Although best known for his landmark 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois was far more than an eloquent essayist and chronicler of African-American life.
Born in 1868 in Western Massachusetts, Du Bois lived through a remarkable sweep of African-American history, from five years after the Emancipation Proclamation declared slavery ended to the eve of the March on Washington.
A revolutionary thinker far ahead of his time, Du Bois blazed trails as a civil rights activist, visionary scholar, scientist, historian, educator, editor, and outspoken public intellectual. His pioneering research and theories, his prolific writing about black and white social dynamics and racial identity, his deep understanding of U.S. history, global politics, and political movements, along with public education, art, and literature, make Du Bois one of America’s intellectual giants.
His ties to Harvard are deep and complicated. Lacking the means to afford Harvard College, Du Bois went to all-black Fisk University in Tennessee. After graduating, he entered Harvard in 1888 and earned a second bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in 1890. In 1891, he completed a master’s degree at Harvard, and headed to the University of Berlin before returning to Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D. in history. In 1895, he became the first African-American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. “The honor, I assure you, was Harvard’s,” Du Bois reportedly once said.
To honor the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Harvard Department of Sociology is hosting a major four-day symposium that begins Thursday, featuring scholars from Harvard and across the country and designed to reconsider his intellectual legacy and his standing in the canon. Though Du Bois conducted some of his most groundbreaking scientific research in the 1890s when sociology was still in its infancy, the field has been far slower than the humanities to recognize his contributions.
Lawrence Bobo, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences and new dean of social science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, spoke with the Gazette about Du Bois’ place in the history of sociology and about how many of his insights about African-Americans and the larger culture remain spot-on today.