Alain Leroy Locke

Alain Leroy Locke
Alain Locke circa 1946

“We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 19, 1968


Alain Leroy Locke (September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954) was an American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts.  In a popular publication, “The Black 100”, Alain Locke ranks as the 36th most influential African American ever, past or present.  Distinguished as the first African American Rhodes Scholar in 1907, Locke was the philosophical architect - the acknowledged ‘Dean’ of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural efflorescence connected with the New Negro movement from 1919–1934.

Harlem negro

Alain Locke, Survey Graphic: “Harlem Mecca of the New Negro”

Locke’s importance as the ideological genius of the Harlem Renaissance is of great historical moment, immortalized in the Harlem Number of The Survey Graphic 6.6 (1 March 1925), a special issue on race for which Locke served as guest editor.  That edition was entitled, “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro”, which Locke subsequently recast as an anthology, “The New Negro: An Interpretation of Negro Life”, published in December 1925.

Alain Locke was one of the guiding forces of this new cultural and aesthetic vision.  He played an influential role in identifying, nurturing, and publishing the works of young black artists during the New Negro Movement.  His philosophy served as a strong motivating force in keeping the energy and passion of the Movement at the forefront.  Ernest Mason explained that, “much of the creative work of the period was guided by the ideal of the New Negro which signified a range of ethical ideals that often emphasized and intensified a higher sense of group and social cohesiveness. …The writers…literally expected liberation…from their work and were perhaps the first group of Afro-American writers to believe that art could radically transform the artist and attitudes of other human beings.” (Dictionary of Literary Biography p.313)

Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the only child of Pliny Ishmael Locke and Mary Hawkins Locke.  He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy.  Locke entered Harvard in 1904 and graduated in 1907 with a distinguished academic record (magna cum laude), and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

race leader

Alain Locke: Race Leader, Social Philosopher, Bahá'í Pluralist

After graduating from Harvard, he studied for three years (1907-1910) at Oxford University in England as the first black Rhodes scholar.  Upon his graduation from Oxford, he spent one year pursing advanced work in philosophy at the University of Berlin.  Alain Locke began his career at Howard University in 1912 as an Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy.  His tenure was briefly broken in 1916 when he left to pursue his doctorate degree at Harvard University, eventually receiving that degree in 1918.  Locke returned to Howard University in 1918 as Professor of Philosophy and remained at the University until he retired in 1952.

Locke’s involvement with the Renaissance touched a number of areas.  Not only was he involved with the visual arts and literature, but he was directly involved with the theatre movement through his association with the Theatre Arts Monthly, the Howard University Players (one of the earliest Little Theatre Groups among blacks), and with his collaborations with Montgomery Gregory.  One such collaboration with Gregory resulted in the drama anthology, "Plays of Negro Life" (1927).

plays of negro life

Alain Leroy Locke, “Plays of Negro Life” 

To varying degrees, Locke encouraged young black writers, scholars and artists of the New Negro Movement; and he served as a mentor to many of them.  His philosophy of the New Negro was grounded in the concept of race building.

Nathan Huggins in his book, Harlem Renaissance, states: “Alain Locke believed that the profound changes in the American Negro had to do with the freeing of himself from the fictions of his past and the rediscovery of himself.  He had to put away the protective coloring of the mimicking minstrel and find himself as he really was.  And thus the new militancy was a self-assertion as well as an assertion of the validity of the race.”  “Locke could not promise that the race would win the long-desired end of material progress, but the enrichment of life through art and letters would be an ample achievement. What is more, the Negro would be a people rather than a problem.” (pp. 59-60) 

the works

The Works of Alain Locke

Locke edited The New Negro, an anthology that was published in 1925 and is sometimes referred to as the manifesto of the New Negro Movement.  This anthology had its origin as a special issue (March 1925) of the Survey Graphic magazine, which was devoted entirely to Harlem.  This respected magazine devoted a full issue to “express the progressive spirit of contemporary Negro life.”  This issue became the most widely read in the magazine’s history.  In the words of Steven Watson,  “The issue’s contents drew upon poets, illustrators, and essayists, but it was firmly governed by Locke’s cultural agenda.” (Watson, p.28) Locke emphasized that the spirit of the young writers who were a part of this anthology would drive the Harlem Renaissance by focusing on the African roots of black art and music.  Five of his essays were included in the anthology.

Locke energetically supported and was a staunch advocate for the black visual arts.  He firmly believed that the black artist should draw from the roots of his African heritage for themes reflected in his works.  He referred to this as “their own racial milieu as a special province” ("The American Negro Artist," p. 214). Those who explored these themes were referred to as the Africanists or Neo-Primitives.  Locke felt that this group of visual artists carried “the burden of the campaign for a so-called ‘Negro Art.” (“The American Negro Artists”, p. 215) Locke defined the Africanists as those artists who derived their inspiration from the principles of African design.

the new negro

Alain Locke, “The New Negro” 

During the 1920’s and 30’s, a few of the younger artists that worked in this vein included Hale Woodruff, James Lesesne Wells, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthé, and Sargent Johnson.  In fact, Locked rated James Wells as one of the most promising of these younger black artists, and “Aaron Douglas…deserves to be called the pioneer of the African Style among the American Negro artists” (“The American Negro Artist,” p. 218).

Locke’s “Africanist” approach was not only limited to the visual arts.  He emphasized that the future of Black drama depended on the development of the folk play. In his words: “Negro drama must grow in its own soil and cultivate its own intrinsic elements; only in this way can it become truly organic, and cease being a rootless derivative” (Theatre Arts Monthly 10, p. 703).  He encouraged the dramatists, like other artists, to turn back for dramatic material to their ancestral sources and draw upon African life and tradition.  During the Renaissance, black drama was in its infancy stage and it was prime for exploring the rich resources of African material.  By embracing the folklore, art-idioms, and symbols of African material, drama was sure to flourish as its sister arts had done.

Alain Locke made a profound contribution to the philosophy, art, and culture of American society.  African Americans are direct beneficiaries of his efforts.


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  • Locke, Alain. “The American Negro Artist.”The American Magazine of Art23, no.3 (September 1931): 211-220.
  • _____________. “The Drama of Negro Life.”Theatre Arts Monthly10 (October 1926): 701-706.
  • Watson, Steven.The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
  • Selected Books Written By Locke
  • Locke, Alain LeRoy.The Negro and His Music. Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.
  • Negro Art: Past and Present. Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.
  • Four Negro Poets, edited by Alain Locke (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927)
  • The New Negro: An Interpretation, edited with contributions by Alain Locke (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927)
  • Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama, edited by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory (New York: Harper, 1927)

 Selected Essays Written By Locke

  • Locke, Alain. “A Collection of Congo Art.”Arts2 (February 1927), pp. 60-70.
  • “Harlem: Dark Weather-vane.”Survey Graphic25 (August 1936), pp. 457-462, 493-495.
  • “The Negro and the American Stage.”Theatre Arts Monthly10 (February 1926): 112-120.
  • “The Negro in Art.”Christian Education13 (November 1931), pp. 210-220.
  • “Negro Speaks for Himself.”The Survey52 (April 15, 1924), pp. 71-72.
  • “The Negro’s Contribution to American Art and Literature.”The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science140 (November 1928): 234-247.
  • “The Negro’s Contribution to American Culture.”Journal of Negro Education8 (July 1939), pp. 521-529.
  • “A Note on African Art.”Opportunity2 (May 1924), pp. 134-138.
  • “Our Little Renaissance.”Ebony and Topaz, edited by Charles S. Johnson. New York: National Urban League, 1927.
  • “Steps Towards the Negro Theatre.”Crisis25 (December 1922), pp. 66-68.
  • And Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Younger Literary Movement.”Crisis28 (February 1924), pp. 161-163.

 Selected Material About Locke

  • Brewer, William. “Alain Locke.”Negro History Bulletin18 (November 1954), pp. 26-32.
  • Bunche, Ralph J., Krikorian, Y. H., Nelson, William, et al. “The Passing of Alain Leroy Locke.”Phylon15 (1954), pp. 243-252.
  • Davis, Arthur P.From the Dark Tower: Afro American Writers, 1900 to 1960. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.
  • Hay, Samuel A. “Alain Locke and Black Drama.”Black World(April 1972), pp. 8-14.
  • Holmes, Eugene C. “Alain Locke: A Sketch.”Phylon(Spring 1959), pp. 82-89.
  • “Alain Locke- Philosopher, Critic, Spokesman.”Journal of Philosophy(February 28, 1957), pp.113-118.
  • “The Legacy of Alain Locke.”Freedom ways3 (Summer 1963), pp. 293-306.
  • Mason, Ernest D., “Alain Locke,” inDictionary of Literary Biography. vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1987).
  • The New Negro Thirty Years Afterward: Papers Presented to the Sixteenth Annual Spring Conference of the Division of the Social Sciences, April 20, 21, and 22, 1955. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1955.
  • The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, edited by Leonard Harris (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1989).
  • Washington, Johnny.Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
  • Wright, W. D. “The Cultural Thought and Leadership of Alain Locke.”Freedom ways(First Quarter, 1974), pp. 35-50.


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Carter G. Woodson

Carter G woodson

Carter G. Woodson, Father of Black History 

Race prejudice is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind." - Carter G. Woodson 

Carter Godwin Woodson (December 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950) was an African-American historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  Woodson was one of the first scholars to study African American history.  A founder of Journal of Negro History (now titled The Journal of African-American History), and having established Negro History Week, Dr. Woodson has been cited as the father of black history.  Woodson was born the son of former slaves, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson in New Canton, Virginia.  His father helped Union soldiers during the Civil War, and he moved his family to West Virginia when he heard that Huntington was building a high school for blacks.  Coming from a large, poor family, Carter Woodson could not regularly attend school.  Through self-instruction, Woodson mastered the fundamentals of common school subjects by age 17. 

Wanting more education, Carter went to Fayette County to earn a living as a miner in the coal fields.  He was able to devote only a few months each year to his schooling.  In 1895, at age 20, Woodson entered Douglass High School, where he received his diploma in less than two years.  From 1897 to 1900, Woodson taught in Fayette County.  In 1900 he was selected as the principal of Douglass High School.  He earned his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903 by taking classes part-time between 1901 and 1903.

Carter G woodson 2
Carter G. Woodson

From 1903 to 1907, Woodson was a school supervisor in the Philippines.  Later, he attended the University of Chicago, where he was awarded an A.B. and A.M. in 1908.  He was a member of the first black fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and a member of Omega Psi Phi.  He completed his Ph.D. in history at Harvard University in 1912, where he was the second African-American (after W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a doctorate.  His doctoral dissertation, “The Disruption of Virginia”, was based on research he did at the Library of Congress while teaching high school in Washington, D.C.  After earning the doctoral degree, he continued teaching in the public schools, later joining the faculty at Howard University as a professor, where he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Convinced that the role of his own people in American history and in the history of other cultures was being ignored or misrepresented among scholars, Woodson realized the need for research into the neglected past of African Americans.  Along with Alexander L. Jackson, Woodson published “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861”.  His other books followed. “A Century of Negro Migration" continues to be published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Carter G Woodson 3

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, in his library

Carter G. Woodson’s final work in West Virginia was as the Dean of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, from 1920 - 1922.  He studied many aspects of African-American history.  In 1924 for example, he published the first survey of free black slaveowners in the United States in 1830. 

Woodson became affiliated with the Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP, and its chairman Archibald Grimké.  On January 28, 1915, he wrote a letter to Grimké expressing his dissatisfaction with some of its activities.  Woodson made two proposals, that (a) the branch secure an office for a center to which persons may report whatever concerns the black race may have, and from which the Association may extend its operations into every part of the city and (b) a canvasser be appointed to enlist members and obtain subscriptions for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois.

 CGW 4

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “A Century of Negro Education”

W.E.B. DuBois added the proposal to divert "patronage from business establishments which do not treat races alike", that is, boycott businesses.  Woodson wrote that he would cooperate as one of the twenty-five effective canvassers, adding that he would pay the office rent for one month.  Grimke did not welcome Woodson's ideas and responded negatively.  Responding to Grimke's comments about his proposals, on March 18, 1915, Woodson wrote, "I am not afraid of being sued by white businessmen.  In fact, I should welcome such a law suit.  It would do the cause much good.  Let us banish fear.  We have been in this mental state for three centuries.  I am a radical.  I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me."  His difference of opinion with Grimké, who wanted a more conservative course, contributed to Woodson's ending his affiliation with the NAACP.


Roadside historical marker biography of Woodson 

Black History Month

After leaving Howard University because of differences with its president,Dr. Woodson devoted the rest of his life to historical research.  He worked to preserve the history of African Americans and accumulated a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications. He noted that African American contributions "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them."  “Race prejudice”, he concluded, "is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind."

In 1926, Woodson pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week", designated for the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  The week of recognition became accepted and has been extended as the full month of February, now known as "Black History Month".


Carter G. Woodson, “The Mis-Education of the Negro” 


Woodson believed in self-reliance and racial respect, values he shared with Jamaican Marcus Garvey.  Woodson became a regular columnist for Garvey's weekly Negro World.  His political activism placed him at the center of a circle of many black intellectuals and activists from the 1920s to the 1940s.  Woodson corresponded with W. E. B. Du BoisJohn E. BruceArturo Alfonso SchomburgHubert H. Harrison, and T. Thomas Fortune among others.  Even with the extended duties of the Association, Woodson made time to write academic works such as “The History of the Negro Church” (1922), “The Mis-Education of the Negro” (1933), and others which continue to have wide readership even today.

Carter G. Woodson did not shy away from controversial subjects, and used the pages of Black World to contribute to debates.  One issue related to West Indian/African American relations.  Woodson summarized that "the West Indian Negro is free."  He observed that West Indian societies had been more successful at properly dedicating the necessary amounts of time and resources needed to educate and genuinely emancipate people.  Woodson approved of efforts by West Indians to include materials related to Black history and culture into their school curricula.


Huntington, W.Va., statue honoring Carter G Woodson 

Woodson was ostracized by some of his contemporaries because of his insistence on defining a category of history related to ethnic culture and race.  At the time, these educators felt that it was wrong to teach or understand black history as separate from more general American history.  According to these educators, "Negroes were simply Americans, darker skinned, but with no history apart from that of any other.”  Thus Woodson's efforts to get Black culture and history into the curricula of institutions, even in historically Black colleges, were often unsuccessful.

Today African-American studies have become specialized fields of study in history, music, culture, literature and other areas.  In addition, there is more emphasis on African-American contributions to general American culture.  Thanks to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, America now celebrates Black History Month in February.

Woodson's legacy 


Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month 

That schools have set aside a time each year, to focus upon African American history, is Dr. Woodson's most visible legacy.  His determination to further the recognition of the Negro in American and world history, however, inspired countless other scholars.  Woodson remained focused on his work throughout his life.  Many see him as a man of vision and understanding.  Although Dr. Woodson was among the ranks of the educated few, he did not feel particularly sentimental about elite educational institutions.   The Association and journal which he started in 1915 still continues, and both have earned intellectual respect.

Woodson's other far-reaching activities included the founding in 1920 of the Associated Publishers, the oldest African-American publishing company in the United States. This enabled publication of books concerning blacks which may not have been supported in the rest of the market.  He founded Negro History Week in 1926 (Black History Month).  He created the Negro History Bulletin for teachers in elementary and high school grades.  It has been published continuously since 1937.  Woodson also influenced the Association's direction and subsidizing of research in African-American history.  He wrote numerous articles, monographs and books on Blacks.  “The Negro in Our History” reached its eleventh edition in 1966, when it had sold more than 90,000 copies. 


In 1915 Carter G. Woodson founded the "Association for the Study of Negro Life and History", now the "Association for the Study of African American Life and History" (ASALH).

Dorothy Porter Wesley stated that "Woodson would wrap up his publications, take them to the post office and have dinner at the YMCA."  He would teasingly decline her dinner invitations saying, "No, you are trying to marry me off.  I am married to my work".  Dr. Woodson's most cherished ambition, a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana, lay incomplete at his death on April 3, 1950 at the age of 74.  He is buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.

Legacy and honors

 Selected bibliography

  • File:History of the Negro Church.jpg
  • Second edition ofThe History of the Negro Church(1921)
  • The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861(1915)
  • A Century of Negro Migration(1918)
  • The History of the Negro Church(1921)
  • The Negro in Our History(1922)
  • Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, Together With Absentee Ownership of Slaves in the United States in 1830(1924)
  • Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, Together With a Brief Treatment of the Free Negro(1925)
  • Negro Orators and Their Orations(1925)
  • The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis, 1800-1860(1927)
  • Negro Makers of History(1928)
  • African Myths, Together With Proverbs(1928)
  • The Rural Negro(1930)
  • The Negro Wage Earner(1930)
  • The Mis-Education of the Negro(1933)
  • The Negro Professional Man and the Community, With Special Emphasis on the Physician and the Lawyer(1934)
  • The Story of the Negro Retold(1935)
  • The African Background Outlined: Or, Handbook for the Study of the Negro(1936)
  • African Heroes and Heroines(1939)
  • The Works of Francis J. Grimké(1942)
  • Carter G. Woodson's Appeal: The Lost Manuscript Edition(2008)


Carter Woodson biographical cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943 

Places named after Woodson


Celebration of Carter Woodson and Black History Month, brought to you by Paris-based black artist Ealy Mays



Other links

Woodson's writings

Other information about Woodson


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James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson
Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932

Notable work(s)

"Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing", "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an African American author, poet, politician, diplomat, journalist, educator, critic, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist.  Johnson is remembered best for his leadership within the NAACP, as well as for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and collections of folklore.  He was also one of the first African-American professors at New York University.  Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet and James Johnson. His brother was the composer J. Rosamond Johnson.  Johnson was first educated by his mother (a musician and a public school teacher—the first female black teacher in a Florida grammar school) and then at Edwin M. Stanton School.  His mother imparted to him her considerable love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music.  At the age of 16 he enrolled at Atlanta University, from which he graduated in 1894.


Aged around 30 at the time of this photo, James Weldon Johnson had already written Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing and been admitted to the Florida bar.

In addition to his bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework there.  The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment built when Jacksonville was one of Florida's first winter havens, gave young James the wherewithal and the self-confidence to pursue a professional career.  Molded by the classical education for which Atlanta University was best known, Johnson regarded his academic training as a trust given him.  Johnson was also a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

He served in several public capacities over the next 35 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, civil rights activism, literature, poetry, and music.  In 1904 Johnson went on Theodore Roosevelt's presidential Campaign.  Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906–1908 and then Nicaragua from 1909–1913.


James Weldon Johnson at his desk

In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail while he was a United States Consul in Nicaragua.  They had met several years earlier in New York while Johnson worked as a songwriter.  A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson became an accomplished artist in pastels and collaborated with her husband on a screenwriting project.  

In the summer of 1891 the Atlanta University freshman had gone to a rural district in Georgia to instruct the children of former slaves.  "In all of my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia," Johnson wrote. "I was thrown for the first time on my own resources and abilities." 

James Weldon Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894.  He would later receive an honorary Master's degree in 1904.  After graduation he returned to Stanton, a school for African American students in Jacksonville, until 1906, where, at the young age of 23, he became principal.  As principal Johnson found himself the head of the largest public school in Jacksonville.  For his work Johnson received a paycheck less than half of what was offered to a white colleague possessing a comparable position.  Johnson improved education by adding the ninth and tenth grades.  Algebra, English composition, physical geography, and bookkeeping were a part of the added ninth grade course.  The tenth grade course consisted of geometry, English literature, elementary physics, history, and Spanish.  Johnson later resigned from his position as principal.

public servant

James Weldon Johnson – Author, diplomat, Public Servant, circa 1943, by African-American artist Charles Henry Alston, courtesy (National Archives and Records Administration)

In 1897, Johnson was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since Reconstruction.  He was also the first black in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar.  In order to receive entry Johnson underwent a two-hour examination before three attorneys and a judge.  He later recalled that one of the examiners, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room.

In December 1930, Johnson resigned from the leadership of the NAACP to accept the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, where he lectured not only on literature but also on a wide range of issues to do with the life and civil rights of black Americans.  The position had been especially created for him, largely out of recognition of his achievements as a poet, editor, and critic during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.  He held this position until his death in an automobile accident in 1938.  Enjoying unusual success as a songwriter for Broadway shows, Johnson moved easily in the upper echelons of African American society in New York.

James Weldon Johnson stamp

Black Heritage, James Weldon Johnson stamp, (courtesy The James Weldon Johnson Institute)

In 1906 Johnson was consul of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela.  In 1909, he transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua.  During his stay at Corinto a rebellion occurred against President Adolfo Diaz.  Johnson proved himself an effective diplomat under times of strain.  During his work in the foreign service, Johnson became a published poet, with work printed in The Century Magazine and in The Independent.

During his six-year stay in Hispanic America he completed his most famous book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which was published anonymously in 1912.  It was only during 1927 that Johnson admitted his authorship, stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional.  His other works include The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), Black Manhattan (1930), his exploration of the contribution of African-Americans to the culture of New York, and “Negro Americans, What Now?” (1934), a book advocating civil rights for African Americans.  Johnson was also an anthologist.  His anthologies concerned African-American themes and were part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.  He also wrote the melody for the song "Dem Bones".


James Weldon Jonshon, “The Book of American Negro Poetry”

In 1922, he edited The Book of American Negro Poetry, which the Academy of American Poets called "a major contribution to the history of African-American literature."  One of the works for which he is best remembered today, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1927 and celebrates the tradition of the folk preacher.  In 1917, Johnson published “50 Years and Other Poems”.

While attending Atlanta University Johnson became known as an influential campus speaker.  He won the Quiz Club Contest in English Composition and Oratory in 1892.  The contest topic was "The Best Methods of Removing the Disabilities of Caste from the Negro".  In addition, Johnson founded the newspaper the Daily American in 1895 and became its editor.  The newspaper concerned both political and racial topics.  It was terminated a year later due to financial difficulty.  These early endeavors were the start of what would prove to be a long period of activism.


James Weldom Johnson with W.E.B. Du Bois and Nina Gomer 

Johnson became further involved with political activism during 1904 when he accepted a position as the treasurer of the Colored Republican Club started by Charles W. Anderson.  A year later he became the president of the club.  His duties as president included organizing political rallies.  During 1914 Johnson became editor of the editorial page of the New York Age, an influential African American weekly newspaper that had supported Booker T. Washington in his propaganda struggle with fellow African American W. E. B. Du Bois during the early 20th century.  Johnson's writing for the Age displayed the political gift that soon made him famous.

Employed from 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, he built and revived local chapters of that organization. Opposing race riots in northern cities and the lynchings that pervaded the South during and immediately after the end of World War I, Johnson engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations, such as a silent protest parade of more than ten thousand African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917.  In 1919, he coined the term "Red Summer" and organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that year. 

In 1920 Johnson was elected to manage the NAACP, the first African American to hold this position.  While serving the NAACP from 1914 through 1930 Johnson started as an organizer and eventually became the first black male secretary in the organization's history.  In 1920, he was sent by the NAACP to investigate conditions in Haiti, which had been occupied by U.S. Marines since 1915.  Johnson published a series of articles in The Nation, in which he described the American occupation as being brutal and offered suggestions for the economic and social development of Haiti.  These articles were reprinted under the title “Self-Determining Haiti”.  Throughout the 1920s he was one of the major inspirations and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance trying to refute condescending white criticism and helping young black authors to get published.  While serving in the NAACP Johnson was involved in sparking the drive behind the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921.  Shortly before his death, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians.  According to musical historian James Nathan Jones, the formation of the "American Negro Orchestra" represented for Johnson "the fulfillment of a dream he had for thirty years."

James Weldon Johnson died during 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car he was driving was hit by a train.  His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.

Awards, honors, and legacy


Poetry collections

Other works and collections



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Web dubois

W.E.B. Du Bois

 "And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked – who is good? Not that men are ignorant – what is truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men."

—W.E.B. Du Bois, of Alexander Crummell, in "The Souls of Black Folk", 1903


William Edward Burghardt, W. E. B. Du Bois was an African American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, and editor.  Born in western Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a tolerant community and experienced little racism as a child.  After graduating from Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.  Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 

Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (Burghardt) Du Bois.  Mary Silvina Burghardt's family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington, having long owned land in the state.  She was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors.   William Du Bois's maternal great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt.  Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom.  Tom's son Jack Burghardt was the father of Othello Burghardt, who was the father of Mary Silvina Burghardt.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, “50 Sites in Great Barrington”, (Courtesy Bernard Drew)

William Du Bois's paternal great-grandfather was ethnic French-American James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, who fathered several children with slave mistresses.  One of James's mixed-race sons was Alexander, who traveled to Haiti, and fathered a son, Alfred, with a mistress there.  Alexander returned to Connecticut, leaving Alfred in Haiti with his mother.  Alfred moved to the United States sometime before 1860, and married Mary Silvina Burghardt on February 5, 1867 in Housatonic, Massachusetts.  Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after William was born.  William's mother worked to support her family (receiving some assistance from her brother and neighbors) until she had a stroke in the early 1880s.  She died in 1885.

Great Barrington's primarily European American community treated Du Bois well, and he knew little discrimination.  He attended the local public school and played with white schoolmates.  Teachers encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.  When Du Bois decided to attend college, the congregation of his childhood church, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, donated money for his tuition.

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As a child, Du Bois attended the Congregational Church in Great. Church members collected donations to pay Du Bois's college tuition

University education

Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks.  Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta Compromise, the agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites would guarantee that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities.  Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation.  He believed the African-American intellectual elite (Talented Tenth) would bring this about.  Du Bois believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

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W.E.B. Du Bois 

Racism was the main target of Du Bois's polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment.  His cause included colored persons everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in their struggles against colonialism and imperialism.  He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to free African colonies from European powers.  To this effort, Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia.  After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of American black soldiers in France and documented widespread bigotry in the United States military. 

Du Bois was a prolific author.  His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature.  His 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction era.  He wrote the first scientific treatise in the field of sociology, and he published three autobiographies - each of which contained insightful essays on sociology, politics, and history.  In his role as editor of the NAACP's journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces.  Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life.  He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament.  The United States's Civil Rights Act which embodied many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

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Du Bois encountered Jim Crow segregation for the first time when he attended Fisk University in Tennessee. 

Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888.   His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois's first experience with Southern racism, which included Jim Crow laws, bigotry and lynchings.  After receiving a bachelor's degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890.  There he was strongly influenced by his professor William James, prominent American philosopher.  Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends.  In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor's degree, cum laude.  In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.

In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work.  While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe.  He came of age intellectually in the German capital, while studying with some of that nation's most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von SchmollerAdolph Wagner and Heinrich von Treitschke.  After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies and in 1895, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, “Now is the accepted time, not some future day” 

In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute.  He accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change.  While at Wilberforce, Du Bois married one of his students, Nina Gomer, on May 12th, 1896.

After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant in sociology in the summer of 1896.  He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia's African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study, “The Philadelphia Negro”, published two years later while he was teaching at Atlanta University. It was the first case study of a black community.

Wilberforce and University of Pennsylvania

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: ... How does it feel to be a problem? ... One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder ... He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."

—Du Bois, "Strivings of the Negro People", 1897

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Burghart Du Bois, and Nina Du Bois

While attending the Negro Academy in 1897, Du Bois presented a paper in which he rejected Frederick Douglass' plea for black Americans to integrate into white society.  He wrote: "we are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland".  In the August 1897 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois published "Strivings of the Negro People", his first work aimed at the general public, in which he enlarged on his thesis that African Americans should embrace their African heritage.

Atlanta University

In July 1897, Du Bois left Philadelphia and took a professorship in history and economics at the historically black Atlanta University.  His first major academic accomplishment was the 1899 publication of “The Philadelphia Negro”, a detailed and comprehensive sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on the fieldwork he did in 1896–1897.  The work was a breakthrough in that it was the first scientific sociological study in the U.S. and the first scientific study of African Americans.  In the study, Du Bois coined the phrase the “submerged tenth" to describe the black underclass, anticipating the "talented tenth" term he would popularize in 1903 to describe society's elite class. 

Du Bois's terminology reflected his opinion that the elite of a nation, black and white, was the critical portion of society that was responsible for culture and progress.  His writings of this era were often dismissive of the underclass, employing characterizations such as "lazy" or "unreliable", but he – in contrast to other scholars – attributed many societal problems to the ravages of slavery.

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W. E. B. Du Bois in 1904

Du Bois's output at Atlanta University was prodigious, in spite of a limited budget: He produced numerous social science papers and annually hosted the Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems.  Du Bois also received grants from the U.S. government to prepare reports about African-American workforce and culture.  His students considered him to be a brilliant, but an aloof and strict teacher.

Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise

In the first decade of the new century, Du Bois emerged as a spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington.  Washington was the head of the Tuskegee Institute, and wielded tremendous influence within the African-American community.  Washington was the architect of the Atlanta Compromise, the unwritten deal he struck in 1895 with Southern white leaders who had taken over government after the failure of Reconstruction.  The agreement provided that (a) Southern blacks would submit to discrimination, segregation, lack of voting rights, and non-unionized employment, (b) that Southern whites would permit blacks to receive a basic education, some economic opportunities, and justice within the legal system, and (c) that Northern whites would invest in Southern enterprises and fund black educational charities.

Many African Americans opposed Washington's plan, including Du Bois, Archibald H. GrimkeKelly MillerJames Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar – representatives of the class of educated blacks that Du Bois referred to as the "talented tenth".  Du Bois felt that African Americans should fight for equal rights, rather than passively submit to the segregation and discrimination of Washington's Atlanta Compromise.

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W.E.B. Du Bois or Booker T. Washington? 

Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose, which occurred near Atlanta in 1899.  Hose was tortured, burned and hung by a mob of two thousand whites.   When walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with a newspaper editor, Du Bois encountered Hose's burned knuckles in a storefront display.  The episode numbed Du Bois, and he resolved that, "one could not be a calm cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved."  Du Bois stated that "the cure wasn't simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth."

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Founders of the Niagara Movement in 1905. Du Bois is in middle row, with white hat

In 1901, Du Bois wrote a review critical of Washington's book Up from Slavery, which he later expanded and published to a wider audience as the essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" in The Souls of Black Folk.  One of the major contrasts between the two leaders was their approach to education: Washington felt that African-American schools should limit themselves to industrial education topics such as agricultural and mechanical skills, while Du Bois felt that black schools should also offer a liberal arts curriculum including the classics, arts, and humanities because he believed liberal arts were required to develop a leadership elite.

Niagara Movement

In 1905, Du Bois and several other African-American civil rights activists – including Fredrick L. McGheeJesse Max Barber and William Monroe Trotter – met in Canada, near Niagara Falls.   There they wrote a declaration of principles opposing the "Atlanta Compromise", and incorporated as the Niagara Movement in 1906.  Du Bois and the other "Niagarites" wanted to publicize their ideals to other African Americans, but most black periodicals were owned by publishers who were sympathetic to Washington, so Du Bois bought a printing press and started publishing “Moon Illustrated Weekly” in December 1905.   It was the first African-American illustrated weekly, and Du Bois used it to attack Washington's positions.  However, the magazine only lasted for about eight months.  Du Bois soon founded and edited another vehicle for his polemics, The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line, which debuted in 1907.

"Once we were told: Be worthy and fit and the ways are open. Today the avenues of advancement in the army, navy, and civil service, and even in business and professional life, are continually closed to black applicants of proven fitness, simply on the bald excuse of race and color." - Du Bois, Address at Fourth Niagara Conference, 1908 

The Niagarites held a second conference in August 1906, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of John Brown's birth, at the site of Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.  Reverdy Cassius Ransom spoke and addressed the fact that Washington's primary goal was to provide employment to blacks:  "Today, two classes of Negroes, ... are standing at the parting of the ways. The one counsels patient submission to our present humiliations and degradations; ... The other class believe that it should not submit to being humiliated, degraded, and remanded to an inferior place ... it does not believe in bartering its manhood for the sake of gain."  - "The Souls of Black Folk" 

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Title page of the second edition of "The Souls of Black Folk"

In an effort to portray the genius and humanity of the black race, Du Bois published “The Souls of Black Folk”, a collection of 14 essays, in 1903.  The book's importance to African Americans, according to James Weldon Johnson, was comparable to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  The introduction famously proclaimed that "... the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line."  Each chapter begins with two epigraphs – one from a white poet, and one from a black spiritual – to demonstrate intellectual and cultural parity between black and white cultures.  A major theme of the work was the double consciousness that African Americans faced: “Being both American and black”, a unique identity which, according to Lewis, had been a handicap in the past, but could be a strength in the future: "Henceforth, the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation."

Racial violence

Two calamities in the autumn of 1906 shocked African Americans, and helped Du Bois's struggle for civil rights to prevail over Booker T. Washington's accommodationism.  First, President Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers because they were accused of crimes as a result of the Brownsville Affair.  Many of the discharged soldiers had served for over 20 years and they were near retirement.  Second, in September, riots broke out in Atlanta, precipitated by unfounded allegations of black men assaulting white women.  This compounded interracial tensions created by a job shortage with employers playing black workers against white workers.  Ten thousand whites rampaged through Atlanta, beating every black person in sight, resulting in over 25 deaths.  In the aftermath of the 1906 violence, Du Bois urged blacks to withdraw their support from the Republican Party because Republicans Roosevelt and William Howard Taft did not support blacks.  Up to that time, most African Americans had been loyal to the Republican Party, since the time of Abraham Lincoln.

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W.E.B Du Bois, addresses the World Congress of Partisans of Peace at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, April, 1949

Du Bois wrote the essay, "A Litany at Atlanta", which asserted that the riot demonstrated that the Atlanta Compromise was a failure because, despite upholding their end of the bargain, blacks had failed to receive legal justice.  The Compromise was no longer effective because, according to historian David Lewis, “white patrician plantation owners who originally agreed to the compromise had been replaced by aggressive businessmen who were willing to pit blacks against whites”.  These two calamities were watershed events for the African-American community, and they marked the downfall of Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" and the ascendancy of W.E.B Du Bois' vision of equal rights.

Academic work

In addition to writing editorials, W.E.B. Du Bois continued to produce scholarly work at Atlanta University.  In 1909, after five years of effort, he published a biography of John Brown.  It contained many insights, but also contained some factual errors.  The work was strongly criticized by The Nation, which was owned by Oswald Villard, an author who was writing a competing biography of John Brown.  White scholars largely ignored Du Bois’s work.  After he published a piece in Collier's magazine warning of the “end of white supremacy", he had difficulty getting pieces accepted by major periodicals. However, he continued to publish columns regularly in The Horizon Magazine.

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W.E.B Du Bois, with the Editorial and Advisory Boards of the Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1936 

Du Bois was the first African American invited by the American Historical Association (AHA) to present a paper at their annual conference.  He read his paper, “Reconstruction and Its Benefits”, to an astounded audience at the AHA's December 1909 conference.  The paper went against the mainstream historical view that Reconstruction was a disaster, caused by the ineptitude and sloth of blacks.  To the contrary, Du Bois asserted that the brief period of African-American leadership in the South accomplished three important goals: democracy, free public schools, and new social legislation.  The paper further asserted that it was the federal government's failure to manage the Freedman's Bureau, to distribute land, and to establish an educational system, that doomed African-American prospects in the South.  When Du Bois submitted the paper for publication a few months later in the American Historical Review, he asked that the word Negro be capitalized. The editor, J. Franklin Jameson, refused, and published the paper without the capitalization.  White historians subsequently ignored the paper.   Du Bois's paper would later evolve into his groundbreaking 1935 book, Black Reconstruction.  The AHA did not invite another African-American speaker again until 1940.

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W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1929 


In May 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York.  The meeting led to the creation of the National Negro Committee, chaired by Oswald Villard, and dedicated to campaigning for civil rights, equal voting rights, and equal educational opportunities.  The following spring, in 1910, at the second National Negro Conference, the attendees created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  At Du Bois's suggestion, the word "colored", rather than "black", was used to include "dark skinned people everywhere."  Dozens of civil rights supporters, black and white, participated in the founding, but most executive officers were white, including Mary OvingtonCharles Edward RussellWilliam English Walling, and its first president Moorfield Storey.

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W.E.B Du Bois, circa. 1911 

NAACP leaders offered W.E.B. Du Bois the position of Director of Publicity and Research.  He accepted the job in the summer of 1910, and moved to New York after resigning from Atlanta University.  His primary duty was editing the NAACP's monthly magazine, which he named The Crisis.  The first issue appeared in November 1910, and Du Bois pronounced that its aim was to set out "those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people."  The journal was phenomenally successful, and its circulation would reach 100,000 by 1920.  Typical articles in the early editions included one that inveighed against the dishonesty and parochialism of black churches, and one that discussed the Afrocentric origins of Egyptian civilization. 

An important Du Bois-editorial in 1911 helped to initiate a nationwide push to induce the Federal government to outlaw lynching.  Du Bois, employing the sarcasm he frequently used, commented on a lynching in Pennsylvania:  "The point is he was black.  Blackness must be punished.  Blackness is the crime of crimes ... It is therefore necessary, as every white scoundrel in the nation knows, to let slip no opportunity of punishing this crime of crimes.  Of course if possible, the pretext should be great and overwhelming – some awful stunning crime, made even more horrible by the reporters' imagination.  Failing this, mere murder, arson, barn burning or impudence may do."

The Crisis carried editorials by Du Bois that supported the ideals of unionized labor but excoriated the racism demonstrated by its leaders, who systematically excluded blacks from membership.  Du Bois also supported the principles of the Socialist party (he was briefly a member of the party from 1910–12), but he denounced the racism demonstrated by some socialist leaders.  Frustrated by Republican president Taft's failure to address widespread lynching, Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential race, in exchange for Wilson's promise to support black causes.

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W.E.B. Du Bois and the Wings of Atlanta: A Commemorative at Clark Atlanta University

Throughout his writings, Du Bois supported women's rights, but he found it difficult to publicly endorse the women's right-to-vote movement because leaders of the suffragist movement refused to support his fight against racial injustice.  A Crisis editorial from 1913 broached the taboo subject of interracial marriage:  Although Du Bois generally expected persons to marry within their race, he viewed the problem as a women's rights issue, because laws prohibited white men from marrying black women.  Du Bois wrote "anti-miscegenation laws leave the colored girls absolutely helpless for the lust of white men.  It reduces colored women in the eyes of the law to the position of dogs.  As low as the white girl falls, she can compel her seducer to marry her...  We must kill [anti-miscegenation laws] not because we are anxious to marry the white men's sisters, but because we are determined that white men will leave our sisters alone." 

During the years 1915 and 1916, some leaders of the NAACP – disturbed by financial losses at The Crisis, and worried about the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its essays – attempted to oust Du Bois from his editorial position.  Du Bois and his supporters prevailed, and he continued in his role as editor.

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Du Bois included photographs of the lynching of Jesse Washington in the June 1916 issue of The Crisis.

Historian and author

The 1910s were a productive time for Du Bois.  In 1911 he attended the First Universal Races Congress in London and he published his first novel, “The Quest of the Silver Fleece”.  Two years later, Du Bois wrote, produced, and directed a pageant for the stage, The Star of Ethiopia.  In 1915, Du Bois published The Negro, a general history of black Africans, and the first of its kind in English.  The book rebutted claims of African inferiority, and would come to serve as the basis of much Afro-centric historiography in the 20th century.  “The Negro” predicted unity and solidarity for colored people around the world, and it influenced many who supported the Pan-African movement.

In 1915, Atlantic Monthly carried "The African Roots of the War", an essay by Du Bois, which consolidated Du Bois' ideas on capitalism and race.  In it, he argued that the scramble for Africa was at the root of World War I.  He also anticipated later Communist doctrine, by suggesting that wealthy capitalists had pacified white workers by giving them just enough wealth to prevent them from revolting, and by threatening them with competition by the lower-cost labor of colored workers.

Combating racism

Du Bois used his influential role in the NAACP to oppose a variety of racist incidents. When the silent film The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, Du Bois and the NAACP led the fight to ban the movie, because of its racist portrayal of blacks as brutish and lustful.  The fight was not successful, and possibly contributed to the film's fame, but the publicity drew many new supporters to the NAACP.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Nina Gomer, and James Weldom Johnson

The private sector was not the only source of racism: under President Wilson, the plight of African Americans in government jobs suffered.  Many federal agencies adopted whites-only employment practices.  The Army excluded blacks from officer ranks, and the immigration service prohibited the immigration of persons of African ancestry.  Du Bois wrote an editorial in 1914 deploring the dismissal of blacks from federal posts, and he supported William Monroe Trotter when Trotter brusquely confronted Wilson about Wilson's failure to fulfill his campaign promise of justice for blacks.

The Crisis continued to wage a campaign against lynching.  In 1915, it published an article with a year-by-year tabulation of 2,732 lynchings from 1884 to 1914.   The April 1916 edition covered the group lynching of six African Americans in Lee County, Georgia.  Later in 1916, the "Waco Horror" article covering the lynching of Jesse Washington, a mentally impaired 17-year-old African American.   The article broke new ground by utilizing undercover reporting to expose the conduct of local whites in Waco 

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W.E.B. Du Bois 

The early 20th century was the era of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the Northeast, Midwest and West.  Du Bois wrote an editorial supporting the Great Migration, because he felt it would help blacks escape Southern racism, find economic opportunities, and assimilate into American society.

World War I

As the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917, Du Bois's colleague in the NAACP, Joel Spingarn, established a camp to train African Americans to serve as officers in the United States military.   The camp was controversial, because some whites felt that blacks were not qualified to be officers, and some blacks felt that African Americans should not participate in what they considered a white man's war.   Du Bois supported Spingarn's training camp, but was disappointed when the Army forcibly retired one of its few black officers, Charles Young, on a pretense of ill health.  The Army agreed to create 1,000 officer positions for blacks, but insisted that 250 come from enlisted men, conditioned to taking orders from whites, rather than from independent-minded blacks that came from the camp.  Over 700,000 blacks enlisted on the first day of the draft, but were subject to discriminatory conditions, which prompted vocal protests from Du Bois.

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Du Bois organized the 1917 Silent Parade in New York, to protest the East St. Louis Riot

After the East St. Louis Riot occurred in the summer of 1917, Du Bois traveled to St. Louis to report on the riots.  Between 40 and 250 African Americans were massacred by whites, primarily due to resentment caused by St. Louis industry hiring blacks to replace striking white workers.  Du Bois's reporting resulted in an article "The Massacre of East St. Louis", published in the September issue of The Crisis, which contained photographs and interviews detailing the violence.  To publicly demonstrate the black community's outrage over the St Louis riot, Du Bois organized the Silent Parade, a march of around 9,000 African Americans down New York's Fifth avenue, the first parade of its kind in New York, and the second instance of blacks publicly demonstrating for civil rights.

The Houston Riot of 1917 disturbed Du Bois and was a major setback to efforts to permit African Americans to become military officers.  The riot began after Houston police arrested and beat two black soldiers and in response, over 100 black soldiers took to the streets of Houston and killed 16 whites.  A military court martial was held, and 19 of the soldiers were hung, and 67 others were imprisoned. In spite of the Houston Riot, Du Bois and others successfully pressed the Army to accept the officers trained at Spingarn's camp, resulting in over 600 black officers joining the Army in October 1917.

Federal officials, concerned about subversive viewpoints expressed by NAACP leaders, attempted to frighten the NAACP by threatening it with investigations.  Du Bois was not intimidated, and in 1918 he predicted that World War I would lead to an overthrow of the European colonial system and to the liberation of colored people worldwide – in China, in India, and especially in America.  

NAACP chairman Joel Spingarn was enthusiastic about the war, and he persuaded Du Bois to consider an officer's commission in the Army, contingent on Du Bois's writing an editorial repudiating his anti-war stance.  Du Bois accepted this bargain and wrote the pro-war "Close Ranks" editorial in June 1918 and soon thereafter he received a commission in the Army.  Many black leaders, who wanted to leverage the war to gain civil rights for African Americans, criticized Du Bois for his sudden reversal.  Southern officers in Du Bois's unit objected to his presence, and his commission was withdrawn.

After the war

When the war ended, Du Bois traveled to Europe in 1919 to attend the first Pan-African Congress and to interview African-American soldiers for a planned book on their experiences in World War I.  U.S. agents who were searching for evidence of treasonous activities trailed him.  Du Bois discovered that the vast majority of black American soldiers were relegated to menial labor as stevedores and laborers.  Some units were armed, and one in particular, the 92nd Division (the Buffalo soldiers), engaged in combat.  Du Bois discovered widespread racism in the Army, and concluded that the Army Command discouraged African Americans from joining the Army, discredited the accomplishments of black soldiers, and promoted bigotry.


Du Bois documented the 1919 Red Summer race riots. This family is evacuating their house after it was vandalized in the Chicago Race Riot.

After returning from Europe, Du Bois was more determined than ever to gain equal rights for African Americans.  Black soldiers returning from overseas felt a new sense of power and worth, and were representative of an emerging attitude referred to as the New Negro.  In the editorial "Returning Soldiers" he wrote: "But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land."

Many blacks moved to northern cities in search of work, and some northern white workers resented the competition.  This labor strife was one of the causes of the Red Summer of 1919, a horrific series of race riots across America, in which over 300 African Americans were killed in over 30 cities.  Du Bois documented the atrocities in the pages of The Crisis, culminating in the December publication of a gruesome photograph of a lynching that occurred during the Omaha, Nebraska race riot.

The most egregious episode during the Red Summer was a vicious attack on blacks in Elaine, Arkansas, in which nearly 200 blacks were murdered.  Reports coming out of the South blamed the blacks, alleging that they were conspiring to take over the government.  Infuriated with the distortions, Du Bois published a letter in the New York World, claiming that the only crime the black sharecroppers had committed was "daring to challenge their white landlords by hiring an attorney to investigate contractual irregularities".  Over 60 of the surviving blacks were arrested and tried for conspiracy, in the case known as Moore v. Dempsey.  Du Bois rallied blacks across America to raise funds for the legal defense, which, six years later, resulted in a Supreme Court victory authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes.   Although the victory had little immediate impact on justice for blacks in the South, it marked the first time the Federal government had used the 14th amendment guarantee of due process to prevent states from shielding mob violence.


Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, first edition cover, 1920

In 1920, Du Bois published Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, the first of three autobiographies he would write. The veil was that which covered colored people around the world.  In the book, he hoped to lift the veil and show white readers what life was like behind the veil, and how it distorted the viewpoints of those looking through it – in both directions.  The book contained Du Bois's feminist essay, "The Damnation of Women", which was a tribute to the dignity and worth of women, particularly black women.

Concerned that textbooks used by African-American children ignored black history and culture, Du Bois created a monthly children's magazine, “The Brownies' Book".  Initially published in 1920, it was aimed at black children, who Du Bois called "The children of the sun."

Pan-Africanism and Marcus Garvey

garvey dubois

Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois 

Du Bois traveled to Europe in 1921 to attend the second Pan-African Congress.   The assembled black leaders from around the world issued the London Resolutions and established a Pan-African Association headquarters in Paris.  Under Du Bois's guidance, the resolutions insisted on racial equality, and that Africa be ruled by Africans (not, as in the 1919 congress, with the consent of Africans).  Du Bois restated the resolutions of the congress in his Manifesto “To the League of Nations”, which implored the newly formed League of Nations to address labor issues and to appoint Africans to key posts.  The League took little action on the requests.

Another important African American leader of the 1920s was Marcus Garvey, promoter of the Back-to-Africa movement and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).  Garvey denounced Du Bois's efforts to achieve equality through integration, and instead endorsed racial separatism.  Du Bois initially supported the concept of Garvey's Black Star Line, a shipping company that was intended to facilitate commerce within the African diaspora. But Du Bois later became concerned that Garvey was threatening the NAACP's efforts, leading Du Bois to describe him as fraudulent and reckless.   Responding to Garvey's slogan "Africa for the Africans" slogan, Du Bois said that he supported that concept, but denounced Garvey's intention that “Africa be ruled by African Americans.”  Du Bois wrote a series of articles in The Crisis between 1922 and 1924, attacking Garvey's movement, calling him the "most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world."  Du Bois and Garvey never made a serious attempt to collaborate, and their dispute was partly rooted in the desire of their respective organizations (NAACP and UNIA) to capture a larger portion of the available philanthropic funding.

Harvard's decision to ban blacks from its dormitories in 1921 was decried by Du Bois as an instance of a broad effort in the U.S. to renew "the Anglo-Saxon cult; the worship of the Nordic totem, the disfranchisement of the Negro, Jews, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiate, and South Sea islander – the world rule of Nordic white through brute force”

When W.E.B Du Bois sailed for Europe in 1923 for the third Pan-African Congress, the circulation of The Crisis had declined to 60,000 from its World War I high of 100,000, but it remained the preeminent periodical of the civil rights movement.  President Coolidge designated Du Bois an "Envoy Extraordinary" to Liberia and after the third congress concluded, Du Bois rode a German freighter from the Canary Islands to Africa, visiting Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.


W.E.B. Du Bois with Paul Robeson

Harlem Renaissance

Du Bois frequently promoted African-American artistic creativity in his writings, and when the Harlem Renaissance emerged in the mid 1920s, his article "A Negro Art Renaissance" celebrated the end of the long hiatus of blacks from creative endeavors.  His enthusiasm for the Harlem Renaissance waned as he came to believe that many whites visited Harlem for voyeurism, not for genuine appreciation of black art.   Du Bois insisted that artists recognize their moral responsibilities, writing that, "A black artist is first of all a black artist." He was also concerned that black artists were not using their art to promote black causes, saying, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda."  By the end of 1926, he stopped employing The Crisis to support the arts.


Nine years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Du Bois extended a trip to Europe to include a visit to the Soviet Union.  Du Bois was struck by the poverty and disorganization he encountered in the Soviet Union, yet was impressed by the intense labors of the officials and by the recognition given to workers. Although Du Bois was not yet familiar with the communist theories of Marx or Lenin, he concluded that socialism might be a better path towards racial equality than capitalism. 

Although Du Bois generally endorsed socialist principles, his politics were strictly pragmatic:  In 1929, Du Bois endorsed Democrat Jimmy Walker for mayor of New York rather than the socialist Norman Thomas, believing that Walker could do more immediate good for blacks, even though Thomas' platform was more consistent with Du Bois's views.  Throughout the 1920s, Du Bois and the NAACP shifted support back and forth between the Republican  and Democratic Party, induced by promises from the candidates to fight lynchings, improve working conditions, or support voting rights in the South.  Invariably, the candidates failed to deliver on their promises once elected.

A rivalry emerged in 1931 between the NAACP and the Communist party, when the Communist party responded quickly and effectively to support the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American youth arrested in 1931 in Alabama for rape.  Du Bois and the NAACP felt that the case would be not particularly beneficial to their cause, so they chose to let the Communist party organize the defense efforts.  Du Bois was impressed with the vast amount of publicity and funds the Communists devoted to the partially successful defense effort, and he came to suspect that the Communists were attempting to present their party to African Americans as a better solution than the NAACP.  Responding to criticisms of the NAACP from the Communist party, Du Bois wrote articles condemning the party, claiming that it unfairly attacked the NAACP, and that it failed to fully appreciate racism in the United States.  The Communist leaders, in turn, accused Du Bois of being a "class enemy", and claimed that the NAACP leadership was an isolated elite, disconnected from the working-class blacks they ostensibly fought for.

Return to Atlanta

W.E.B Du Bois did not have a good working relationship with Walter Francis White, president of the NAACP since 1931.  That conflict, combined with the financial stresses of the Great Depression, precipitated a power struggle over The Crisis.  Du Bois, concerned that his position as editor would be eliminated, resigned his job at The Crisis and accepted an academic position at Atlanta University in early 1933.  The rift with the NAACP grew larger in 1934 when Du Bois reversed his stance on segregation, stating that separate but equal was an acceptable goal for African Americans.  The NAACP leadership was stunned, and asked Du Bois to retract his statement, but he refused, and the dispute led to Du Bois's resignation from the NAACP.


W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis

After arriving at his new professorship in Atlanta, Du Bois wrote a series of articles generally supportive of Marxism.  He was not a strong proponent of labor unions or the Communist party, but he felt that Marx's scientific explanation of society and the economy were useful for explaining the situation of African Americans in the United States.  Marx's atheism also struck a chord with Du Bois, who routinely criticized black churches for dulling blacks' sensitivity to racism. In his 1933 writings, Du Bois embraced socialism, but he asserted, “Colored labor has no common ground with white labor".  This was a controversial position that was rooted in Du Bois's dislike of American labor unions, which had systematically excluded blacks for decades.   Du Bois did not support the Communist party in the U.S. and did not vote for their candidate in the 1932 presidential election, in spite of an African American on their ticket.

Black Reconstruction in America

Back in the world of academia, Du Bois was able to resume his study of Reconstruction, the topic of the 1910 paper that he presented to the American Historical Association.  In 1935, he published “Black Reconstruction in America”.  The book presented the thesis, in the words of the historian David Levering Lewis, that "black people, suddenly admitted to citizenship in an environment of feral hostility, displayed admirable volition and intelligence as well as the indolence and ignorance inherent in three centuries of bondage." 

Du Bois documented how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and he also showed how they made alliances with white politicians.  He provided evidence to show that the coalition governments established public education in the South, as well as many needed social service programs.  The book also demonstrated the ways in which black emancipation – the crux of Reconstruction – promoted a radical restructuring of United States society, as well as how and why the country failed to continue support for civil rights for blacks in the aftermath of Reconstruction.  The book's thesis ran counter to the orthodox interpretation of Reconstruction maintained by white historians, and the book was virtually ignored by mainstream historians until the 1960s.  Thereafter, however, it ignited a "revisionist" trend in the historiography of Reconstruction, which emphasized black people's search for freedom and the era's radical policy changes.  By the twenty-first century, Black Reconstruction was widely perceived as ‘the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.’


W.E.B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 

In 1932, Du Bois was selected by several philanthropies – including the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, and the General Education Board – to be the managing editor for a proposed Encyclopedia of the Negro, a work Du Bois had been contemplating for 30 years.  After several years of planning and organizing, the philanthropies cancelled the project in 1938, because some board members believed that Du Bois was too biased to produce an objective encyclopedia.

Trip around the world

Du Bois took a trip around the world in 1936, which included visits to Nazi Germany, China and Japan.   While in Germany, Du Bois remarked that he was treated with warmth and respect, but on his return to the United States, he voiced his ambivalence about the Nazi regime.  He admired how the Nazis had improved the German economy, but he was horrified by their treatment of the Jewish people, which he described as "an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade."

Following the 1905 Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Du Bois became impressed by the growing strength of Imperial Japan.  He saw the victory of Japan over Tsarist Russia as an example of colored peoples defeating white peoples.  A representative of Japan's "Negro Propaganda Operations" traveled to the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, meeting with Du Bois and giving him a positive impression of Imperial Japan's racial policies.  In 1936, the Japanese ambassador arranged a trip to Japan for Du Bois and a small group of academics.

World War II

Du Bois opposed the U.S. intervention in World War II, particularly in the Pacific, because he believed that China and Japan were emerging from the clutches of white imperialists, and he felt that waging war against Japan was an opportunity for whites to reestablish their influence in Asia.  The government's plan for African Americans in the armed forces was a major blow to Du Bois.  Blacks were limited to 5.8 percent of the force, and there were to be no African-American combat units – virtually the same restrictions as in World War I.  Blacks threatened to shift their support to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's opponent in the 1940 election, so Roosevelt appointed a few blacks to leadership posts in the military.  

W.E.B. Du Bois's second autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, was published in 1940.  The title refers to Du Bois's hope that African Americans were passing out of the darkness of racism into an era of greater equality.  The work is part autobiography, part history, and part sociological treatise.  Du Bois described the book as "the autobiography of a concept of race ... elucidated and magnified and doubtless distorted in the thoughts and deeds which were mine ... Thus for all time my life is significant for all lives of men."

dusk of dawn

W.E.B. Du Bois, Autobiography: “Dusk of Dawn”

In 1943, at the age of 76, college president Rufus Clement, abruptly terminated Du Bois's employment at Atlanta University.  Many scholars expressed outrage, prompting Atlanta University to provide Du Bois with a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus.  Arthur Spingarn remarked that Du Bois spent his time in Atlanta "battering his life out against ignorance, bigotry, intolerance and slothfulness, projecting ideas nobody but he understands, and raising hopes for change which may be comprehended in a hundred years."  

Turning down job offers from Fisk and Howard, Du Bois re-joined the NAACP as director of the Department of Special Research.  Surprising many NAACP leaders, Du Bois jumped into the job with vigor and determination.  During the ten years while Du Bois was away from the NAACP, its income had increased fourfold, and its membership had soared to 325,000 members.


Du Bois in 1946, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Later life

W.E.B. Du Bois was a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP that attended the 1945 conference in San Francisco at which the United Nations was established. The NAACP delegation wanted the United Nations to endorse racial equality and to bring an end to the colonial era.  To push the United Nations in that direction, Du Bois drafted a proposal that pronounced "the colonial system of government ... is undemocratic, socially dangerous and a main cause of wars."   The NAACP proposal received support from China, Russia and India, but it was virtually ignored by the other major powers.  The proposals were not included in the United Nations charter.

After the United Nations conference, Du Bois published “Color and Democracy”, a book that attacked colonial empires and, in the words of one reviewer, "contains enough dynamite to blow up the whole vicious system whereby we have comforted our white souls and lined the pockets of generations of free-booting capitalists." 


W.E.B. Dubois, with attroney (Congressman) Vito Marcantonio

In late 1945, W.E.B. Du Bois attended the fifth, and final, Pan-African Congress, in Manchester, England.  The congress was the most productive of the five congresses, and it was there that Du Bois met Kwame Nkrumah, the future first president of Ghana who would later invite Du Bois to Africa.

Cold War

When the Cold War commenced in the mid 1940s, the NAACP distanced itself from Communists, knowing its funding or reputation would suffer.  The NAACP redoubled their efforts in 1947 after Life magazine published a piece by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. claiming that the NAACP was heavily influenced by Communists.   Ignoring the NAACP's desires, Du Bois continued to fraternize with communist sympathizers such as Paul RobesonHoward Fast and Shirley Graham (his future second wife). Du Bois wrote "I am not a communist ... On the other hand, I ... believe ... that Karl Marx ... put his finger squarely upon our difficulties ..."  

In 1946, Du Bois wrote articles giving his assessment of the Soviet Union.  He did not embrace communism and he criticized its dictatorship.  However, he felt that capitalism was responsible for poverty and racism, and he felt that socialism was an alternative that might ameliorate those problems.  The Soviets explicitly rejected racial distinctions and class distinctions, leading Du Bois to conclude that the USSR was the "most hopeful country on earth."  Du Bois's association with prominent communists made him a liability for the NAACP, especially since the FBI was starting to aggressively investigate communist sympathizers.  By mutual agreement Du Bois resigned from the NAACP for the second time in late 1948.  After departing the NAACP, Du Bois started writing regularly for the leftist weekly newspaper the National Guardian, a relationship that would endure until 1961.

shirley dubois

W. E. B. and Shirley DuBois on board the SS Liberté, courtesy 

Peace activism

Du Bois was a lifelong anti-war activist, but his efforts became more pronounced after World War II.  In 1949, Du Bois spoke at the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace in New York and stated, "I tell you, people of America, the dark world is on the move! It wants and will have Freedom, Autonomy and Equality.  It will not be diverted in these fundamental rights by dialectical splitting of political hairs ... Whites may, if they will, arm themselves for suicide.  But the vast majority of the world's peoples will march on over them to freedom!".  In the spring of 1949, he spoke at World Congress of the Partisans of Peace in Paris, saying to the large crowd, "Leading this new colonial imperialism comes my own native land built by my father's toil and blood, the United States. The United States is a great nation; rich by grace of God and prosperous by the hard work of its humblest citizens ... Drunk with power we are leading the world to hell in a new colonialism with the same old human slavery which once ruined us; and to a third World War which will ruin the world."  Du Bois affiliated himself with a leftist organization, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, and he traveled to Moscow as its representative to speak at the All-Soviet Peace Conference in late 1949.


Du Bois (center) and other defendants from the Peace Information Center prepare for their trial in 1951.


During the 1950s, the U.S. government's anti-communist McCarthyism campaign targeted Du Bois because of his socialist leanings.  Historian Manning Marable characterizes the government's treatment of Du Bois as "ruthless repression" and a "political assassination"

The FBI began to compile a file on Du Bois in 1942 but the most aggressive government attack against Du Bois occurred in the early 1950s, as a consequence of Du Bois's opposition to nuclear weapons.  In 1950 Du Bois became chairman of the newly created Peace Information Center (PIC), which worked to publicize the Stockholm Peace Appeal in the United States.   The primary purpose of the appeal was to gather signatures on a petition, asking governments around the world to ban all nuclear weapons.  The U.S. Justice department alleged that the PIC was acting as an agent of a foreign state, and thus required the PIC to register with the federal government.  Du Bois and other PIC leaders refused, and they were indicted for failure to register.  After the indictment, some of Du Bois's associates distanced themselves from him, and the NAACP refused to issue a statement of support, but many labor figures and leftists – including Langston Hughes, supported Du Bois.   After a trial in 1951, with defense attorney Vito Marcantonio arguing the case, the case was dismissed.  Even though Du Bois was not convicted, the government confiscated Du Bois's passport and withheld it for eight years.

color line

W.E.B. Dubois - "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” 


Du Bois was bitterly disappointed that many of his colleagues – particularly the NAACP – did not support him during his 1951 PIC trial, whereas working class whites and blacks supported him enthusiastically.  After the trial, Du Bois lived in Manhattan, writing and speaking, and continuing to associate primarily with leftist acquaintances. His primary concern was world peace, and he railed against military actions, such as the Korean War, which he viewed as efforts by imperialist whites to maintain colored people in a submissive state.


Du Bois meets with Mao Zedong in China in 1959.

In 1950, at the age of 82, W.E.B Du Bois ran for U.S. Senator from New York on the American Labor Party ticket and received about 200,000 votes, or 4% of the statewide total.  Du Bois continued to believe that capitalism was the primary culprit responsible for the subjugation of colored people around the world, and therefore, although he recognized the faults of the Soviet Union, he continued to uphold communism as a possible solution to racial problems.  In the words of biographer David Lewis, Du Bois did not endorse communism for its own sake, but did so because "the enemies of his enemies were his friends."

The U.S. government prevented Du Bois from attending the 1955 Bandung conference in Indonesia. The conference was the culmination of 40 years of Du Bois's dreams – a meeting of 29 nations from Africa and Asia, many recently independent, representing most of the world's colored peoples.   The conference celebrated their independence, as the nations began to assert their power as non-aligned nations during the cold war.  In 1958, Du Bois regained his passport, and with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, he traveled around the world, visiting Russia and China.  In both countries he was celebrated and given guided tours of the best aspects of communism.  Du Bois was blind to the defects of his host nations – even though he toured China during the tragic Great Leap Forward – and he later wrote approvingly of the conditions in both countries.  He was 90 years old.

Du Bois became incensed in 1961 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1950 McCarran Act, a key piece of McCarthyism legislation that required communists to register with the government.  To demonstrate his outrage, he joined the Communist party in October 1961, at the age of 93. Around that time, he wrote, "I believe in communism. I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part."


web dubois 5

W.E.B. Du Bois

Although Du Bois attended the New England Congregational church as a child, he abandoned organized religion while at Fisk College.  As an adult, he described himself as agnostic or a freethinker, and biographer David Lewis concluded that Du Bois was virtually an atheist.  When asked to lead public prayers, Du Bois would refuse.  In his autobiography, he wrote: "When I became head of a department at Atlanta, the engagement was held up because again I balked at leading in prayer ... I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. ... I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Union to modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy and the refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools."  Du Bois believed that churches in America were the most discriminatory of all institutions.

Du Bois occasionally acknowledged the beneficial role religion played in African-American life as the "basic rock" which served as an anchor for African-American communities.  But in general he disparaged African-American churches and clergy because he felt they did not support the goals of racial equality and they hindered the efforts of activists.  Although Du Bois was not personally religious, he infused his writings with religious symbols, and many of his contemporaries viewed him as a prophet.   His 1904 prose poem, "Credo", was written in the style of a religious creed and was widely read by the African-American community.


Du Bois (center) at his 95th birthday party in 1963 in Ghana, with President of the Republic of Ghana Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (right) and First Lady Fathia Nkrumah.

Death in Africa

Ghana invited Du Bois to Africa to participate in their independence celebration in 1957, but he was unable to attend because the U.S. government had confiscated his passport in 1951.  By 1960, Du Bois had recovered his passport, and was able to cross the Atlantic and celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana.  Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.

While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with its president about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana.  In early 1961, Ghana notified Du Bois that they had appropriated funds to support the encyclopedia project, and they invited Du Bois to come to Ghana and manage the project there.  In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife traveled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia.  In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he made the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana.  His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana, and he died on August 27, 1963, in the town of Accra at the age of 95.  Du Bois was buried in Accra near his home, which is now the Du Bois Memorial Centre.   A day after his death, at the March on Washington, speaker Roy Wilkins asked the hundreds of thousands of marchers to honor Du Bois with a moment of silence.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964, embodying many of the reforms Du Bois had campaigned for his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.


W. E. B. Du Bois (holding cane) with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah in 1962 (courtesy of the encyclopedia of immigration) 

Personal life

Du Bois was organized and disciplined: His lifelong regimen was to rise at 7:15, work until 5, eat dinner and read a newspaper until 7, then read or socialize until he was in bed, invariably before 10.  He was a meticulous planner, and frequently mapped out his schedules and goals on large pieces of graph paper.  Many acquaintances found him to be distant and aloof, and he insisted on being addressed as "Dr. Du Bois".  Although he was not gregarious, he formed several close friendships with associates such as Charles YoungPaul Laurence DunbarJohn Hope and Mary Ovington.  His closest friend was Joel Spingarn – a white man – but Du Bois never accepted Spingarn's offer to be on a first name basis.  Du Bois was something of a dandy - he dressed formally, carried a walking stick, and walked with an air of confidence and dignity.  He was relatively short – 5' 5½" (1.7 m) – and always maintained a well-groomed mustache and goatee.  He was a good singer and enjoyed playing tennis.

Du Bois was married twice, first to Nina Gomer (m. 1896, d. 1950), with whom he had two children, a son Burghardt (who died as an infant) and a daughter Yolande, who married Countee Cullen.  As a widower, he married Shirley Graham (m. 1951, d. 1977), an author, playwright, composer and activist.  She brought her son David Graham to the marriage.  David grew close to Du Bois and took his stepfather's name; he also worked for African-American causes. 

Mary White Ovington

W. E. B. Du Bois, with Mary White Ovington, was honored with a medallion in The Extra Mile


Non-fiction books

  • The Study of the Negro Problems
  • The Philadelphia Negro
  • The Negro in Business
  • The Souls of Black Folk
  • The Talented Tenth,
  • Voice of the Negro II
  • John Brown: A Biography
  • Efforts for Social Betterment among Negro Americans
  • Atlanta University's Studies of the Negro Problem
  • The Negro
  • The Gift of Black Folk
  • Africa, Its Geography, People and Products
  • Africa: Its Place in Modern History
  • Black Reconstruction in America
  • What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas
  • Black Folk, Then and Now
  • Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace
  • The Encyclopedia of the Negro
  • The World and Africa
  • The World and Africa, an Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (1947)
  • Peace Is Dangerous
  • I Take My Stand for Peace
  • In Battle for Peace
  • Africa in Battle Against Colonialism, Racialism, Imperialism



 Archives of The Crisis




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  • Horne,
  • Lewis,
  • Lewis, p. 21. Du Bois suggests that Mary's family drove Alfred away.
  • Rabaka, Reiland (2007), W.E.B. Du Bois and the Problems of the Twenty-first Century: An Essay on Africana Critical Theory, Lexington Books, p. 165.
    Cebula, Tim, "Great Barrington", in Young, p. 91.
    Lomotey, Kofi (2009), Encyclopedia of African American education, Volume 1, SAGE, p. 230.
  • Lewis, Catharine, "Fisk University", in Young,
  • Lewis, pp. 69–80 (degree); p. 69 (funding); p. 82 (inheritance). Du Bois was the sixth African American to be admitted to Harvard.
  • Williams, Yvonne, "Harvard", in Young, p. 99.
    His dissertation was The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870.
  • Quoted by Lewis, pp. 143–145.
  • Gibson, Todd, "University of Pennsylvania", in Young, p. 210.
    Lewis, p. 126. Nina Gomer Du Bois did not play a significant role in Du Bois's activism or career (see Lewis, pp. 135, 152–154, 232, 287–290 296–301, 404–406, 522–525, 628–630).
  • Lewis, pp. 128–129. Du Bois resented never receiving an offer for a teaching position at Penn.
  • Lewis, p. 123. The paper he presented was titled The Conservation of Races.
  • Donaldson, Shawn, "The Philadelphia Negro", in Young, p. 165.
  • Lewis, pp. 140, 148 (underclass), 141 (slavery).
  • Lewis, pp. 161, 235 (Department of Labor); p. 141 (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
  • Harlan, Louis R. (2006), "A Black Leader in the Age of Jim Crow", in The racial politics of Booker T. Washington, Donald Cunnigen, Rutledge M. Dennis, Myrtle Gonza Glascoe (Eds.), Emerald Group Publishing, p. 26.
    Lewis, pp. 180–181.
    Logan, Rayford Whittingham (1997), The betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, Da Capo Press, pp. 275–313.
  • Harlan, Louis R. (1986), Booker T. Washington: the wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915, Oxford University Press, pp. 71–120.
    Croce, Paul, "Accommodation versus Struggle", in Young, pp. 1–3. Du Bois popularized the term "talented tenth" in a 1903 essay, but he was not the first to use it.
  • Croce, Paul, "Accommodation versus Struggle", in Young, pp. 1–3.
  • Lomotey,
  • Lewis, pp. 227–228. The Horizon lasted until 1910, when The Crisis began publication.
  • Ransom quoted by Lewis, p. 222.
  • Gibson, Todd, "The Souls of Black Folk", in Young.
    Lewis, p. 192. Du Bois quoted by Lewis.
  • VendeCreek, Drew, "John Brown", in Young, pp. 32–33.
  • Lewis, p. 244 (Colliers).
    Lewis, p. 249 (Horizon).
  • Quoted by Lewis, p. 230. Conference was in Oberlin, Ohio.
  • Lewis, David, "Beyond Exclusivity: Writing Race, Class, Gender into U.S. History", date unknown, New York University, Silver Dialogues series.
  • Bowles, Amy, "NAACP", in Young, pp. 141–144.
  • Quote from "Triumph", The Crisis, 2 (Sept 1911), p. 195.
  • Hancock, Ange-Marie, "Socialism/Communism", in Young, p. 196 (member).
    Lewis, p. 275 (denounced).
  • Lewis, p. 278. Wilson promised "to see justice done in every matter".
  • Donaldson, Shawn, "Women's Rights", in Young, pp. 219–221.
  • Du Bois quoted in Lubin, Alex (2005),Romance and Rights: The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945–1954, University Press of Mississippi, pp. 71–72.
  • Watts, Trent, "The Birth of a Nation", in Young, p. 28.
  • Lewis, p. 335 (editorial), p. 334 (Trotter).
  • Lewis, p. 335 ("The Lynching Industry" was in the Feb 1915 issue).
    See also the July 1916 article: "The Waco Horror" at Brown University libraryat Google Books
  • Wolters, pp. 115–116.
  • King, William, "Silent Protest Against Lynching", in Young, p. 191.
    The first was picketing against The Birth of a Nation.
  • Lewis, p. 355; p 384: About 1,000 black officers served during World War I.
  • The column was published in July, but written in June
  • Lewis, p. 363. The offer was for a role in Military Intelligence.
  • Lewis, p. 366. The commission was withdrawn before Du Bois could begin actual military service.
  • Lewis, pp. 367–368. The book, The Black Man and the Wounded World, was never published. Other authors covered the topic, such as Emmett Scott's Official history of the American Negro in the World War (1920).
  • Du Bois quoted in Williams, Chad (2010),Torchbearers of democracy: African American soldiers in World War I era, UNC Press Books, p. 207.
  • The sharecroppers were working with the Progressive.
  • Lewis, p. 391. The other two would be Dusk of Dawn
  • Du Bois, "The Black Star Line", Crisis, September 1922, pp. 210–214. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
  • Lewis, pp. 435–437. Quoted (from Aug 1911 The Crisis) by Lewis.
  • Lewis, p. 471 (frequent).
    Horne, Malika, "Art and Artists", in Young, pp. 13–15.
    Lewis, p. 475 (article).
  • Hamilton Neil (2002), American social leaders and activists, Infobase Publishing, p. 121.
    Du Bois, Jan 1946, quoted by Horne, Malika, "Art and Artists", in Young, pp. 13–15. Emphasis is in Du Bois's original.
  • Balaji, Murali (2007), The Professor and the Pupil: The Politics and Friendship of W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, Nation Books, pp. 70–71.
  • Lewis, pp. 549–550. Lewis states that Du Bois sometimes praised African-American spirituality, but not clergy or churches.
  • King, Richard H. (2004), Race, culture, and the intellectuals, 1940–1970, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, pp. 43–44.
    Lewis, p. 553. The person on the ticket was James W. Ford, running for vice president.
  • Lemert, Charles C. (2002), Dark thoughts: race and the eclipse of society, Psychology Press, pp. 227–229.
  • Aptheker, Herbert (1989), The literary legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, Kraus International Publications, p. 211 (Du Bois called the work his "magnum opus").
  • Lewis, pp. 585–590 (thorough), pp. 583, 593 (ignored).
  • Foner, Eric (1982-12-01). "Reconstruction Revisited". Reviews in American History10 (4): 82–100. doi:10.2307/2701820.ISSN0048-7511. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
  • "During the civil rights era, however, it became apparent that Du Bois's scholarship, despite some limitations, had been ahead of its time." Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser, Peter C. Mancall (2008-10-11). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xx. ISBN978-1-59884-021-6.
  • "W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1935/1998) Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 is commonly regarded as the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography." Bilbija, Marina (2011-09-01). "Democracy’s New Song". The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 637 (1): 64–77. doi:10.1177/0002716211407153.ISSN1552-3349 0002-7162, 1552-3349. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
  • Braley, Mark, "Encyclopedia Projects", in Young, pp. 73–78. Braley summarizes Du Bois's lifelong quest to create an encyclopedia.
  • Zacharasiewicz, Waldemar (2007), Images of Germany in American literature, University of Iowa Press, p. 120.
  • Fikes, Robert, "Germany", in Young, pp. 87–89.
    Broderick, Francis (1959), W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis, Stanford University Press, p. 192.
  • Jefferson, Alphine, "Antisemitism", in Young, p. 10.
    Du Bois quoted by Lewis, David (1995), W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader, p. 81.
    Original Du Bois source: Pittsburgh Courier, 19 December 1936.
  • Gallicchio, Marc S. (18 September 2000),The African American encounter with Japan and China: Black internationalism in Asia, 1895–1945, University of North Carolina Press, p. 104, ISBN978-0-8078-2559-4OCLC43334134
  • The military later changed its policy, and units such as the Tuskegee Airmen
  • Mostern, Kenneth, "Dusk of Dawn", in Young, pp. 65–66.
  • Du Bois quoted by Lewis, p. 637.
  • Spingarn, quoted by Lewis, p. 645.
  • Overstreet, H. A., Saturday Review, quoted in Lewis, p. 657.
  • Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, quoted by Hancock, "Socialism/Communism", in Young, p. 196. Quote is from 1940.
  • Schneider, Paul, "Peace Movement", in Young, p. 163. In his college days, Du Bois vowed to never take up arms.
  • Marable, p. xx.
  • Marable, p xx . ("ruthless repression").
    Marable, Manning (1991), Race, reform, and rebellion: the second Reconstruction in black America, University Press of Mississippi, p. 104 ("political assassination"). Marable quoted by Gabbidon, p. 55.
  • Gabbidon, p. 54.
  • Lieberman, Robbie (2000), The Strangest Dream: Communism, Anticommunism, and the U.S. Peace Movement, 1945–1963, Syracuse University Press, pp. 92–93.
    Gabbidon, p. 54: The government felt that the PIC was an agent of the USSR, although that country was never specifically identified.
  • Lewis, p. 692 (associates); p. 693 (NAACP); pp. 693–694 (support).
  • Du Bois's memoir of the trial is In Battle for Peace.
    The trial occurred in 1951, but the case was dismissed in 1952 before the jury rendered a verdict.
  • Lewis, pp. 696, 707. Du Bois refused to sign a non-Communist affidavit that would enable him to regain his passport.
  • Hancock, Ange-Marie, "Socialism/Communism", in Young, p. 197. The NAACP had a Legal Defense Fund
  • Mostern, Kenneth (2001), "Bandung Conference", in Young, pp. 23–24.
  • Du Bois (1968), Autobiography, p. 57; quoted by Hancock, Ange-Marie, "Socialism/Communism", in Young, p. 197.
  • Rabaka, p. 127 (freethinker).
    Lewis, p. 550 (agnostic, atheist).
    Johnson, passim (agnostic).
  • Johnson, p. 55.
  • Autobiography, p. 181. Quoted in Rabaka, p. 127.
  • Horne, Malika, "Religion", in Young, p. 181.
  • Horne, Malika, "Religion", in Young, pp. 181–182 ("basic rock").
    Lewis, p. 550.
  • Blum, Edward J. (2009), The Souls of W.E.B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections, Mercer University Press, pp. iii–xxi.
    For additional analysis of Du Bois and religion, see Blum, Edward J., (2007), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, University of Pennsylvania Press; and Kahn, Jonathon S. (2011), Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, Oxford University Press.
  • Lewis, pp. 212–213. "Credo" was reprinted in Du Bois's Darkwater(text available here).
  • Du Bois did not renounce is U.S. citizenship (Lewis, p. 841, footnote 39).
  • Bass, Amy (2009), Those about him remained silent: the battle over W.E.B. Du Bois, University of Minnesota Press, p. xiii.
  • Blum, Edward J. (2007), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 211.
  • Lewis, p. 54 (gregarious), p. 124 (Young and Dunbar), p. 177 (Hope), pp. 213, 234 (Ovington).
  • Lewis, pp. 316–324, 360–368 (Spingarn), p. 316 (best friend), p. 557 (first name basis).
  • Wolters pp. 14 (sing), 37 (tennis).
  • De Luca, Laura, "David Graham Du Bois", in Young, pp. 55–56.
  • Lingeman, Richard, Fire”, New York Times, November 5, 2000. Retrieved December 2, 2011. A review of The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963.
  • Mitchell, Verner D., "Raymond Wolters. 'Du Bois and His Rivals'", African-American Review, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 392–395.
  • Savage, Beth, (1994), African American Historic Places, John Wiley and Sons, p. 277.
  • Sama, Dominic, "New U.S. Issue Honors W.E.B. Du Bois", Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1992. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  • Han, John J. (2007), "W. E. B. Du Bois", in Encyclopedia of American race riots, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 181.
  • "Du Bois Center", Northern Arizona University. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  • "The History of W.E.B. Du Bois College House", University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  • Bloom, Harold (2001), W.E.B. Du Bois, Infobase Publishing, p. 244.
  • "W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures", Humboldt University. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  • Asante, Molefi Kete (2002), 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Prometheus Books, pp. 114–116.
  • "Noteworthy", The Crisis, Nov/Dec 2005, p. 64.
  • "Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints", Church Publishing, 2010. Retrieved November 20, 2011.


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Ida B. Wells



Ida B. Wells

Born June 16, 1862, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African-American journalist, black newspaper editor and, with her newspaper owner husband Ferdinand L. Barnett, an early leader in the civil rights movement.  She documented lynching in the United States, showing how it was often a way to control or punish blacks who competed with whites.  She was active in the women's rights and the women's suffrage movement, and she established several notable women's organizations.  Wells was a skilled and persuasive rhetorician, and traveled extensively internationally on lecture tours. 

Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, just before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to carpenter father James Wells and his wife Elizabeth "Lizzie" Warrenton Wells.  Both parents were enslaved until freed under the Proclamation, one year after she was born. 

Ida B Wells

Ida B. Wells 

Ida’s father James was a master at carpentry and known as a "race man", someone who worked for the advancement of blacks.  He was very interested in politics, and was a member of the Loyal League.  He attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates, but he never ran for office.  Her mother Elizabeth was a cook for the Bolling household before her death from yellow fever.  She was a religious woman who was very strict with her children.  Wells's parents took their children's education very seriously.  They wanted their children to take advantage of having the opportunity to be educated and to attend school.

Wells attended a school for freed people called Shaw University, now Rust College in Holly Springs.  She was expelled from the college for her rebellious behavior and temper after confronting the president of the college.  While visiting her grandmother in the Mississippi Valley in 1878, Wells received word that her hometown of Holly Springs had suffered a yellow fever epidemic.  At the age of 16, she lost both her parents and her youngest brother, 10-month old Stanley.  The 1878 epidemic swept through the South with many fatalities. 

ida b wells 2

 Ida B. Wells

Following the funerals, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be sent to various foster homes.  Wells resisted this solution.  To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she dropped out of Rust College and found work as a teacher in a black elementary school. (The schools were racially segregated.)  Her grandmother Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with the children during the week while she was away teaching.  Wells resented that white teachers were paid $80 a month in public schools when she was paid only $30 a month.  This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of blacks.

In 1883, Wells took three of her younger siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt and to be closer to other family members.  She found she could earn higher wages there as a teacher.  Soon after moving, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system. During her summer vacations, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Its graduates were well respected in the black community.  She also attended LeMoyne Institute.  Wells held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women's rights.  When she was 24, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."

Ida B Wells circa 1917

Ida B. Wells, circa 1917, her husband Ferdinand with son Ferdinand, Jr. (in uniform), who served in Europe.

On May 4, 1884, a train conductor Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers.  The year before, Supreme Court had struck down the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations.  Several railroad companies continued this illegal racial segregation of their passengers, especially when traveling in the South.  Wells refused to give up her seat, 71 years before the activist Rosa Parks showed similar resistance on a bus.  The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car.  When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney and sued the railroad.  Wells became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for “The Living Way”, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train.  When her black lawyer was paid off by the railroad,she hired a white attorney and won her case on December 24th, 1884.  A local circuit court granted her a $500 settlement. 

The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887.  It concluded, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride."  Wells was ordered to pay court costs.

While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star.  She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Iola." She gained a reputation for writing about the race issue in the United States.  In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper that was started by Rev R. Nightingale and was based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis.  It published articles about racial injustice.

Ida b wells 3

Ida B. Wells

In March 1892, racial tensions were rising in Memphis.  Violence was becoming the norm.   Her three friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, owned the People's Grocery Company.  It was doing well and was seen as competitive with a white-owned grocery store across the street.  While Wells was out of town in Natchez, Mississippi, a white mob invaded her friends' store.  During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured.  Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jailed.  A large lynch mob stormed the jail cells and killed the three men.

After the lynching of her friends, Wells, urging blacks to leave Memphis, wrote in Free Speech and Headlight: “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”

to tell the truth freely

To Tell the Truth Freely, The Life of Ida B. Wells 

Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching and over 6,000 blacks did in fact leave. Many of those who stayed, organized and participated in the boycotts of white-owned businesses.  After being threatened with violence, Wells bought a pistol.  She later wrote, "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."

The murder drove Wells to research and document lynchings and their  causes.  She began the era of black investigative journalism, looking at the charges given for the murders.  This officially started her anti-lynching campaign.  She spoke on the issue at various black women’s clubs, and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish the results.  Wells found that blacks were lynched for such reasons as “failing to pay debts”, “not appearing to give way to whites”, “competing with whites economically”, and “being drunk in public”

ida b wells 4

Ida B. Wells

She published her findings in a pamphlet entitled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases".   She wrote an article that suggested that, unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual.  While she was away in Philadelphia, a mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight on May 27th, 1892 in retaliation for her controversial articles three months after her three friends were lynched.

Wells next spoke to groups in New York City, where her audiences included many leading African-American women.  Because of the threats to her life, she moved from Memphis to Chicago.  Wells continued to wage her anti-lynching campaign and to write columns attacking Southern injustices.  Her articles were published in The New York Age newspaper.  In her writings, she continued to investigate the incidents that were referred to as causes for lynching black men.

Together with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, she organized a black boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago for its failure to collaborate with the black community on exhibits representing African-American life.  Wells, Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Ferdinand L. Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet, "Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition" to be distributed there.  This detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and the workings of Southern lynchings.  Wells later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to more than 20,000 people at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York.  That year she started work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city.

Portrait of Ida B Wells

Portrait of Ida B. Wells 

She came to meet her husband Ferdinand L. Barnett through a coincidence of events.  In 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys.  She turned to Tourgée, who had trained and practiced as a lawyer and judge for possible free legal help.  Deeply in debt, Tourgée could not afford to help but asked his friend Ferdinand L. Barnett if he could.  Barnett accepted the pro bono job.  Born in Alabama, Barnett had become the editor of the Chicago Conservator in 1878.  He was an assistant state attorney for 14 years.

Ida B Wells Barnett House is a Chicago Landmark

Ida B. Wells-Barnett House is a Chicago Landmark and National Historic Landmark.

In 1895, Wells married Barnett.  She set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women to keep her own last name along with her husband's.  The couple had four children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda.  In her autobiography, Wells described the difficulty she had splitting her time between her family and her work.  She continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing the infant son Charles with her.  Although she tried to balance her worlds, she could not be as active in her work.  Susan B. Anthony said she seemed "distracted".  After having her second child, Wells stepped out of her touring and public life for a time, as she could no longer balance her job with her family.


Ida B. Wells took two tours to Europe on her campaign for justice, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894.  While she was in Europe she spent her time in both Scotland and England, where she gave many speeches and newspaper interviews.  In 1893, Wells went to Great Britain at the invitation of Catherine Impey, a British Quaker.  An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted to ensure that the British public learned about the problem of lynching in America.  Wells rallied a moral crusade among the British.  Although Wells and her speeches, complete with at least one grisly photograph showing grinning white children posing beneath a suspended lynched black corpse, caused a stir among audiences, some people still remained doubtful.  Her intentions were to raise money and to expose the America’s issue of lynching but Wells was paid so little that she could barely pay her travel expenses.


Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

Wells decided to return to Great Britain in 1894.  Before leaving she called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean.  This was a Chicago paper of the local Republican Party organ and a competitor to the Democratic Chicago Tribune.  The Daily Inter- Ocean was the only paper in the US that persistently denounced lynching.  After she told Nixon of her planned tour in England, he asked her to write for the newspaper while on tour.  She became the first paid black woman correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper, writing , “Ida B. Wells Abroad.”

One article was “In Pembroke Chapel.”  She was invited to speak by the minister C.F. Aked.  He found it difficult to accept her accounts, but after traveling to the New York World’s Fair, and reading in local papers about the Miller lynching in Bardwell, Kentucky, he realized that Wells's accounts were accurate.  Wells was effective in speaking to European audiences.  They were shocked to learn about the extent of violence against blacks in the US.  Her two tours to Europe helped gain support for her cause, and she called for the formation of groups to formally protest the lynchings.  Wells helped catalyze anti-lynching groups in Europe who tried to press the US to guarantee the safety of blacks in the South.

NAACP Poster

Ida B.Wells, NAACP Poster, circa 1926

Willard (Not Mitt) controversy

In England Wells and Frances Willard clashed.  Willard was the secretary of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, one of the most formidable women's organizations in the country, with branches in every state and a membership of over 200,000.  Willard had used the issue of temperance to politicize women who saw organizing for suffrage as too radical.

Wells's anti-lynching campaign brought the two to England concurrently.  As Wells described the horrors of American lynchings, British liberals were incredulous that white women such as Willard - who had been heralded in the English press as the "Uncrowned Queen of American Democracy" - would turn a blind eye to such violence.  Wells correctly accused Willard of being silent on the issue of lynchings, and of making racial comments which would add fuel to the fire of mob violence.   To support her assertion, Wells referred to an interview which Willard had conducted during a tour of the South in which she (Willard) had blamed blacks for the defeat of temperance legislation there and had cast aspersions on the race.   Willard had stated, "The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt," and "the grog shop is its center of power... The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities."

In response, Willard and her powerful hostess and counterpart, Lady Somerset, attempted to use their influence to keep Wells's comments out of the press.  Wells responded by revealing that despite Willard's abolitionist forbears and ‘black friends’, no black women were admitted to the Willard’s WCTU's southern branches.  The dispute between Wells and Willard in England intensified the mean campaign against Wells in the American Press.  The New York Times ran an article insisting that “black men were prone to rape” and that Wells was a "slanderous and nasty minded mulatress" who was looking for more "income" than "outcome."  These vitriolic attacks in the American press swayed many Britons to Wells's cause.  "It is idle for men to say that the conditions which Miss Wells describes do not exist," a British editor wrote. "Whites of America may not think so; British Christianity does, and all the scurrility of the American press won't alter the facts."

Wells's British tour was ultimately a personal success, and led to the formation of the British Anti-Lynching Committee, which included such notables and the Duke of Argyll, the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament, and the editors of The Manchester Guardian.

Southern Horrors Lynch Law

In 1892 she published a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and A Red Record, 1892–1894, which documented research on a lynching.

Writings (Southern Horrors and The Red Record)

Having examined many accounts of lynching based on alleged "rape of white women," Wells concluded that Southerners concocted rape as an excuse to hide their real reason for lynchings: to derail black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners' pocketbooks, but also their ideas about black inferiority.  “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.  The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”

“The Red Record” is a one hundred page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation, while also describing blacks’ struggles since the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Ida B. Wells launched her campaign against lynching in this pamphlet.  “The Red Record” begins by explaining the alarming severity of the lynching situation in the United States.  An ignorance of lynching in the U.S., according to Wells, was developed over a span of ten years.  She talked about slavery, saying the black man’s body and soul were owned by the white man.  “The soul was dwarfed by the white man, and the body was preserved because of its value.”  She mentioned that,  “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution.”

Frederick Douglass had written an article explaining three eras of Southern barbarism and the excuses that coincided with each.  Wells went into detail about each excuse:

  • The first excuse that Wells explains is the “necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots.’” Once the Civil War ended, there were many riots supposedly being planned by blacks; whites panicked and resisted them forcefully.
  • The second excuse came during the Reconstruction Era: blacks were lynched because whites feared “Negro Domination” and wanted to stay powerful in the government. Wells encouraged those threatened to move their families somewhere safe.
  • The third excuse was: Blacks had “to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women.” Wells explains that any relationship between a white woman and a black man was considered rape during that time period.  In this article she states, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.”

She listed fourteen pages of statistics concerning lynching done from 1892–1895.  She also included pages of graphic stories detailing lynching done in the South.  She credited the findings to white correspondents, white press bureaus, and white newspapers.  “The Red Record” was a huge pamphlet, not only in size, but in influence.

Later public career

Ida B. Wells received much support from other social activists and her fellow clubwomen.  In his response to her article in the Free Speech, Frederick Douglass expressed approval of her work saying,  "You have done your people and mine a service…What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me." (Freedman, 1994). 


Ida B wells stamp

Black Heritage, Ida B. Wells stamp – circa 1990 

Wells took her anti-lynching campaign to Europe with the help of many supporters.  In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women, and also founded the National Afro-American Council.  Wells formed the Women's Era Club, the first civic organization for African-American women.  This later was named the Ida B. Wells Club, in honor of its founder.

In 1899, Wells was struggling to manage a home life and a career life, but she was still a fierce campaigner in the anti-lynching circle.  This was illustrated when the National Association of Colored Women's club met that year in Chicago.  To Wells's surprise, she was not invited to take part in the convention.  When she confronted the president of the club, Mary Church Terrell told her that the women of Chicago wrote to say that, “if Wells were to take part in the club, they would no longer aid the association”.  Wells later learned that Terrell's own competitiveness played a part.

After traveling through the British Isles and the United States teaching and lecturing about the problem of lynchings in the United states, Wells settled in Chicago and worked to improve conditions for its rapidly growing African-American population.  People were starting to move out of the South to northern industrial cities in the Great Migration. Competition for jobs and housing caused a rise in social tensions because of the rapid changes.  African-American migrants also competed with an expanding wave of rural immigrants from Europe who were now in competition for jobs.  Wells spent the latter thirty years of her life in Chicago working on urban reform.  She also raised her family and worked on her autobiography.  After her retirement, Wells continued to work on her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice” (1928), which she never got to complete.  The book ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word.  Wells died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight.

Rhetorical style and effect

Wells’s 1892 speech, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases" is important as a historical document and as the initiating event in what became a social movement.  As a rhetorical work, it is significant in three respects.

  • First, as in her writings, she used evidence and argument in highly sophisticated ways, ways that prevented members of the audience from dismissing her claims as biased or untrue.
  • Second, the speech was an insightful and sophisticated analysis of the interrelationship of sex, race, and class.
  • Third, in contrast to the rhetorical acts of women, this speech contained no stylistic markers indicating attempts by a woman speaker to appear “womanly” in what is perceived as a male role-that of rhetor


Ida B. Wells, Beale Street in Memphis, TN Plaque.

Wells’s use of evidence and argument had to overcome severe obstacles.  She had to refute the cultural history of sexism that made the cry of rape (of a white woman) adequate justification for violence against African-Americans.  In order to prove this point, Wells used evidence from irrefutable sources.  She used an excerpt from her own originally anonymous editorial in the Memphis Free Speech which was in response to the unlawful murders of three of her friends, as well as two responses to her editorial from white newspapers: The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimitar.   In a May 21st, 1892 Free Speech edition, Wells wrote,  “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women.  If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

The Daily Commercial of Wednesday following, May 25th , carried the following leader,  “Those negroes who are attempting to make the lynching of individuals of their race a means for arousing the worst passions of their kind are playing with a dangerous sentiment.  The negroes may as well understand that there is no mercy for the negro rapist and little patience with his defenders.  A negro organ printed in this city, in a recent issue publishes the following atrocious paragraph: ‘Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will overreach themselves, and public sentiment will have a reaction; and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women’."

“The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites.  But we have had enough of it.  There are some things that the Southern white man will not tolerate, and the obscene intimations of the foregoing have brought the writer to the very outermost limit of public patience. We hope we have said enough."

One had better die fighting justice than die like a dog in a rat trap

Ida B. Wells, “One had better die fighting justice than die like a dog in a rat trap"

The Evening Scimitar of same date, copied the Commercial's editorial with these comments:  “Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue.  If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay, it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor's shears."

Wells’s seventeen relatively detailed examples of the lynching of African Americans allowed her audience to weigh the evidence and consider its plausibility, and the fact that much of it came from the public press, in some cases from white southern newspapers as shown above, added to the credibility of her accounts.  Emotional response was prompted by the argument of these details rather than by exhortation.

Photo of public lynching

Photo of public lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas in 1893.

By examining Wells’ speech through an application of the classical rhetoric tradition as influenced by the beliefs of Aristotle, it is obvious that by including the gruesome details of the several lynchings she uses for examples, Wells was appealing to her the ethos of her audience.

Throughout this argument there was a strong appeal to fundamental values of fairness, to the right to trial by jury, and to the right to full and careful investigation of crimes, appeals that added weight to her accusation that “silent bystanders were guilty of complicity”. These are also examples of Wells’s appeal to logos.   Wells was remarkable for her skill in the use of argument and evidence.  Further, she was a woman who assumed the role of rhetor and made no attempt to give that role a womanly cast.

In addition to remarkable skill in the use of both argument and evidence, her work was also augmented through her exceptional personal record keeping:   Throughout her life she kept detailed journals which are kept at the University of Chicago in special collections.  These journals in her own handwriting reveal notes on special events and in the drafts of her autobiography there are references made to records she kept decades prior to beginning her autobiography.

Her attention to detail in the midst of all the struggles that surrounded her adds to her historical significance as an important rhetorician.  When she wrote her autobiography she referred not only to her own detailed notes in journals throughout her life, but also to newspaper and other historical clippings. Looking at the legacy of her work as an entire collection reveals her additional noteworthy ability to adapt a message to the audience she was addressing, as she wrote not only in papers and for speeches, but also in church pamphlets and for community organizations.

Her life reveals a tenacity to push ahead despite every obstacle - to promote an idea and use every possible resource at ones disposal.  Wells used her position as a teacher, a community member, a political activist, a mother, an editor, and as an ordinary citizen, to disseminate her rhetorical work.  Her grandchildren have established a museum, a scholarship, a yearly birthday celebration, and a website to continue her extraordinary and historically remarkable work.

ida b wells 4zx

Ida B. Wells 

Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois

The lives of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells often ran along parallel tracks.  Both used their journalistic writing to condemn lynching.  Wells and Du Bois seemed to disagree on the story of how Wells’s name didn't appear on the original list of NAACP founders.  Du Bois was more silent on the issue implying Wells chose not to be included.  However, in her autobiography, Wells complains that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list.


Throughout her life Wells was militant in her demands for equality and justice for African-Americans and insisted that the African-American community win justice through its own efforts.  Since her death, interest in her life and legacy has only grown.  Her life is the subject of a widely performed musical drama, which debuted in 2006, by Tazewell ThompsonConstant Star.   The play sums her up: “...A woman born in slavery, she would grow to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement.”

A precursor to Rosa Parks, she was a suffragistnewspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America.  A dynamic, controversial, temperamental, uncompromising black woman, she broke bread and crossed swords with some of the movers and shakers of her time including, Frederick DouglassSusan B. AnthonyMarcus GarveyBooker T. WashingtonW. E. B. Du BoisFrances Willard, and President McKinley.  By any fair assessment, she was a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America.

On February 1, 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a 25 cent postage stamp in her honor.  In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Wells on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans


Legendary African American Ida B. Wells, brought to you by Paris-based black painter Ealy Mays



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Selected Victims of a certain time-frame

Selective Incidents




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Celebration of over 150 years of Black Literary and Artistic development in Paris

Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

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