Life of a Civil Rights 'Architect'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 25, 2009 | Go to article overview

Life of a Civil Rights 'Architect'


Byline: Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If you didn't get around to reading the two volumes (700-plus pages each) of David Levering Lewis' highly praised life of W.E.B. Du Bois published in 1993 and 2000, you should consider tackling this still-massive work (almost 900 pages). The objective, the author says, is to deliver more with less, for which the author's assistant, Kendra Taira Field, apparently deserves much of the credit.

It is still not a breeze to read, but the subject, the premier architect of the civil rights movement in the United States, who memorably proclaimed that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line, merits attention. Mr. Lewis' graceful prose is a joy, and his account is well-balanced: He makes sure that no dissimulation on Mr. Du Bois' part goes unchallenged.

Somebody must have had high expectations for this great-grandson of slaves to have named him William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, and Willie, as he was known in his hometown of Great Barrington, Mass., was indeed recognized early as precocious. The father deserted his family before the child was 2, but the impoverished, hardworking youth and his mother earned the admiration and support of the townspeople.

When it came time for college, Harvard said no, but some Berkshire Congregational churches underwrote his education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and he matriculated as a sophomore. It was in Tennessee that he was introduced to the complexities of the Southern black environment and began his exploration of racism in America and its potential solutions.

Harvard said yes to Mr. Du Bois after he had graduated from Fisk in 1888, and upon finishing his degree at Harvard in 1890, Mr. Du Bois received a scholarship to Friedrich Wilhelm III University in Berlin, where he was in his element, mixing with Europe's prominent social scientists. However, he was shattered to be turned down for his doctorate in economics because he lacked a required course or two. Back he went to Harvard, where, in 1895, he became the first black American to earn a doctorate there. (The German university later obliged with an honorary doctorate.)

After a short teaching stint at Wilberforce University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he met and subsequently married one of his students, Nina Gomen, Mr. Du Bois accepted a job at the University of Pennsylvania that consisted mainly of investigating crime among the black population in Philadelphia. His research, published as The Philadelphia Negro, was the first of what would become a constant stream of perceptive books about the black condition by Mr. Du Bois; he also wrote three autobiographies and five novels as well as many influential magazine articles.

Much of his teaching and research were done at Atlanta University, which welcomed him whenever he needed an academic post, beginning in 1897 and continuing intermittently for decades.

In 1910, he left Atlanta to edit the Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he had co-founded.

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