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From the Publisher
"This is an excellent work. . . . Were I still in the classroom, the present book would certainly appear on my course reading list."
--Arvarh E. Strickland
W. E. B. Du Bois was the preeminent black scholar of his era. He was also a principal founder and for twenty-eight years an executive officer of the nation’s most effective civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Even though Du Bois was best known for his lifelong stance against racial oppression, he represented much more. He condemned the racism of the white world but also criticized African Americans for mistakes of their own. He opposed segregation but had reservations about integration. Today he would be known as a pluralist.
In Du Bois and His Rivals, Raymond Wolters provides a distinctive biography of this great pioneer of the American civil rights movement. Readers are able to follow the outline of Du Bois’s life, but the book’s main emphasis is on discrete scenes in his life, especially the controversies that pitted Du Bois against his principal black rivals. He challenged Booker T. Washington because he could not abide Washington’s conciliatory approach toward powerful whites. At the same time, Du Bois’s pluralism led him to oppose the leading separatists and integrationists of his day. He berated Marcus Garvey for giving up on America and urging blacks to pursue a separate destiny. He also rejected Walter White’s insistence that integration was the best way to promote the advancement of black people.
Du Bois felt that American blacks should be full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. However, he believed that they should also preserve and develop enough racial distinctiveness to enable them to maintain and foster a sense of racial identity, community, and pride. Du Bois and His Rivals shows that Du Bois stood for much more than protest against racial oppression. He was also committed to pluralism, and his pluralism emphasized the importance of traditional standards and of internal cooperation within the black community. Anyone interested in the civil rights movement, black history, or the history of the United States during the early twentieth century will find this book valuable.
"This is an excellent work. . . . Were I still in the classroom, the present book would certainly appear on my course reading list."
--Arvarh E. Strickland
Copyright © 2002 The Curators of the University of Missouri.
All rights reserved.
Du Bois's pluralism was reflected in his lineage. As he wrote in a letter applying for a college scholarship, Du Bois was "in blood, about one half or more Negro." His mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, was a member of a black family that had lived in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts since before the American Revolution. His father, Alfred Du Bois, was a mulatto born in Haiti but with so little Negro ancestry that he could pass for white.
The black Burghardts were descended from Tom Burghardt, a slave who was born in West Africa about 1730. As a reward for serving with Colonel John Ashley's regiment during the American Revolution, Tom and his family were freed from slavery. One of Tom's sons, Jack, later participated in Shays's Rebellion (1786) and helped in the War of 1812. One of Jack's sons then became Du Bois's maternal grandfather Othello. For several years Othello Burghardt earned a comfortable living as a farmer, but by the time of Du Bois's birth changes in the economy were undermining the independence of the family. With agriculture languishing, and with industrial jobs often restricted to whites, many of the Burghardts made their way to towns where they found work as barbers, waiters, cooks, housemaids, and laborers.
Although the Burghardts had suffered economic reverses, they embraced conventional standards of respectability. They were hardworking, churchgoing people. Du Bois recalled that the family also "had a New England strictness in ... sex morals. So far as I ever knew there was only one illegitimate child throughout the family." That child, however, was Du Bois's older half brother, Adelbert, the child of an illicit union that "no one talked of ... in the family." After giving birth to Adelbert, Du Bois's mother, Mary Burghardt, left the family farm and moved to nearby Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she worked as a housemaid. Then, in 1867 when Mary Burghardt was in her middle thirties, she met Alfred Du Bois, a light mulatto newcomer to the region who had recently served in the U.S. Army. Because of Mary's compromised situation, she could hardly expect more from a fiancé. The couple eloped to the nearby village of Housatonic—"a runaway marriage, but one duly attested and published in the Berkshire Courier." William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born a year later, on February 23, 1868.
The Burghardts were respectable black yeomen, but the Du Boises traced their ancestry back to Geoffroi Du Bois, who emerged from the French forest (the bois) to sail with William the Conqueror in 1066. Although the family was of French origin, W. E. B. Du Bois insisted that his name should be pronounced "Du-Boys" rather than the Gallic "Du-Bwah."
The first American member of the Du Bois family came from France early in the seventeenth century. Five generations later James Du Bois, a wealthy white physician in New York, emigrated from America to the Caribbean after siding with England during the American Revolution and receiving as a reward a large plantation in the Bahama Islands. There he fathered several colored children by a common-law wife. When his wife died, James Du Bois returned to the United States about 1812 and enrolled his light-skinned son Alexander (the grandfather of W. E. B. Du Bois) in an exclusive private school. However, when James Du Bois died suddenly in 1820, his white New York family apprenticed Alexander to a shoemaker. Because he was the son of a wealthy physician and planter, and had the beginnings of a gentleman's education, Alexander refused to become a shoemaker and went to Haiti to seek his fortune in the shipping trade. In the 1830s Alexander Du Bois returned to the United States with a five-year-old son of his own, Alfred, who would become the father of W. E. B. Du Bois.
Du Bois's father, Alfred, did not get along with grandfather Alexander. As a young man Alfred bounded around in New England and New York and even traveled to New Orleans. He also served in the United States Army before arriving in Great Barrington. Du Bois later wrote that his father was "small and beautiful of face and feature, just tinted with the sun, his wavy hair chiefly revealing his kinship to Africa. In nature, I think, he was a dreamer—romantic, indolent, kind, unreliable." He had "r[u]n away [from his own father] and rioted and roamed, and loved and married my brown mother."
Unfortunately, when Du Bois was only two years old, Alfred Du Bois deserted his family, and young Willie never saw his father again and knew not where or when he died. Du Bois later wrote that his father was "gallant" and "charming" but also "irresponsible." At various times Alfred Du Bois worked as a barber, merchant, and preacher, but he refused to settle for long at any one place or job. He had accepted marriage to please the Burghardt family, but he bolted after only three years of wedlock.
Du Bois's principal biographer has ascribed the father's desertion to flaws of character—mentioning that Alfred Du Bois apparently fled a previous marriage and at one time was listed as a deserter from the U.S. Army. Du Bois, however, blamed the departure, at least in part, on the color consciousness of the black Burghardts. The Burghardts thought Alfred Du Bois was "too good looking, too white," and they looked askance at him because he would not work on the Burghardt family farm but instead insisted that he and Mary Burghardt should live in the town of Great Barrington. The Burghardts "carried on a more or less open feud," Du Bois recalled, and one day some of the Burghardt cousins fired pistols from a riverbank near the Du Boises' house. The incident was probably just a prank, but Alfred thought his life was in danger. "Without a word, he went into the house and packed some things and left," never to return.
The story of Alfred's desertion alerted Du Bois to the importance of color consciousness and discrimination within the black community Yet from his youth Du Bois also recognized that some of the tensions in his family were rooted in class differences. "I don't suppose it was simply a matter of color," he once said. "It was a matter of culture." Du Bois's father had come "from a different world."
In 1883 Du Bois learned just how different that world was when, at age fifteen, he visited his grandfather Alexander Du Bois. After returning from Haiti, Alexander had worked as a steward on a ship that ferried passengers between New York and New Haven, Connecticut. By the time young Will met his grandfather, however, Alexander Du Bois had retired to spend his days in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This grandfather, Will reported, was "'colored' but quite white in appearance," "a short, stern, upstanding man, sparing but precise in his speech and stiff in manner." He was also well educated and told Will about "schools and books and far-off places, of a world quite different from the Burghardt farms."
Grandfather Du Bois stood in marked contrast to Grandfather Burghardt. The Du Boises were professional people of light complexion, not farmers and manual laborers. There was a hint of aristocracy in their French ancestry. Grandfather Du Bois owned some property, read Shakespeare, wrote poetry, and yet was more militant than any of the black Burghardts. "He held his head high [and] took no insults.... He was not a 'Negro'; he was a man!"
Grandfather Du Bois's style and class were exemplified on one occasion that made a lasting impression. On this day young Will noticed that Grandfather Du Bois's table was set for visitors, with a cut-glass decanter of wine atop a fine linen cloth. His grandfather was dressed in a long black coat, with vest and gold watch chain. After some conversation with his guest, his grandfather served the wine, raised his glass, touched the glass of his visitor and uttered a toast.
Will had read about such ceremonies in books, but he had never observed anything of the sort in Great Barrington where, he said, blacks and whites alike were given to "casual greetings [and] sprawling posture." In Grandfather Du Bois's parlor, Will suddenly sensed what manners meant and how people of breeding behaved. He never forgot that toast. He sensed that there was a wider world that he might one day enter.
But that day was still some years distant. In the meantime there was a struggle to survive. After being deserted by her husband, Mary Burghardt Du Bois lived on the Burghardt family farm until Grandfather Burghardt died when Du Bois was about five years old. Then Mary Burghardt Du Bois returned to Great Barrington, where she and her two sons were three of about fifty Negroes living in a town of some five thousand people. At first, they lived in servants' quarters on an estate, and then in a dilapidated house in the worst section of town, before settling in a five-room cottage that was near the Congregational Church and the local public school. Mary found work as a housemaid, and the family income was supplemented by taking in a boarder (Mary's brother Jim, a barber). Du Bois's half-brother, Adelbert, went to work as a waiter when he was quite young, and Will chipped in with money from odd jobs—delivering newspapers, selling tea, splitting kindling, and stoking the furnace at a local millinery shop.
As an adult Du Bois recognized that his family had lived near the edge of poverty, and their fortunes were further damaged in the mid-1870s when his mother suffered a paralytic stroke that left her with a lame left leg and a withered left hand. Nevertheless, Mary Burghardt Du Bois still found occasional day work as a maid, and after school Will would meet his mother to help with bundles and to offer a supporting shoulder. In Great Barrington, many observers commented on the mutual devotion of mother and son. "I just grew up that way," Du Bois later said. "We were companions."
Although Du Bois and his mother were hard-pressed, Will thought they were living in simple comfort rather than mired in poverty. He had enough food and suitable clothing and was not made to feel deprived in the company of his fellow students. On the contrary, he was frequently entertained at the larger homes of white friends but observed no conspicuous exhibition of wealth. "In general," Du Bois wrote, "the contrast between the well-to-do and the poor was not great." "Great Barrington was a town of middle-class people."
Du Bois always remembered Great Barrington with warm feelings. "The town and its surroundings were a boy's paradise," he wrote. "There were mountains to climb and rivers to wade and swim.... My earlier contacts with playmates and other human beings were normal and pleasant."
To be sure, the color line intruded on occasions. As a youth Du Bois sensed that "some folks, a few, even several, actually considered my brown skin a misfortune." Years later he still recalled one instant of recognition: "In a wee wooden schoolhouse something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned on me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others."
In response, Du Bois withdrew into himself. Thereafter his companions would have no chance to reject him. "They must seek me out and urge me to come ... When my presence was not wanted they had only to refrain from asking."
Despite this withdrawal, the white youths of Great Barrington did seek Du Bois. Du Bois was not particularly good at baseball and football, but he was popular with schoolmates because he excelled at running, exploring, telling stories, and planning intricate games. "In the ordinary social affairs of the village—the Sunday School with its picnics and festivals; the temporary skating rink in the Town Hall; the coasting in crowds on all the hills—in all of these, I took part with no thought of discrimination on the part of my fellows, for that I would have been the first to notice."
At Great Barrington High School the boys and girls did not date, for "dating" at that time was usually considered serious courtship. There were no social clubs, no school dances—nothing to trouble anyone concerned about miscegenation. In these circumstances, Du Bois became friendly with fellow students of both sexes. There was Mary Dewey, who surpassed Du Bois in mathematics but did not do as well in history and English. There were Sabra Taylor and Minnie Crissy, two good students whom he liked. And there was a small gang of teenage boys: George Phelps, with whom Du Bois walked to school; Ned Kelly and George Beebee, for swimming; and Mike Gibbons, for playing marbles.
All things considered, Du Bois enjoyed an idyllic youth in Great Barrington. He recalled that he was "born by a golden river in the shadow of two great hills," in a middle-class democracy where there was "almost no ... segregation or color discrimination."
Some critics have suggested that Du Bois's autobiographical recollections were colored by the romanticism of old age. But Du Bois said much the same in columns he wrote for the New York Globe when he was a teenager. There Du Bois described the First Congregational Church, where he and his mother were the only black members, as "the handsomest church in the county." He described a strawberry festival at the A.M.E. Zion Church, and he noted that Miss Lizzie Lee had "very agreeably entertained" her friends at "a candy-puller and supper." He mentioned a number of public debates, one of which (on the policy of forcing Indians to resettle on reservations) featured Du Bois as a participant.
At Great Barrington High School, Du Bois was especially fortunate in having Frank Hosmer as school principal. If Hosmer had been another sort of man, a man with definite ideas as to the inferior place of black people in American society, he would have recommended that Du Bois study something practical, like carpentry or agriculture. But Hosmer suggested instead that Du Bois should take the college preparatory course—Greek and Latin as well as science, history, and English—and arranged to have the textbooks purchased for Du Bois.
Du Bois was only sixteen when he graduated from high school in 1884. When he then went to work for a year and to live with his aunt Minerva after his mother died of an apoplectic stroke, Principal Hosmer stepped in to make sure that Du Bois got the chance to go to college. He arranged for four Congregational churches to pledge one hundred dollars a year to cover the cost of young Will's education at Fisk University, a Congregational school for African Americans in Nashville, Tennessee. Moreover, because the standards at Great Barrington High School were higher than those in most southern high schools, young Du Bois was admitted to the sophomore class at Fisk.
Some of the Burghardts resented the idea of sending Will away. "They said frankly that ... I was Northern born and bred and instead of preparing me for work and giving me an opportunity right there in my own town and state, [the white benefactors] were bundling me off to the South."
This was true. But Du Bois recognized that there were more opportunities for college-educated African Americans in the South. He thought the freed slaves had a great future, if they were properly led. Besides, although Du Bois's life in Great Barrington had been comfortable, as a teenager he began to feel lonesome in New England. He recognized that as he grew older the cordial intermingling with white people would be restricted. He knew that as young people approached the age of courting and marriage, "There would be meetings, parties, clubs, to which I would not be invited." A black college like Fisk University, on the other hand, would give Will the opportunity "to meet colored people of my own age and education, of my own ambitions." Thus Du Bois hardly noticed the "irony by which I was not looked upon as a real citizen of my birth-town, with a future and a career, and instead was being sent to a far land among strangers who were regarded as (and in truth were) 'mine own people'." When he left for Fisk in 1885, Du Bois was thrilled at the prospect of being for the first time among so many people of his own race.
At Fisk Du Bois discovered two worlds. White Nashville was a hostile society of racism and segregation, for which nothing in Great Barrington had prepared him. The dark side of this world was displayed on one occasion when Du Bois accidentally bumped into a white woman as they passed on a Nashville street. The woman was not hurt in the slightest, but when Du Bois raised his hat and begged her pardon, she replied with scorn, "How dare you speak to me, you impudent nigger!" From his fellow students, Du Bois learned that incidents such as this could get out of hand, and for that reason many of the young men at Fisk carried firearms. Some of them had faced mobs and seen lynchings. "You don't need [a pistol] often," G. D. Field told Du Bois, "but when you do, it comes in handy!"
Excerpted from Du Bois and His Rivals by Raymond Wolters. Copyright © 2002 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|2||Du Bois and Booker T. Washington||40|
|3||Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People||77|
|4||Du Bois and the First World War||108|
|5||Du Bois and Marcus Garvey||143|
|6||Du Bois and Walter White||192|
|7||The Final Years||240|