University of Pennsylvania awards Du Bois honorary doctorate

Happy birthday, Dr. Du Bois! Today would have been the 144th birthday of WEB Du Bois, the great scholar, civil rights and peace activist.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, Du Bois quickly emerged as one of the 20th century’s outstanding thinkers and social activists. Armed with a PhD from Harvard University, the young scholar came to national prominence at the turn of the century when he challenged Tuskegee University head Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist policies.

His famous collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk remains poignant and relevant even today. Du Bois went on to help found the Niagara Movement, a group of activists, workers and scholars devoted to fighting segregation and racism.

A committed socialist early in life, Du Bois withdrew form the Socialist Party because of its acceptance of segregation in some of its branches.

In the wake of the Niagara conferences he joined the effort to found the NAACP, where he served on its board for decades and edited its magazine, The Crisis.

After the first world war, Dr. Du Bois led five Pan African Congresses aimed at speeding the decolonization effort and achieving African independence.

Handcuffed at the age of 83 during the McCarthy period of Cold War repression, Du Bois ran for the U.S. Senate in New York and won over 100,000 votes. He joined the Communist Party in 1961 and died in Ghana in 1963, the day before the iconic civil rights march on Washington, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A two-day conference was recently held at the University of Pennsylvania to honor the late scholar who briefly worked there.

The university, at that time, however, declined to give the young professor a permanent job. While at the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois studied Philadelphia’s 7th ward and penned The Philadelphia Negro, considered to be the first sociology study published in the U.S.

An honorary doctorate was bestowed on Dr. Du Bois in the course of the event by the university’s Board of Trustees. Dr. Lewis Gordon, a professor at Temple University spoke at the conference and later said, “There is nothing in Africana Studies that does not owe a debt to W.E.B. Du Bois.”

Photo:  James and Esther Jackson papers at NYU’s Tamiment Library.  James and Esther Jackson seeing W.E.B. Du Bois off on a 1958 trip to Europe.



Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.