For education among all kinds of men always had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois also known famously as W.E.B Du Bois wrote an iconic novel, The Souls of Black Folk, that reflected various essays on race from Du Bois’s experience in America, and it spoke volumes to the African American community in the early nineteen-hundreds.
At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, Theodore Roosevelt was the twenty-sixth president of the established post-Reconstruction Jim Crow United States, which was a time when the U.S. enforced laws of segregation. African Americans faced a new oppression in America especially in the South. Prominent figures like Booker T. Washington, an educator, author, and orator who came from a generation of black American leaders born into slavery, much like Frederick Douglass, became a central beacon of African American entrepreneurship and education, all of which was a platform from his teachings at the Historically Black College, Tuskegee University in Alabama. The time was certainly challenging for black citizens but there was a magnificence in culture and pride, black americans mobilized their communities to build their economic strength, fight for their voting rights, freedom, etc. While in the beginning Du Bois did support Washington’s efforts he later saw personal imperfections in his teachings which will be later elaborated. Du Bois prefered a more militant perspective for his community up north, which is where the legacy of his work took effect. Later in 1909 Du Bois, along with Washington were members to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington Massachusetts and died August 29th, 1963, soon after becoming a citizen of Ghana. In Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up with a different type of living from many blacks especially that of the south, his family was part of the demable very small free black population of Great Barrington, MA, and had owned land in the state for a long time. What’s fascinating to research is his family’s rich historical legacy; Mary Silvina Burghardt whom was Du Bois’s mother was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestry. His great-great grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa about 1730), he was held by the Dutch colonists. Tom served briefly in the continental army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom during the 18th century. Du Bois’s paternal great-grandfather was James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, an ethnic French-American who fathered several children with slave women. James had a son named Alexander, who was born in the Bahamas in 1803. Alexander grew up and immigrated to the United States with his father. However, he traveled internationally and worked in Haiti, where he had a son, this son would be known as Alfred; the father of Du Bois. It was sometime before 1860 that Alfred Du Bois emigrated to the United States, settling in Massachusetts. He married, Mary Silvina Burghardt. Unfortunately, Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after William (Du Bois) was born. Mary with her son moved in with her parents in Great Barrington, Massachusetts until him reaching the age of five. She worked hard supporting her family, until suffering a stroke and her later death in 1885.
Trying to understand what a place like Great Barrington, Massachusetts was like in the late 1800’s, well it was a majority European-American community, they treated Du Bois well, almost as their own. He attended a local integrated public school and had significant interactions with his white classmates. However, growing up into a young adult presented complications, as an adult he personalized with themes of racism which started to become the reflection of his writings, I believe that he may have felt abandoned by his own father, (which even today is such a polarizing subject for the black community), or perhaps a feeling of isolation for being a minority in the town. Although he felt as an anomaly, his teachers recognized his ability and encouraged his intellectual pursuits. This academic success would foundate him to believe that he could use his education to empower African Americans. During the time of college, he relied on donated money through his neighbors and church-family to attend the acclaimed Fisk University, a Historically Black College in Nashville, Tennessee (1885-1888). It was some of Du Bois’s time at Fisk and directly after that sparked the amazing portfolio of accomplishments that he would embark on. He had an educational moment of being in the south for a residency, this would be his first encounter with Southern racism. Remembering history, Jim Crow laws supported this bigotry, suppression under the utmost, black voting, lynchings, etc. Du Bois advanced on in the higher learning curriculum, gaining his Bachelor’s degree from Fisk, Non-historical Black Colleges wouldn’t accept the credits from HBCU’s from 1880 till about 1890, so this strongly evoked his decision to pursue getting his second bachelor’s degree, this time receiving a cum laude in history. In 1891, Du bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.
By the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the prestigious Wilberforce University in Ohio. While teaching there, he met and married one of his students, Nina Gomer. Fast forward, in 1899 Du Bois was teaching for Atlanta University, but he was doing some really exciting research there during the time: the first actual case study of a black community in the U.S. During that time cities like Philadelphia had an infamous reputation in regards of: high crime, poverty, and mortality rates, something that we can still see as an unpleasant issue today, this study would become a landmark to the U.S. history and that’s know as the, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). Du Bois’s book undermined the stereotypes with evidence and shaped his approach to segregation and its negative impact on black lives and reputations. Du Bois realized that racial integration was the key to democratic equality in American cities.
The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a cornerstone of African-American literary history that would test the human consciousness forever. In 1901, Du bois wrote a review critical of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, which Du Bois later expanded and published to a wider audience that contained essays on race. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois used a term known as double consciousness he applied it to the notion that black people must have two fields of vision at all times. They must be conscious of how they view themselves, as well as being conscious how the world views them. During this first decade of the new century, Du Bois rose as a prolific orator for the black community, but only that second of Booker T. Washington. See, with Washington’s prestige he was the director of the acclaimed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and held strong positive relationships with white communities. Probably not so arguably, Booker T. Washington’s greatest achievement was, the Atlanta Compromise, Which was an unwritten deal he struck in with Southern White leaders who dominated state governments after the Reconstruction Era. Here’s how knowledge servers me on the deal, an agreement provided that Southern blacks, who overwhelmingly lived in rural communities, would submit to the current discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement, and non-unionized employment; that Southern whites would permit blacks to receive a basic education, some economic opportunities , and justice within the legal system. But Du Bois rebuked this philosophy. He felt that African Americans should be fighting for equal rights and higher opportunities, rather than just passively submitting to the segregation and discrimination of Washington’s supposed belief.
As you read the novel, you will identify that each chapter begins with text from a poem, perhaps something of a European distinction. You’ll notice the score that’s involved is a ancient negro spiritual, Du Bois describes it as, some echo haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from my black souls in the dark past. In chapters III and VI he deals with the system of education and as it progresses. Here, we see Du Bois argue against Booker T. Washington’s idea of focusing solely on industrial education for black men, But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice. North or south does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds, -so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this, -we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, pp.1-2
W.E.B. Du Bois is a revolutionist and pioneer for not only the African American community but for the entire United States. The liberties and justices that he spoke to to fight for was the same strength communties like: Latino, Oriental, LGBTQ, etc, had to utlitize to empower their own voice, it’s leaders like Du Bois that help others fight for their rights through knowledge, empathy, and education. I think to myself often, how life could be much sweeter if we could all just try to understand each other.
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