W.E.B. Du Bois: From Country Kid to Civil Rights Leader

The backstory of one of the founders of the NAACP

Nicholas E. Barron
Feb 23 · 4 min read

Outside the town of Great Barrington, Mass., on Route 23, is a 5.15-acre plot. The land’s filled with trees, and it hosts a small gravel parking lot, a trail, and a few signs. The markers explain that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up here.

W.E.B. Du Bois | Bidwell Hollow © 2020

W.E.B. Du Bois was born on Feb. 23, 1868, in Great Barrington. Du Bois’ mother’s family, the Burghardts, had owned the land on Route 23 since the late 1700s. Du Bois grew up here in a community that included members of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The regiment is the focus of the 1989 movie “Glory.”

At 17, though, Du Bois left home for Fisk University. He graduated from the historically black college in 1888. But Du Bois’ education wasn’t done, and he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895.

Du Bois went to work studying and writing about black history in the United States. He published many academic papers and books, including The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. The work contained essays Du Bois wrote to illustrate the lives of black Americans. The Souls of Black Folk came out at a time when some white Americans believed blacks weren’t humans and had no souls. Du Bois wanted to disprove this notion. And he argued that only through protest would African Americans achieve equality.

In this thinking, Du Bois differed from another African American leader at the time, Booker T. Washington. Washington’s viewpoint was for black Americans to accept segregation. He believed that hard work would earn African Americans equal treatment.

Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 to confront Washington’s passive approach. To advance the movement’s purpose, Du Bois published newspapers, such as Horizon. That experience served Du Bois well in his next move.

Du Bois helped found in 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The following year, he launched the organization’s magazine, The Crisis. The periodical advocated for equality. And, over the years, The Crisis published up-and-coming African American writers. These writers included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay.

Du Bois served on the NAACP’s board and on The Crisis until 1935. He spent much of the 1940s urging the United Nations to stop human rights abuses perpetrated against African Americans in the U.S. Du Bois outlined these violations, including segregation and lynchings, in his “An Appeal to the World.” The NAACP delivered the petition to the U.N. in 1947.

Preserving Du Bois’ legacy

A sign at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite near Great Barrington, Mass. | Bidwell Hollow © 2020

Along with his advocacy, Du Bois was an author. He wrote 17 books, including some novels. In 1963, Du Bois accepted an invitation from Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah to move to that country. Du Bois was going to write the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois didn’t finish the work before he passed away in 1965.

Du Bois had by then sold the land of his childhood outside of Great Barrington, Mass. The house in which he grew up was gone, but in 1969, some locals decided to preserve the site. The idea proved controversial, as Du Bois was black and, in his later years, a Communist.

But a dedication ceremony took place on Oct. 18, 1969, at Du Bois’ homesite. Local police and a National Guard unit were on hand in case violence broke out. Nothing violent occurred, and in 1979 the site became a National Historic Landmark.

The W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site, a nonprofit organization, is raising money to develop the site. Plans include building restrooms and an amphitheater. And in downtown Great Barrington, there are hopes to build a 7,200 square foot W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Democracy and Social Justice. The center would support scholarship on the topics of equality and social justice. You can visit this page to donate to the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site.


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Nicholas E. Barron

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