W.E.B. Du Bois was born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois on on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois identified himself as “mulatto,” but freely attended school with whites and was enthusiastically supported in his academic studies by his white teachers. In 1885, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow laws. For the first time, he began analyzing the deep troubles of American racism.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Fisk, Du Bois entered Harvard University. After completing his master’s degree, he was selected for a study-abroad program at the University of Berlin. While a pupil in Germany, he studied with some of the most prominent social scientists of his day and was exposed to many political perspectives. Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895, and went on to enroll as a doctoral student at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (now Humboldt-Universität). Not long after, Du Bois published his landmark study—the first case study of an African-American community—The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study(1899), marking the beginning of his expansive writing career.
While working as a professor at Atlanta University, W.E.B. Du Bois rose to national prominence when he very publicly opposed Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise,” an agreement that asserted that vocational education for blacks was more valuable to them than social advantages like higher education or political office. In 1909, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis.
A proponent of Pan-Africanism, Du Bois helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to free African colonies from European powers.
W.E.B. Du Bois died on August 27, 1963, one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. He died at the age of 95, in Accra, Ghana, while working on an encyclopedia of the African Diaspora.