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Did You Know? William Du Bois is the First African-American to Earn a Doctorate Degree

Born on 23rd February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the young Du Bois grew up to become an African-American sociologist, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, historian, editor, and author. He grew up in a relatively unified and tolerant community.

The young William reportedly excelled quite well in Great Barrington’s public school, graduating as a valedictorian from high school by 1884. Due to his determination and outstanding academic performance, Du Bois joined the Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee to pursue his bachelor’s degree in arts, and successfully graduated four years later to join the Harvard University in 1888 as a junior. He earned his second bachelor’s degree in 1890 and commenced another two-year graduate studies in History and Economics at Berlin University in Germany. Later, he returned to the U.S. to start his two-year teaching (stint) of Latin and Greek at the University of Wilberforce, Ohio.

By 1895, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois became the first African-American to earn a doctorate (PhD) at the Harvard University. Indeed, his doctorate thesis titled “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America” was the first book to be published by the University’s Press by 1896.


Before the end of the 19th century, William Du Bois was already a practicing teacher (assistant instructor) at the University of Pennsylvania and, later, at the University of Atlanta; teaching sociology and economics. At the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois conducted a pioneering sociological and economic research on the urban communities and titled his published book as “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” in 1899. This book revealed that employment and housing discriminations were the primary barriers to the black prosperity and racial equity across the urbanized North. These two publications of his professional works placed him at the top among the leading American scholars of the time.

By the inception of the 20th century, Du Bois rose to the national fame when he became the leader of the civil rights movement- the “Niagara Movement” in 1905. This was a group of the African-American activists who advocated for the equal rights of the black community or race. The movement aimed at providing solutions to the organizational challenges due to racial discriminations and social segregation. Du Bois later became the leader and the co-founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) by 1909 and served as the editor of the association’s magazine until 1934.

Du Bois’ continued belief that scholarship could promote racial equity made him write several articles and books, including his 1935 “Black Reconstruction in the U.S.” a book that was largely discounted by many scholars of his time. It eventually introduced a dramatic debate on the Reconstruction era during the 1960s and 1970s by prominent scholars. However, the book’s conclusion on the progress made by the blacks during the Reconstruction era has finally been accepted by almost all socio-economic historians.

At the height of the cold war in the early 1950s, Mr. Du Bois was devoted to promoting peace between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, after encountering a lot of opposition, controversies and criticisms due to his political stand, Du Bois left the U.S. to go and seek for a permanent citizenship in Ghana due to his support and close relationship with Kwame Nkrumah- the Ghanaian President. Du Bois finally died in Accra, Ghana on 27th August 1963.


Written by How Africa News

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