Sixty-eight years ago today, W.E.B. Du Bois was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first African-American to be accepted.
Du Bois was 75 by then and probably not overwhelmed by the honor – this was, after all, Harvard’s first African-American Ph.D. recipient, the first academic to examine the culture of Philadelphia’s African-American community from a rigorous sociological perspective, the first African-American to be invited to present a paper to the American History Association and the first – with his book The Negro – to publish a history of black Africa.
A Massachusetts native of French, Dutch and African ancestry, Du Bois spent his long and productive life fighting for civil rights both intellectually and politically, in word and in action.
When Du Bois presented his survey of Reconstruction to the AHA in 1909, his audience of historians was no doubt stunned. His thesis completely contradicted the accepted view that ‘Reconstruction was a disaster, caused by the ineptitude and sloth of blacks’ (Wikipedia). Rather, he asserted, it was due to the Federal government’s failure to establish education, distribute land and manage the Freedmen’s Bureau.
His assertions were of course ignored – and the AHA did not invite another African-America presenter for the next 30 years. It wasn’t until the Sixties that academic opinion began to turn his way.
There is just so much to say about Du Bois – his work for the NAACP, the United Nations, his weekly for children that explained the African-American history that wasn’t in the public school curriculum, his international travel and his conflict with Marcus Garvey. All of it should be common knowledge, but it’s likely that one event took him permanently out of the spotlight.
In 1950, Du Bois chaired the Peace Information Center, which worked to further the Swedish Peace Appeal – an international effort originating in Sweden to try to get nuclear weapons banned. The Justice Dept. accused him and other PIC members of being agents of a foreign government and demanded that they register as such.
All refused, of course, and the case went to court. Du Bois et al were not convicted, but in a fit of pique, the government confiscated Du Bois’s passport for the next eight years.
Du Bois also lost a lot of friends as a result of his anti-nuclear stance – even the NAACP, for which he had labored much of his life, withdrew its support. Like many during the McCarthy era, he became persona non grata..
Born just after the end of the Civil War, in 1868, he died in Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95. Invited to write an encyclopedia of Africa by Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois had taken Ghanaian citizenship when the US refused to renew his passport two years earlier.
His groundbreaking work, The Souls of Black Folk, is here and an official website here. From the official site, fyi, you can link to his FBI file, available through a FOIA request – it’s a very big PDF file, so be warned.