Authors Who Made History: W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, known as W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. After graduating he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.

He was a profilic author, scholar and civil rights activist and co-founded the National  Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909. He  was the first African American invited by the American Historical Association (AHA) to present a paper at their annual conference, also  in 1909. In 1920 Du Bois was awarded the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, for outstanding achievement by African-Americans.

Du Bois was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize by the USSR in 1959. He died in 1963, aged 95 years, and was post-humously honoured in the USA : his portrait appeared on U.S. postage stamps issued in 1992 and 1998; Du Bois is joint honoree (with Mary White Ovington) of one of the 34 memorial medallions in The Extra Mile, a national monument in Washington DC (opened 2005) and several universities have commemorated him, naming parts of their buildings, lecture series etc. in his name.


William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (of Dutch-French-African-NativeAmerican descent) was born on 23rd February 1963 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, USA. The land site of his demolished childhood home was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1976. Du Bois died on 27th August, 1963 while living in Ghana. His home in the capital, Accra, where he lived for the last two years of his life, is now the Du Bois Memorial Centre.

Dubois was a controversial figure. He dressed in the style of a ‘dandy’ and rarely accepted use of first name terms: he insisted on being called ‘Dr. Dubois’, even with his friends.

Although better known for his writings and novels, The Poetry Foundation hosts three poems by Du Bois. The following is an extract of the final section of the poem ‘Ghana Calls’ which must have been written later in his life, post 1945, as it is dedicated to the president of Ghana. This poem was published in 1985, over twenty years after Du Bois’ death.

 Read the full poem text at

Awake, awake, O sleeping world
Honor the sun;

Worship the stars, those vaster suns
Who rule the night
Where black is bright
And all unselfish work is right
And Greed is Sin.

And Africa leads on:
Pan Africa!

The Poetry Foundation biography for Du Bois reveals:

In 1948 he campaigned for the Progressive Party in national elections, and in 1950 he ran for the office of U.S. senator from the state of New York on the American Labor Party ticket. Du Bois’s radical political stance provoked some run-ins with the U.S. government, the first of which occurred in 1949, when he accepted an honorary position as vice-chairman of the Council on African affairs. This organization was labeled “subversive” by the U.S. attorney general. His work with the Peace Information Center, a society devoted to banning nuclear weapons, also embroiled him in controversy. Along with four other officers from the Peace Information Center, Du Bois was indicted for “failure to register as an agent of a foreign principal.” The case was brought to trial in 1951, and the defendants were acquitted.

After the trial was over, Du Bois hoped to travel outside the United States, but he was denied a passport on the grounds that it was not in “the best interests of the United States” for him to journey abroad. Later the U.S. State Department refused to issue a passport to him unless he stated in writing that he was not a member of the Communist Party, a condition Du Bois rejected.

Du Bois had previously travelled abroad in 1936, to Japan, China and Germany. In 1945 he had travelled to the (final) fifth PanAfrican Congress in Manchester, where he met president Kwame Nkrhuma of Ghana.

Du Bois was finally able to get return of his passport after a Supreme Court decision in 1958. At the age of 90, he and his second wife travelled abroad to Europe, China and Russia. He was invited by the Ghanaian president to move to Ghana, where he directed the Encyclopaedia Africana project until he died on 27th August, 1963, in Accra, Ghana. While living in Ghana his passport had again been revoked by the US authorities and he then intended to revoke his US citizenship and remain as a Ghanaian citizen. He had not completed this intention at the time of his death.

Du Bois is probably best known for his collection of essays published in 1903, Souls of Black Folk. In 2003 the centennial of its’ publication was celebrated across America…

…a staged adaptation of readings from the book premiered in New York. In an interview with Felicia R. Lee for the New York Times, Dolan Hubbard commented: “Du Bois was a founding father of multiculturalism, of blending races and ideas. You can trace the lineage of black music all the way to hip-hop in Souls…

from the Poetry Foundation biography for Dubois

Some of Du Bois’ work is in the public domain (some nation-dependent limitations may apply). If you would like to experience some of Dubois’ work, here are some options:

This week is the last week of AfricanAmerican History Month in the US. (in the UK we have Black History Month in October).

I only came across this author by chance, on his birthday, (23rd Feb.). Have you heard of W.E.B. Du Bois before reading this post? Can you recommend any of his work, other online sources?

#authorstory  #weekly