19: This Month in Black History – “The Crisis” & W.E.B. Du Bois

The Crisis” and W.E.B. DuBois

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

The Crisis has been in continuous print since November, 1910, and is the oldest Black-oriented magazine in the world. Today, The Crisis is a quarterly journal of civil rights, history, politics and culture and seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues that continue to plague African Americans and other communities of color.” One of the founding fathers and The Crisis’ was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, known as W.E.B Du Bois (pronounced Dew-Boys), who served as the journal’s editor for over 20 years.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a trailblazing public intellectual. He was a man of many firsts, and a giant in many fields like sociology, history, and political science, as well as a generous patron of literature and the arts. The encyclopedia Brittanica states that Du Bois was “the most important Black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.”

Born in Great Barrington, in 1868, Du Bois was raised by his mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and her relatives in rural Western Massachusetts. In 1884, Du Bois became the first African American graduate of the racially integrated public school. He would continue his education at Fisk University in Eastern Tennessee, and go on to enroll at Harvard University, where he received a BA cum laude, in 1890, an MA in 1891, and a PhD in 1895, making him the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. His doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” was published in 1896 as the inaugural volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

That same year, Du Bois was commissioned by The University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of the predominantly Black Seventh Ward in Philadelphia. Together with his assistant, Isabel Eaton, Du Bois utilized participant observation, archival research, descriptive statistics, interview and survey methods. The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, was the first sociological study of an African American community in the United States.

After conducting the research for his monumental study, Du bois put his talents to the service of his people and went on to teach at the historically Black Atlanta University in 1897. In Atlanta, he established the University’s sociology program, now recognized as the first school of American sociology; and, he established himself as a leading scholar, writing for journals like The Atlantic. Known for his astute and meticulous research methods, and his eloquent and cogent writing, Du Bois was invited by the U.S. Bureau of Labor to conduct several studies of southern African American households, which were later aggregated and published as a bureau bulletin under the title The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study.

Basically, Du Bois was a hot-shot, up-and-coming scholar, but with the publication of his monograph, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he became an academic rock star. In the book, he observed that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” In response to this problem, Du Bois theorizes that some Black people develop a sense of double consciousness, where “one ever feels his twoness an American, a Negro, two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals, and one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Soon, Du Bois was ruffling feathers and presenting a so-called third option between Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, both of whom Du Bois characterized as too-ready to accommodate the structures and systems of white supremacy. Instead of the integrationism espoused by Douglass, Du Bois argued that Black people should embrace their African heritage; and instead of supporting Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, Du Bois argued for first class citizenship and full political participation for Black people in the North as well as in the Jim Crow South. However, Du Bois was not satisfied with merely thinking, writing and teaching about Black cultural and political concerns. Du Bois became active in movements both national and international in support of Black freedom. He was a founding member of the Niagara Movement through which the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was conceived. Du Bois, the only Black Board Member of the NAACP, served as the director of research and for over two decades Du Bois edited its flagship publication, The Crisis.

As the editor-in-chief, Du Bois saw his mission as helping to cultivate Black writers, thinkers and artists, by creating a forum for full expression. He also helped to organize the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 and was a principal architect of four Pan-African Congresses held between 1919 and 1927. During this time, Du Bois strategically exploited his position at The Crisis to draw attention to the widespread use of racial violence, pushing for nationwide legislation that would outlaw the practice of lynching. As a socialist, Du Bois also published articles in favor of unionized labor, although he called out union leaders for barring Black membership. Under his guidance, the journal grew to a readership of 100,000 in 1920, and drew many new supporters to NAACP.

One thing that’s cool about Du Bois is that as he became more and more aware of the conditions and forces shaping and governing Black life, he became more and more strident in his calls for radical protest and action. For example, he resigned from the editorship of The Crisis and the NAACP in 1934, yielding his influence as a race leader and charging that the organization was dedicated to the interests of the Black bourgeoisie at the expense of the Black masses. A year later, he was back at Atlanta University, this time as the Chair of the Sociology department, his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction (1935) newly published. Du Bois’ characterization of the Civil War and Reconstruction placed the experiences of Black men and women at the center of the narrative, provided historical, political and economic context, and called out influential historians whose racist ideas, interpretations and emphases had disfigured the historical record. As per usual, the volume was impeccably researched using social science methods and argued using stirring prose.

W.E.B. Dubois’ voice is one that is needed today – amidst the noise in all sectors – his, would be a voice of reason.

We wish everyone a safe Thanksgiving Holiday filled with family, friends, good food, and love.

Regina Stevens-Truss