Today marks the birthday of pioneering sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963). Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD in Sociology at Harvard University. Du Bois was an prolific and insightful scholar who, over his lifetime, wrote wrote 21 books, edited 15 more, and published over 100 essays and articles. He’s probably best known for The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), and Black Folk, Then and Now (1939). Du Bois also published John Brown (1909), a sympathetic portrayal of the controversial anti-racist.
From 1897 to 1910 Du Bois served as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, where he organized conferences titled the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problem and edited or co-edited 16 of the annual publications, on such topics as The Negro in Business (1899), The Negro Artisan (1902), The Negro Church (1903), Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans (1907), and The Negro American Family (1908). In grad school, I spent a good deal of time pouring through the archives of these conferences and came very close to writing a dissertation on the conferences which were fascinating. (I think there’s still a dissertation to be written on these conferences, in case any readers are looking for dissertation ideas!)
Du Bois was also an activist, in addition to being a scholar. He was one of the founding members of the NAACP, and over his lifetime, his views became more radicalized. He long identified with the African roots of black American culture, and was a leading Pan-Africanist. As he aged, he grew more and more disillusioned with the seemingly intractable state of racism in the U.S. and emigrated to Ghana in West Africa. He died there at age 95 in 1963 and was honored with a state funeral.