(William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Library of Congress, C. M. Battey, photographer)
“[B]y far the greater proportion of the money that has built up [Tuskegee Institute] has come in the form of small donations from persons of moderate means. It is upon these small gifts, which carry with them the interest of hundreds of donors, that any philanthropic work must depend largely for its support.”
–Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, “Raising Money” (Chapter 12)
In his seminal collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), historian and sociologist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) described Booker T. Washington as the “greatest leader” of Black men and a “Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host.” It cannot be denied that Washington, “The Wizard of Tuskegee” and the subject of Part I in our 2020 Black Philanthropy Month series, did a masterful job of securing millions of dollars to support Black education in the Post-Reconstruction South and that essential contributions came from people of various backgrounds, including wealthy and powerful White industrialists and countless Black Americans of humble birth and, in Washington’s words, “moderate means.”
Du Bois and Washington also gave generously of their time, talent, and treasure and can, therefore, be thought of as philanthropists. David Levering Lewis, author of W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, has shown that Du Bois’s radicalism, however, often put him at odds with Washington and the White philanthropists who, to Du Bois’s mind, tended to favor a brand of industrial education and socialization that left Blacks politically and economically disenfranchised in the early 20th century. Some facts about Du Bois’s early life help account for his radical tendencies.
Born in freedom in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois was a precocious child and an excellent student. He graduated at the top of his high school class, and he earned his undergraduate degree at the historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He then went on to complete graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard University, where he became the first African American to earn a doctorate in 1896.
Through his work as a teacher, scholar, public speaker, and, by 1909, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)–and editor of the NAACP’s Crisis publication, Du Bois reached millions of readers and listeners, and became an outspoken advocate for social, political, economic, and civil rights. He also fought for the “higher training” (on the campuses of colleges and universities) of the brightest minds in Black America, an elite group that he often referred to as “The Talented Tenth.”
Although his political views would continue to evolve over time, Du Bois remained convinced that enlightened Black leaders and Black organizations—including the Black church and fraternal and benevolent groups, had a duty to uplift the race. A prolific writer, Du Bois’s insightful essays, books, and other publications provide abundant evidence related to his efforts to give back to the Black community.