William Edward Burghardt Du Bois – known simply as "W.E.B." – was 83 when the government indicted him as a foreign agent in 1951. The only crime he had committed, however, was circulating the Stockholm Appeal, which said any government to use an atomic weapon against another country "should be treated as a war criminal." After spending six months in disgrace and paying $35,150 for his defense, the government dismissed its case against him. The old man was freed and declared himself a communist 12 years later at age 93, dying in Ghana, a country that loved him. It was a sad end for an intellectual giant whom Kim Pearson, a professor of journalism at The College of New Jersey who teaches a class on Du Bois, calls, "the premier African American intellectual of the 19th and 20th centuries."
Born in Great Barrington, Mass. in 1868, during the era of Reconstruction, Du Bois’ maternal great-grandfather was born a slave and his father, Alfred, simply wandered away when he was a boy, never coming back. Du Bois was reared on a farm by his mother Mary and experienced little racism. He would later say that as a boy in Great Barrington, he had "almost no experience of segregation or color discrimination."
Even though Du Bois was the only black student in his graduating high school class of 12, Principal Frank A. Horner encouraged him to prepare for college. Du Bois headed to Nashville, Tennessee to the halls of Fisk University, an all-black school. There, he declared, "I am a Negro. I glory in the name! I am proud of the black blood that flows in my veins … (I) have come here … to join hands with my people." He graduated in 1888 and headed to Harvard. While there, he received a grant and loan to study at the University of Berlin, where he experienced little discrimination and became fascinated by European grievances against Jews. Reflecting on his stay at Berlin, Du Bois would say, "I began to feel the dichotomy which all my life has characterized my thought; how far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?"
Du Bois earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1895 and his dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was hailed as the first scientific work authored by ...
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... to result in the exacerbation of prejudice and inner conflict here in America." The case against Du Bois was eventually dismissed.
Du Bois did not declare himself a communist until he was 93. He finished his autobiography in 1960 and declared, "I now believe that private ownership of capital and free enterprise are leading the world to disaster. Democratic government in the United States has almost ceased to function. I shall therefore hereafter help the triumph of communism in every honest way that I can: without deceit or hurt; and in any way possible, without war; and with goodwill to all men of all colors, classes and creeds."
Du Bois wrote a tremendous amount of material. Only a small number of his works have been considered in this short description of his life. In his final years, Du Bois spent his time working on an Encyclopedia Africana, which he had unsuccessfully tried to begin without financial backing in 1909 and 1931. Kwame Nkrumah, the first premier of Ghana, invited him to live out his life in Ghana and offered him funding for the final project. Appropriately, news of Du Bois’ death in 1963 reached America as blacks and whites peacefully marched on Washington.
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