks as inferior—and their African heritage.
  • In 1910, Du Bois participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and resigned from his position at Atlanta University to become its research and publicity director. He assumed the editorship of the organization’s magazine The Crisis. Under his editorship, The Crisis attacked segregation, advocated for equal rights for African-Americans, and pushed for government action against lynching and other violence towards African-Americans.
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The Cover of the first issue of The Crisis

  • Du Bois remained editor of The Crisis until 1933, when he returned to Atlanta University. In 1935, Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America, a historical reexamination of the era of Reconstruction. He argued that African-Americans were central to the history of Reconstruction and had proven themselves worthy of equal rights. Academic historians of the time believed that Reconstruction had been a failure and blacks had established corrupt local governments that oppressed white southerners. As a result, academic historians largely ignored the book until the 1960s.
  • In 1951, Du Bois stood trial for refusing to register as an agent of a foreign state for his role as chairman of the Peace Information Center (PIC). The PIC was dedicated to the eradication of nuclear weapons and was born out of the Stockholm Peace Appeal of 1950. Because of the foreign origins of the Peace Appeal, the U.S. Justice Department required that the PIC register as an agent of a foreign state. Angered by the anticommunist hysteria sweeping across the United States, Du Bois refused to register and faced prosecution in 1951. The judge overseeing the case dismissed it, supposedly because Albert Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois. Nonetheless, Du Bois grew increasingly bitter towards the United States government for its treatment of African-Americans and turn towards McCarthyism.
  • At the age of 93 in 1961, Du Bois relocated to Ghana at the request of President Kwame Nkrumah to create a new encyclopedia detailing the history of the African diaspora. Nkrumah and Du Bois had met in 1945 at a meeting of the Pan African Congress in England and became friends. Du Bois died on August 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana. The next day, American civil rights leader Roy Wilkins called for a moment of silence at the March on Washington in honor of Du Bois.

While Du Bois may not be as famous among the American public as figures like Douglass, King, or Parks, he deserves his place among the leading lights of African-American history. He certainly deserves better than having his name misspelled by the Trump Administration.

Additional Reading

W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk.

W.E.B. Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America.  

David Levering Lewis. W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, 1868-1963.

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