William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced doo-BOYSS) was an American civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, and editor. He was born three years after the end of the Civil War in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His family had lived there for generations and his ancestors had fought in the American Revolution.
Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville, where he encountered for the first time, in his words, “a region where the world was split into white and black halves, and where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds as well as by deep ignorance and dire poverty. … A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: hence-forward I was a Negro.”
DuBois is perhaps best known for his 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he criticized Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of accommodation to the status quo in racial matters. You can read the book or selections from it online, here.
His thoughts remain timely today. As he says in the Preface:
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
Ironically, Dr. Du Bois died at the age of ninety-five on August 27, 1963– the day before the March on Washington, with its famous “I Have A Dream” speech that marked the climax of the civil rights struggle in the United States.
There is a wonderful site with access to more information about W.E.B. Du Bois courtesy of The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), here.