The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

W.E.B. DuBois
W.E.B. DuBois pic
An Obligation to Help
The criminal and the sensualist leave the church for the gambling-hell and the brothel, and fill the slums of Chicago and Baltimore; the better classes segregate themselves from the group-life of both white and black, and form an aristocracy, cultured but pessimistic, whose bitter criticism stings while it points out no way of escape...
–from The Souls of Black Folks

Civil rights leader, sociologist, and writer W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois (pronounced DU-boyz) is largely associated with Philadelphia because of his landmark work of social research on the city's poor African Americans; with Massachusetts, where he was born and where he attended Harvard University; and with Ghana, the country to which he exiled himself late in his life. However, he and his wife Nina, whom he married in 1896, spent at least a decade in Baltimore, and his daughter, Nina Yolande Du Bois Cullen Williams-whose first husband was poet Countee Cullen-lived in Baltimore and taught in Baltimore City schools, including Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. His granddaughter, Yolande Du Bois Williams, also lived here. Du Bois had a house built for his family in the Morgan Park neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore.

Born on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Dubois received degrees from Fisk University (B.A.) and Harvard University (B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) and did additional graduate work at the University of Berlin. He taught Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, he researched and wrote an exhaustive study on the problems of urban African Americans in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899).

His most famous work is probably his reflections on racism and on the role of leaders in the African American community in overcoming racism, The Souls of Black Folks. Published in 1903, it is still required reading in many university courses. He also developed and promoted the concept of the Talented Tenth—a belief that those African Americans who were able to achieve admiration and fame through their education and achievements in art, literature, music, science, etc. had an obligation to help other African Americans.

In 1909, Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and edited its magazine, Crisis, for over twenty years. A few years before coming to Baltimore, Du Bois broke with the NAACP, deciding that his goals did not include integration—he wanted to establish African American institutions independent of the white establishment. He did later serve as the NAACP's director of special research from 1944 to 1948.

During his years in Baltimore, primarily 1939-1950, he wrote three books, including Color and Democracy (1945), and became the first African American elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Evening Sun reporter James Beard noted some years later that no daily newspaper ever interviewed Du Bois during his time here in Baltimore.

Nina Du Bois died in 1950; in 1951, Du Bois married writer Shirley Graham and moved to New York City, though he continued to visit Baltimore and his Montebello Terrace house. His disenchantment with the United States grew, and in 1962, he and Shirley moved to Ghana. He died in 1963, a day before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

In 2008, the Baltimore City Council designated his Montebello house a Baltimore Landmark.

Places of interest: