The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois

“White scholars of the second half of the twentieth century did not purposely ignore Du Bois; rather, thanks to the marginalization of Du Bois by the white founders of sociology, they were ignorant of his work.” – Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology

Scholar Denied

Today, 148 years ago, scholar and activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He earned a B.A. at Fisk University and in 1895 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Known as a sociologist, scholar, educator, civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, historian, writer, editor, and poet, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. In 1961, he became a naturalized citizen of Ghana. Du Bois died in Ghana at the age of 95.

Du Bois’ accomplishments were many—and sadly some were overlooked, specifically his contributions to the birth of modern sociology. Aldon Morris, author of The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology writes about his commitment to “setting the record straight” about Du Bois’ mastery of sociological thought.

In a graduate department of sociology I expected to study power and inequality, sociological theory, social movements, and Du Bois. Portions of that curriculum were fulfilled, but studying Du Bois proved elusive—even with Lewis Coser, who became an adviser and mentor that I met with every two weeks to discuss readings and “talk” sociology. Professor Coser interested me deeply because he was an important conflict analyst and an expert sociological theorist. Indeed, on the walls of Coser’s office were arrayed pictures of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Mannheim that seemed to beckon the uninitiated to the paths of sociological wisdom. Yet as I studied the images I was disappointed to see no picture of Du Bois gracing Coser’s wall.

In one session, I steeled my nerve and asked Professor Coser, “Why don’t you have a picture of Du Bois on your wall?” From behind a gigantic puff of cigarette smoke, he responded in his cultured European accent, “Masters of sociological thought are those rare scholars who build theoretical systems, and Du Bois did not build such a system.” I straightened up and responded, “But Professor Coser, what about Du Bois’s pioneering work on race where he accurately predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the color line?” Coser was not persuaded. In a barrage of words, I inquired, “What about The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk? Don’t they show a master at work?” Coser, always graceful and gentle when it came to students, softly replied, “Du Bois was not a master of sociological thought.” In that conclusion, Coser mirrored his generation, which also excluded Du Bois from mainstream sociological canons. White scholars of the second half of the twentieth century did not purposely ignore Du Bois; rather, thanks to the marginalization of Du Bois by the white founders of sociology, they were ignorant of his work. After that exchange with Coser, I took cues familiar to first-year graduate students that it was time to move to the next topic. However, I silently made a pledge in that office as the masters gazed from the wall: insofar as Du Bois was concerned, I would, one day, set the record straight. This book is my attempt to honor that promise by demonstrating that Du Bois was, indeed, a master of sociological thought.

Du Bois’ legacy is still felt today and exemplified in many of today’s African American intellectuals and activist sociologists as they continue to “produce pointed and critical scholarship, even when it’s discomfiting to the powers-that-be.”