W.E.B. DuBois - My Birth and Family
Here my mother, Mary Burghardt, and myfather, Alfred Du Bois, came to live temporarily after their marriageceremony in the village of Housatonic, which. The couple settled in Great Barrington where William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in a year after his parents married. Whatever home life they. W.E.B. Du Bois's mother was a domestic worker and his father was a barber. His father left the family when William was still very young. Young William was born.
DuBois was considered a radical in that he demanded racial equality should be immediate.
He was devoted to teaching, training, and mentoring college-educated black people to become leaders of their race. DuBois went to great lengths to get results, even speaking out against such well-known blacks as Booker T. Washingtonwhom he deemed to be not radical enough.
With no persuasion from WashingtonDuBois initiated public protests against prejudice, some of which became violent. Due to the personal animosity between DuBois and Washington, DuBois solicited help from others who believed in black freedom and growth.
Twenty-nine African-American leaders from 14 states united and in Januarythe Niagara Movement was formed. A movement to change the face of politics, this group later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACPpossibly the most influential civil rights group in American history. Today the organization still comprises black and white Americans who believe in equality for all. DuBois and his wife, former student Nina Gomer, stayed in Atlanta untileven though they never felt truly comfortable there.
Sixteen months later Nina gave birth to their daughter, Yolande.
Shortly thereafter Nina suffered a stroke and consequently died in Dubois remarried Shirley Graham in who traveled extensively with her husband.
DuBois continually examined black history and demanded that social changes be made. He firmly believed in higher education for his race, and DuBois went on to become the leading black intellectual of the 20th century. The Crisis magazine, autocratically governed by DuBois as its editor-in-chief for 25 years, was the mouthpiece of NAACP policies and news concerning blacks.
The articles were often written without approval by the whites among the NAACP leadership, whose presence DuBois highly objected to, sometimes leading to battles within the association. This tended to bear out DuBois' theory of injustices heaped upon African Americans. His theory became further confirmed during World War Iwhen the armed forces first refused black enlistment, but then placed inductees in subservient roles.
With the military now enlisting the white working man, more blacks found jobs in civilian industry. Whites became fearful that blacks would consume the job market. When the war ended, black veterans returned home to the same racial discrimination, even though they had fought bravely to defend America. Given the current situation, the Crisis magazine grew in readership, with circulation increasing from 1, in to more than 10, in It was there that he decided it was time to organize a Pan-African conference to educate the world about the problems of Africans.
Sadly, nothing ever came of that idea due to the lack of interest among more influential black organizations. That did not discourage DuBois, however, and inhe decided to hold another Pan-African meeting, where he had an encounter with Marcus Garvey. Unlike DuBois, Garvey managed to gain mass support, and his methodology was refreshing and inspiring. He established his own movement and association known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association UNIAand held pageants and parades through Harlem, with liberation flags flying — quite a contrast to DuBois' intellectual style.
DuBois set out to prove that Garvey was too much an idealist, and that his methods were wasteful and close to illegal. Charges of fraud were eventually brought against Garvey and he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he was exiled from the United States. DuBois held his Pan-African conference inbut the turnout was small. When the conference concluded, DuBois decided to sail to Africa for the first time.
The trip gave him time to reflect upon his pursuits, and he made many observations about the world of black people. He further realized that America had side-stepped issues of color, and even though he had tried to educate and agitate, few had listened. He now believed that his ideological approach to the problem had to be revised. He studied the Russian Revolution and traveled to Russia in It was there that he adopted their ideas of a socialist order and classless society.
Witnessing the beginning of a new nation form without regard to class, he decided he could no longer support conventional integration efforts. In addition, due to the fact that the NAACP would not back political candidates, he was convinced by that he had two clear choices: One was to attempt to change the board of directors of the NAACP who at that time were mostly whiteor, two, to leave the organization.
Du Bois, Mary Silvina Burghardt [DuBoisopedia ]
He opted for the latter. Resuming his duties at Atlanta University, he completed two books. His work, Black Reconstruction, dealt with the socio-economic development of the nation following the Civil War. It portrayed black people as disorganized and chaotic. Another book titled The World and Africa, was written in retaliation against historians who would, for various reasons, omit Africa from world history.
DuBois never yielded, and in he served as a consultant to the American delegation at the founding conference of the United Nations held in San Francisco. At that conference he announced that the fifth Pan-African Congress would determine what pressures could be applied to world powers.
He was acquitted for lack of evidence. Further alienated — even by his own efforts — DuBois continued to speak out as a catalyst. The energywas in my grandmother, Sally, a thin, tall, yellow and hawk-facedwoman, certainly beautiful in her youth, and efficient and managingin her age. She had Dutch and perhaps Indian blood, but the restof the family were black. Othello and Sally had ten or more children. Many of these hadmoved away before I was old enough to know them; but I remembermy Aunt Lucinda, who married a Gardner, and after his death aJackson; then my Aunt Minerva, whose married name was Newport.
The youngest children were my Uncle Jim and my mother, Mary Silvina. She was born inand died inat the age of 54 years. Mother was dark shining bronze, with smooth skin and lovely eyes;there was a tiny ripple in her black hair, and she had a heavy,kind face. She gave one the impression of infinite patience,but a curious determination was concealed in her softness.
As a young woman she had a son, Idelbert, born of a love affairbetween her and her first cousin, John Burghardt. The circumstancesof this romance I never knew. No one talked of it in the family. Probably the mating was broken up on account of the consanguinityof the cousins. My mother became a silent, repressed woman, workingat household duties at home, helping now and then in the neighbors'homes, and finally going into town where her married sisters livedand where she worked as a housemaid.
Perhaps a third sonwho spelled his name Du Bose went South. They were in allprobability artisans descended from peasants; but the white Americanfamily declares they were aristocrats, and has found a coat ofarms which they say belongs to them.
From Jacques in the fifth generation was descended James Du Bois,born aboutwho became a physician in Poughkeepsie, New York,and migrated to the Bahamas. Lord Dunmore, Governor of New Yorkand later of Virginia and the Bahamas, had given grants of landto various members of the Du Bois family, who were loyalists,and young Dr. James Du Bois went to the Bahamas soon after theRevolution and took over several plantations and one lake of saltwhich still bears his name. He prospered after some vicissitudes,and founded a family.
Whether, as is probable, he took a slave as a concubine, or marrieda free Negro woman--in either case two sons were born, my grandfatherAlexander in and a younger brother, John. After their mother'sdeath, Dr. James Du Bois brought both boys to New York in Both were white enough to "pass," and their fatherentered them in the private Cheshire School in Connecticut.
Hevisited them regularly, but on one visit, abouthe suddenlyfell dead. The white New York family removed the boys from school and tookcharge of their father's property.
My grandfather was apprenticedto a shoemaker. Just what happened to John, I do not know. Probablyhe continued as white, and his descendants, if any, know nothingof their colored ancestry. Alexander was of stern character. His movements between and are not clear. As the sonof a "gentleman," with the beginnings of a gentleman'seducation, he refused to become a shoemaker and went to Haitiat the age of perhaps Boyer had become President just afterthe suicide of Christophe, and held power untilbringingthe whole island under his control and making a costly peace withFrance.
Of grandfather's life in Haiti from about toI knowfew details. From his 18th to his 27th year he formed acquaintanceships,earned a living, married and had a son, my father, Alfred, bornin I do not know what work grandfather did, but probablyhe ran a plantation and engaged in the growing shipping tradeto the United States.
Who he married I do not know, nor her relatives. He may have married into the family of Elie Du Bois, the greatHaitian educator. Also why he left Haiti in is not clear. It may have been because of the threat of war with France duringthe Revolution of and the fall of Charles X. England soon recognized the independence of Haiti; but the UnitedStates while recognizing South American republics which Haitihad helped to free, refused to recognize a Negro nation.
Becauseof this turmoil, grandfather may have lost faith in the possibilityof real independence for Haiti. Again trade with the United Stateswas at this period exceeding the trade of England or France andamounting to more than a million dollars a year.
This trade wascarried on with Northern cities like New Haven, but it was alsodemanded by the rapidly growing Cotton Kingdom in the South. Also, perhaps domestic difficulties with his wife's family andover family property may have arisen. For any or all of thesereasons my grandfather left Haiti and settled with his son, nowfive years of age, in New Haven. He arrived from the West Indies at a critical time: David Walkerhad published his bitter Appeal to Negroes against submissionto slavery, in ; Nat Turner led his bloody Virginia slaverevolt in ; slavery was abolished in the British West Indiesin ; the rebelling slaves of the ship Amistad landedin Connecticut inand their trial took place in New Haven.
Among other things these Negroes determinedto build an industrial college in New Haven, and later PrudenceCrandall tried there to let Negro girls enter her seminary, tothe disgust of the whites. In New Haven my grandfather settled. He opened a grocery storeat 43 Washington Street. The color line was sharp in New Havenand abolitionists were stirring up dissension. In Trinity parishof the Episcopal church were a few colored communicants, includingmy grandfather. But the rector, Harry Croswell, was reactionaryand openly condemned the abolition movement.
- W.E.B. DU BOIS’ CHILDHOOD
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Soon the coloredcommunicants of Trinity were given to understand that they wouldbe happier in their own racial church. Alexander Crummell, thegreat Negro minister, encouraged this move, and the example ofAmos Beman who was building the Temple Street Negro CongregationalChurch, made the move inevitable.
This must have infuriated my grandfather, and yet his very pridedrove him into joining this segregated church. He was made treasurerprobably because he owned property; eventually he became the firstsenior warden of St.
Luke's, as this "jim-crow" churchwas called. Also, he and certain other Negroeswith property were permitted to buy lots at the rear of the newGrove Street Cemetery, opposite the Yale campus. Years laterwhen this cemetery was enlarged, those Negro lots lay on the centerpath. Here my grandfather lies buried and here I shall one daylie. Herehe reformed the treatment of the servants, kept the boats in first-classorder, and achieved a degree of independence.
He was in chargeof repairing and hiring. He had charge of the workers and sawto it that the Negro servants were served their meals regularlyat a table. But race segregation in New Haven and New York wasgrowing, and grandfather, after a time, determined that Springfield,Massachusetts, offered a better place for him and his family tolive. In he removed to Springfield.
He bought a farm notfar from the city, down the Connecticut River, and establishedhis family in the city of Springfield. Had a few invited guests at supper,one-half past six o'clock, champagne, a rather poor quality fromWebster's. Suddenly, in late Maymy grandfather took a trip to Haiti. This may have been caused by the outbreak of the Civil War. Perhaps he had just lost an American wife.
In March, 11 Americanslave states had seceded and formed the Confederacy. The relation of colored folk to the war was uncertain, and myfather, Alfred, was eligible for drafting. The future of coloredfolks in the United States was a problem; then, too, the rectorof St. Luke's was Theodore Holly, who early in had led amigration of Negroes to Haiti, and painted a future for them there.
It is possible also that grandfather was seeking property eitherof his father, Dr.
W.E.B. Du Bois
James Du Bois, in the Bahamas, which was buta few hundred miles north from Haiti; or, perhaps, especiallyin Long Key, his birthplace; or from the family of his formerHaitian wife. But he was a reticent man, and even his diary issilent on the most important points.
Have thoughts of leaving the vessel, butwant resolution to do so. Wrote to friends we should sail onFriday the 10th. Feel ashamed to back out, will wait a day ortwo longer but feel like one rushing on his fate. If God forsakesme, I am undone forever. Sun rose clear, wind west. Hove anchor, got underway 20 minutes past six o'clock. God speed the ship, and grantme deliverance from my enemy that I may conquer before I die.
The white Du Boises? On his lonely trip grandfather writes poetry, not very good, butindicating deep emotion. A single soul, One! Of all I know or ever knew My star by night, by day the sun Now guide my bark, now bound my view. It may be right, perchance tis wrong To love without the priestly ken, Such things are often known among The disappointed Sons of Men. Bodies may be joined together By priestly craft and laws, so strong In vain you try the bonds to sever Yet love in laughter breaks the thong.
Was grandfather confessing desertion of a Haitian wife whom hehad not married and excusing his marriages in the United States? Landed in Port Au Prince, took board atMr. Fredd's, Rue Caserne; rain clearing; mosquitoes, jackasses,Negroes, mud water, soldiers, universal filth. Poor men andwomen, I am sorry, heart sorry for them. They put on an air ofcheerfulness, which I am satisfied there is not one of them, butwould give all they had in the world if they could stand whereI did a few weeks ago.
He had united the whole island under Haitianrule and had finally made peace with France, albeit on almostfatal terms. Four Presidents succeeded in the next four years;and then for ten years came the Emperor Faustin, who had beenthe slave Soulouque.
The regime had an impressive magnificence,but was an economic failure. The empire was overthrown in and Geffrard, a progressiveand hard-working man, became President, from to Hepromoted education and industry and tried to cooperate with Americanabolitionists and colored leaders like Holly in encouraging theimmigration of American Negroes.
It was under Geffrard that mygrandfather arrived. Mark that hehad resided when he formerly lived in Haiti, and here his sonAlfred had been born. Perhaps here were his strongest ties toHaiti. He stayed from June 4 to June 9. He says no word of whathe did or whom he saw. We only know that on June 10 he was boundhome on a British steamer "just eight days after I went ashore;I felt happy to arrive. I am more than happy to leave. He is silent until Monday, June 24, when he lands inthe United States.
It is possible that in Haiti he received fundswhich gave him greater independence, or again it may be that hehad left Alfred in Haiti, when he left in ; that his wifehad died and that in he returned to get his son and bringhim to America. Soon after returning he seems to have given up his New Haven workand connections and taken up a new career in Springfield, Massachusetts,where he had been living for some time.
Always heheld his head high, took no insults, made few friends. He wasnot a "Negro"; he was a man! Yet the current was toostrong even for him.
Then even more than now a colored man hadcolored friends or none at all, lived in a colored world or livedalone. A few fine, strong, black men gained the heart of thissilent, bitter man in New York and New Haven. If he had scantsympathy with their social clannishness, he was with them fightingdiscrimination. Beneath his sternness was a very human man. Slyly he wrote poetry--stilted,pleading things from a soul astray.
He loved women in his masterfulway, marrying after his Haitian experience three beautiful wivesin succession, in the United States, clinging to each with a certaindesperate, even if unsympathetic affection. As a father he wasnaturally a failure --hard, domineering, unyielding. His fourchildren reacted characteristically: He yielded and flared back, asked forgiveness andforgot why, became the harshly-bold favorite, who ran away andrioted and roamed, and loved and married my brown mother.
He arrived in Great Barrington in He was small and beautifulof face and feature, just tinted with the sun, his wavy hair chieflyrevealing his kinship to Africa. In nature, I think, he was adreamer--romantic, indolent, kind, unreliable. He had in himthe making of a poet, an adventurer, or a Beloved Vagabond, accordingto the life that closed round him; and that life gave him alltoo little.
I really know very little of my father. He had been brought fromHaiti by his father. How he was schooled, I do not know. NewHaven then had separate schools and all public schools were poor. Perhaps he was put into one of the better private Negro schools,which existed in New Haven at times. What he did between the agesof 15 and 35, I do not know.
He probably worked and wanderedhere and there. There is no hint of his marrying during thistime. But his picture which he gave mother showed him in theuniform of a Civil War private. How long he served or where,I do not know, nor whether he enlisted as colored or white. Connecticutraised two Negro regiments. When my father came to Great Barrington inthe black Burghardtsdid not like him. He was too good-looking, too white. He hadapparently no property and no job, so far as they knew; and theyhad never heard of the Du Bois family in New York.
Then suddenlyin a runaway marriage, but one duly attested and published inthe Berkshire Courier, Alfred married Mary Burghardt andthey went to live in the house of Jefferson McKinley. Here theylived for a year or two and against them the black Burghardt familycarried on a more or less open feud, until my birth. I was of great interest to the whole town. The whites waitedto see "when my hair was going to curl," and all myBurghardt relatives admired me extravagantly.
They still lookedaskance at my father and he was not attracted by them. Thereloomed the question as to where we were going to live and whatmy father was going to do for a living. He must have had somemoney on hand when he came, and he recoiled from grandfather Burghardt'shome where Mary and her baby were expected eventually to live.
After a year or more of hesitation, father went away to establisha home for his family. He would write for mother to come. Motherand I went to live on Egremont Plain with the Burghardts. Ina few months father wrote from New Milford, a small town in Connecticutabout 40 miles south of Great Barrington on the Housatonic River. She had seldom been out of her hometown. Once as a girl she had taken an excursion to New York. The familyobjected to her leaving and expressed more and more doubt as tofather.
The result was in the end that mother never went andmy father never came back to Great Barrington. If he wrote, theletters were not delivered.