By any measure, W.E.B. Du Bois was an intellectual giant. A historian, writer, editor, teacher, sociologist, and civil rights activist, he was also the first African-American to receive a Harvard Ph.D., co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and author of several groundbreaking books, including “Black Reconstruction in America” (1935).
But according to historian Chad Williams, Du Bois was also a failure.
As a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Williams is writing a book about what he considers one of Du Bois’ greatest missteps: “The Black Man and the Wounded World,” an unfinished history of the African-American experience during World War I. Unlike many civil rights crusaders of the time, Du Bois urged African-Americans to join the war effort. But when acts of loyalty and heroism in Europe failed to translate to the societal change he’d envisioned back home, he began documenting the results of his misjudgment.
“Du Bois as a failure … that’s a framework for thinking about him that I would never have really considered,” said Williams, chair of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University.
Williams came across Du Bois’ incomplete manuscript at UMass Amherst in 2000 while researching the Ph.D. dissertation that would become his 2010 book, “Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.” His years spent poring over Du Bois’ archives and records helped Williams understand the professional and personal dimensions to Du Bois’ failings. The inability to finish the book was a source of deep frustration, while his support of the war and his belief in what the conflict could have meant for equality in America haunted Du Bois till his death.
“The war was one of the most consequential and traumatic moments in his life as far as his wrestling with what it meant to be an African-American,” said Williams. “What he talks about in his 1903 book, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ — the ‘double consciousness,’ the twoness of being a Negro and being an American, these two warring ideals. Du Bois thought that the war would be able to, at least temporarily, reconcile those two conflicting aspects of black identity more broadly, but also personally, and that didn’t happen.”
More than 350,000 African-American soldiers served in segregated units during World War I. Most of the black troops stationed in France were assigned to ditch digging or the bearing of dead bodies. In time, the Army created two African-American combat units, the 92nd division made up of draftees, and the 93rd that comprised black national guardsmen. While the 93rd “compiled a stellar combat record,” the 92nd floundered.