Specific Pioneering Contributions
William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois, PhD, was invited to take a position at University of Pennsylvania to study the “Negro Problem” there, nearly a decade before the University’s School of Social Policy and Practice (formerly Penn School of Social Work) was established, to educate students dedicated to fighting oppression. Through his seminal work, The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois laid the foundation for empirical social science and a new understanding of racism. Instead of focusing on Black residents as a problem, he transformed this phrase to mean a group of people that faced distinct problems.
Du Bois identified structural racism and discrimination in the primary domains of their live – health, occupation, employment, education, housing, the environment, voting, and institutional life. He was the first to systematically study the Black community by collecting data using surveys, interviews, and observations along with archival sources, census data, local government reports, and newspapers. He made the argument that anti-Black racism, not Black pathology or Black inferiority, explained poverty and the crime experienced by Black people.
He highlighted the role of the social and physical environment in shaping the outcomes of Black people and documented inequalities. In his later work, during his years at Atlanta University, Du Bois found similar racial patterns in his work.
In sum, Du Bois was among the first scholars to emphasize the person in environment (PIE) theory. In Du Bois’ work, he acknowledged Black agency and the contributions of Black people to creating the United States. This reflects a shift from his Settlement House peers that noted deficits among Black people; however, his approach was one of a strengths and asset-based perspective. Du Bois also drew attention to racial disparities in outcomes such as health and criminal justice. Du Bois’ work documented the history and meaning of racialized life, practices, and policies. His work provided the methodological innovations still used by social workers and other social scientist today. Ultimately, his research and writings lifted the veil of racism and provided a voice for those living on the margins.
In a career that spanned 75 years, Du Bois made a name for himself as a prolific author, poet, journalist, sociologist, historian, novelist, and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist. Du Bois’ life work focused on correcting distortions about the life and history of Black people. Throughout his career, Du Bois systematically examined the race problem through various disciplinary lenses. He offered a social constructionist perspective of race and racial differences. To accomplish this ambitious task, Du Bois contributed the following: published the first research on the Black community in The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and used data to understand the problems faced by Black people; continued this work on racism by studying communities in the South while establishing an empirical research agenda and curriculum at Atlanta University where he trained the next generation of Black social scientists like George Edmund Haynes; formed the Niagara Movement to call for full and equal rights for Black people in 1906. (This movement opposed Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise); co-founded the NAACP in 1909; appointed the director of research and publications at NAACP in 1910; published the “Waco Horror” article on the lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington in The Crisis in 1916; organized the first Pan African conference in Paris in 1919; fought to ban the movie The Birth of a Nation in 1921; became the editor and chief of The Crisis in 1934; ran for US senator for New York on the American Labor Party platform in 1959; moved to Ghana in 1961 and aimed to complete the Encyclopedia Africana (died in 1963 before completing this work); recognized for 27 books, over 100 essays, and numerous reports.
W. E. B. Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and died August 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana. He grew up in a predominately white community and freely interacted across racial divides in both school and church settings. In terms of his background, his mother was from a free and land-owning family in Massachusetts. His father left the family when he was about two years old. He was the first to go to college. His mother passed when he was 16 years old, and it was his church and others from the local community that sponsored him to attend college.
It was not until 1885, when he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University, that he encountered Jim Crow laws, discrimination, and structural racism. After graduating from Fisk, he completed his studies at Harvard University and attended Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He became the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard in 1895. His dissertation was entitled, “The Suppression of the African Slave trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.”
His first position after graduation was at a historically Black college in Ohio, Wilberforce University, as a professor of ancient languages. Longing to pursue social science research, he accepted a temporary position at the University of Pennsylvania and rose above the indignity of being hired as an assistant instructor rather than an instructor. Just 28 years old, Du Bois was newly married to Nina Gomer when he moved to Philadelphia to study the conditions of Black people in the seventh ward.
Du Bois spent most of his academic career at Atlanta University. He was one of the founding members of the School of Social Work and wrote his most well-known book, The Souls of Black Folk and other influential research during the 23 years at Atlanta University. His son died during his early years at Atlanta before their second child, Yolande was born. Du Bois served on the history and economics faculty from 1897-1910 and again, from 1934-1944 as chair of the sociology department.
He attended the first Pan African conference in London. He was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. He was the editor of Crisis magazine until 1934. After a hiatus from the NAACP, he returned to the NAACP from 1944 to 1948 as the director of special research. He represented the NAACP at the founding convention for the United Nations and cast a light on racial injustices. After the death of his first wife in 1950, he married Shirley Graham in 1951.
His last project was the creation of an encyclopedia on the African diaspora. This project was financially supported by the government of Ghana. At 93 years old, he left the United States and became a citizen of Ghana. He died at 95 years old and was buried in Ghana.
Significant recognition and Awards
W. E. B. Du Bois received the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1920 and a Fisk University honorary degree and induction into the Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1958. In 1969, the W.E. B. Du Bois Institute for African American and African American Research was established at Harvard University.
Du Bois received several other awards after his death. The United States Postal Service honored DuBois with his portrait on a postage stamp in 1992 and a second stamp in 1998 as part of the Celebrate the Century series. The main library at University of Massachusetts at Amherst was named for Du Bois in 1994. Humboldt University in Berlin established a series in Du Bois’ honor. The Extra Mile, Washington DC's memorial to important American volunteers was given to Du Bois posthumously in 2005. Du Bois was appointed Honorary Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. A bust was commissioned from Ayokunle Odeleye to honor Du Bois and dedicated on the Clark Atlanta University campus on the anniversary of his birth, February 23, 2013. Virginia Commonwealth University libraries’ Social Welfare Project created an entry on W.E.B. Du Bois written by Catherine A. Paul.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1897). “The Strivings of the Negro People.” Atlantic Monthly (related animation)
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899). The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. The University of Pennsylvania Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B., ed. (1903). The Negro Church. The Atlanta University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B., ed. (1907). Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans. Atlanta University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B., ed. (1909). Efforts for Social Betterment Among Negro Americans. The Atlanta University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1911). “The Economics of Negro Emancipation in the United States.” The Sociological Review, 4(4), 303–313. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1911.tb02169.x
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1924). The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. Stratford Company.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. Harcourt Brace.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1940). Dusk of Dawn: An Autobiography of a Race Concept. WEB Du Bois: Writings. New York: Library of America.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1947). An Appeal to the world. National Association for the Advancement of Color People. https://archive.org/details/NAACP-Appeal-to-the-World
W. E. B. Du Bois papers. UMass Amherst Libraries. Special Collections and University Archives. Retrieved October 8, 2020. [Here you can find his correspondence with Jane Adams].