How W.E.B. Du Bois Changed Forever the Way Americans Think About Themselves (2000)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois. Mary Silvina Burghardt’s family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington, having long owned land in the state; she was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors. William Du Bois’s maternal great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom. Tom’s son Jack Burghardt was the father of Othello Burghardt, who was the father of Mary Silvina Burghardt.

William Du Bois’s paternal great-grandfather was an ethnic French-American, James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, who fathered several children with slave mistresses.[5] One of James’ mixed-race sons was Alexander, who traveled to Haiti, and fathered a son, Alfred, with a mistress there. Alexander returned to Connecticut, leaving Alfred in Haiti with his mother.[6] Alfred moved to the United States sometime before 1860, and married Mary Silvina Burghardt on February 5, 1867, in Housatonic, Massachusetts.[6] Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after William was born.[7] William’s mother worked to support her family (receiving some assistance from her brother and neighbors), until she experienced a stroke in the early 1880s. She died in 1885.[8]

Great Barrington’s primarily European American community treated Du Bois generally well. He attended the local integrated public school and played with white schoolmates, though the racism he experienced even in this context would be one of the subjects of his later adult writing. Teachers encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.[9] When Du Bois decided to attend college, the congregation of his childhood church, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, donated money for his tuition.

Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888.[12] His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois’s first experience with Southern racism, which encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, and lynchings.[13] After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890, where he was strongly influenced by his professor William James, prominent in American philosophy.[14] Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history.[15] In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.[16]

In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work.[17] While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He came of age intellectually in the German capital, while studying with some of that nation’s most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner and Heinrich von Treitschke.[18] After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies; in 1895 he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.[19]

In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute; he accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio.[21] At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change.[22] While at Wilberforce, Du Bois married Nina Gomer, one of his students, on May 12, 1896.[23]

After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an “assistant in sociology” in the summer of 1896.[24] He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, published two years later while he was teaching at Atlanta University. It was the first case study of a black community.

22 thoughts on “How W.E.B. Du Bois Changed Forever the Way Americans Think About Themselves (2000)

  1. Carlos E. Cárdenas

    Many of the questions are irrelevant to understand the work and influence of Dubois. The interviewer also gets caught up on the communist part of Dubois and seems to be robotic ( strange interview).

  2. Forever England

    Looks like Dubois people is alive and kicking now, they call other people coons. I think they are called Garveys, he was telling people years ago . But as humans we don't like looking in the mirror, I don't either, a white one, these fucking liberal lefty Dubois up holders I mean I knew they were idiots but phuck. Dangerously so, I mean the biggest bullshit ever is saying black people cant be racist, wtf , to me that is saying black people cant be racist because the race isn't on the same level as other races, wtf it is not saying yes black people you are racist too, it's saying, I know I,m repeating it but, it is saying if you agree this statement, that black people cannot be racist because we are the race that is ………not the same level as other races. Is it, tell me if I,m wrong, I,m terrible at writing, crap with grammar, but it's not hard to understand is it. When I say crap at writing grammar etc. people sometimes don't get me (special wtf label)

  3. Angelo Porter

    Thanks Carlos, I felt the same way. The name of the Interviewer is Brian Lamb. Sadly, he actually founded the C-SPAN organization, and served as it's CEO for many years. This interview demonstrated a very stark dichotomy between the very gracious Dr David Levering Lewis and the stodgy, seemingly resentful Interviewer Mr Brian Lamb. Perhaps Mr Lamb felt overwhelmed and a bit reduced by Dr Lewis' gentlemanly gracious intelligent persona – he should have.

  4. jjutt87

    Yo, the original Birth of A Nation was not 'absolutely brilliant' I'm sorry I don't care what you say. Everything else you said Mr Autobiographer, I got mad respect for you.

  5. Alina Khama-Nyane

    This is excruciating to listen to and view. It is always tricky when an interviewer lacks eloquence and academic protocol. I have to say though, I am impreressed with the composure of the interviewee!!

  6. chantilly lace

    He was jealous of Marcus Garvey. He helped to sell Marcus Garvey out to the Hoover Administration. He didn't like the idea that Marcus came from Jamaica and taught Black Americans to be proud of themselves and taught them different ways to better themselves. Not many blacks had it as easy as Dubois ,also being of a lighter skin tone helped him to get ahead easier than one of a darker skin tone.

  7. SagesseNoir

    I had the good fortune to meet Dr. David L. Lewis, and I have his biography of Du BOIS. I believe he also wrote something regarding the Dreyfus Affair in France.

  8. SagesseNoir

    E. Mounier, the subject of Dr. Lewis's doctoral thesis, was also a Personalist philosopher.  Personalism was also the basic philosophical position of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Rufus Burrows, Jr. argues that there is a "homespun Personalism" in American black culture which has roots in the ancestral African culture.


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