W.E.B. Du Bois MATA Class of 2022

The patron of the MATA class of 2020-2022 is W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a US author, sociologist and educator who is particularly well-known for his role as a civil rights activist.

Born and raised in Great Barrington, MA, Du Bois completed his undergraduate studies at the all-black Fisk University in Nashville and at Harvard College before moving on to graduate studies at the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg in Germany (1892-1894). Du Bois’ thinking about the world and about his own identity is said to have been transformed during his time in Europe, which he used for extensive travels. In his autobiography, he observed: “I found myself on the outside of the American world, looking in … With me were white folk … [who] did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human”. When he returned to the US, he began working on a dissertation about transatlantic slave trade and became, in 1895, the first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. at Harvard University.

Following his studies, Du Bois started a career in academia, with a professorship in history and economics at the historically black Atlanta University (1897-1910). During this period, he also became increasingly engaged in the civil rights movement in the US and Europe. In 1900, he participated in the first Pan-African conference in London, where his observation that The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line“ featured prominently in the conference’s concluding address To the Nations of the World. In 1905, he was the co-founder of the Niagara Movement, an activist group, and in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Both advocated for equal civil rights for people of colour.

In the meantime, Du Bois had also developed his career as a sociologist and author. His main and most widely discussed oeuvre, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a series of essays on the role of race, was inspired by his European experience and his reading of among others Herder and Nietzsche.

During the 1920s, he co-organised several Pan-African Congresses in Brussels, Paris, Lisbon and New York City to engage in the fight for the independence of African colonies. In his later life, he became inter alia a strong advocate of education, writing books for children, as well as one of the leading figures of the peace movement and strongly opposed to the atomic bomb. During the McCarthy era, when his pacifist engagement and political ideas were becoming a hindrance for his professional activities in the US, he travelled again extensively in Europe, but also China, the Soviet Union and Africa. In 1961, he permanently settled in Ghana, where he also died and was laid to rest. 

With his life-long engagement combining sociological scholarship and political action against any form of discrimination as well as his advocacy for education, Du Bois left a legacy that by far transcends the American and Atlantic context, inspiring people across the globe in their combat against racism.

More information about W.E.B. Du Bois can be found here and here.