William EdwardBurghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois (pronounced /du:’boiz/doo-boyz) was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois. His mother descended from Dutch, African, and English ancestors, and her family belonged to the very small free black population of Great Barrington and owned land in Massachusetts. William’s maternal grandfather was Othello Burghardt, his maternal great-grandfather was Jack Burghardt, and his maternal great-great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt who was born in West Africa about 1730 and owned as a slave by Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. He may have gained his freedom by serving in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
James Du Bois, an ethnic French-American from Poughkeepsie, New York, was William’s paternal great-grandfather. James fathered several children with slave mistresses, and one of his mixed-race sons was Alexander. Alexander went to Haiti where he fathered a son named Alfred before leaving his mistress and son to return to Connecticut. Alfred moved to the United States prior to 1860; he married Mary Silvina Burghardt on February 5, 1867, in Housatoic, Massachusetts. Two years after the birth of William, Alfred left his family in 1870. Mary worked to provide for her family with some assistance from her brother and neighbors. She had a stroke in the early 1880s and died in 1885.
William was treated generally well by the people in Great Barrington who were mostly European American. He went to school and played with white schoolmates, and his teachers encouraged him academically. The members of the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, his childhood church, donated money for his tuition when he decided to attend college. Because of his good experiences, he believed he could use his knowledge to help African Americans but as an adult would write about racism.
William graduated from Harvard and became the first African American to earn a doctorate there. He became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. He was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, editor, and one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
“Du Bois was organized and disciplined: His lifelong regimen was to rise at 7:15, work until 5, eat dinner and read a newspaper until 7, then read or socialize until he was in bed, invariably before 10. He was a meticulous planner, and frequently mapped out his schedules and goals on large pieces of graph paper. Many acquaintances found him to be distant and aloof, and he insisted on being addressed as `Dr. Du Bois’. Although he was not gregarious, he formed several close friendships …. Du Bois was something of a dandy – he dressed formally, carried a walking stick, and walked with an air of confidence and dignity. He was relatively short 5 feet 5.5 inches and always maintained a well-groomed mustache and goatee. He was a good singer and enjoyed playing tennis.
“Du Bois was married twice, first to Nina Gomer (m. 1896, d. 1950), with whom he had two children, a son Burghardt (who died as an infant) and a daughter Yolande, who married Countee Cullen. As a widower, he married Shirley Graham (m. 1951, d. 1977), an author, playwright, composer and activist. She brought her son David Graham to the marriage. David grew close to Du Bois and took his stepfather’s name; he also worked for African-American causes.” Du Bois may have had several extramarital relationships.
Du Bois became nationally known because he was the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-Americans who wanted equal rights for blacks. He and his group opposed the Atlanta Compromise that was crafted by Booker T. Washington. Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation. He called the African-American intellectual elites the “talented tenth” because he thought they could bring equality for blacks by their leadership. He worked for civil rights for his entire life but did not live long enough to see the Civil Rights Act passed the year after his death.
Du Bois did much good throughout his life and received many honors, but he became a bitter old man. He became a Communist and blamed capitalism for the woes of people of color. He passed away at age 95 on August 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana.