NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois lived in Baltimore for two decades

W.E.B. Du Bois 
NAACP founder was Morgan Park resident

The life of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the civil rights leader, scholar and one of the five founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, came to an end only hours before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd of 241,000 marchers who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on a warm August afternoon in 1963.

Before King spoke, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, addressed the marchers who had earlier observed a moment of silence in Du Bois' memory at the Washington Monument.

"Regardless of the fact that in later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice that was calling you here today," Wilkins said.

His remarks drew little applause.

"Many in the audience were too young to know Mr. Du Bois except as a balding, goateed stormy petrel who figured prominently in the Negro's struggle for equality many years ago," reported The Washington Post at the time. "For those who did not know him, the limited response may have been the result of a mixture of respect and tragedy."

However, the historic sweep of Du Bois' life was indeed incredible.

He was born in 1868, five years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, in Great Barrington, Mass., the son of a French Huguenot father and a mother who was a descendant of a slave.

In his autobiography, Dusk at Dawn, Du Bois wrote that he was born with "a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but thank God, no 'Anglo-Saxon.'"

The sheer duration of his life, wrote columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. several years ago, "bridged the defining events of the African-American experience."

He earned his bachelor's degree from Fisk University in 1888, and earned a second bachelor's degree in 1890 from Harvard University, graduating cum laude in a class of 300. He was one of six commencement speakers, and his topic, "Jefferson Davis: Representative of Civilization," won him some notice.

He went on to earn a master's of arts in 1891 and his doctorate in 1895, both from Harvard.

Du Bois' doctoral thesis, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States," was the first volume published in the Harvard Historical Studies.

At the time he established the Niagara Movement in 1905, a forerunner of the NAACP and the Pan-African Conference, he wrote: "We claim for ourselves every right that belongs to a freeborn American -- political, civil and social -- and until we get these rights, we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America with the story of its shameful deeds toward us."

He taught at Wilberforce University, the University of Pennsylvania and Atlanta University until leaving academia in 1909 to become a founder of the NAACP. He edited The Crisis, the organization's magazine, from 1910 to 1934.

He broke with the NAACP over policy in 1934, and a decade later rejoined as director of special research, only to leave again after another disagreement in 1948.

It is not generally known that Du Bois lived in Baltimore for nearly two decades, beginning in 1939, when he and his wife, Nina, purchased a double lot in Morgan Park. They had moved to the city to be near their daughter, Yolande, a schoolteacher, and her husband, Arnette Williams.

Du Bois had a two-story white asbestos shingle home with a detached garage built at 2302 Montebello Terrace in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, and he lived there until his wife died in 1950.

In a letter to the builder, he praised the Morgan Park community because it was "near a college and not across the railroad track," wrote Roland C. McConnell in his book, The History of Morgan Park.

During his years there, Du Bois wrote Dusk at Dawn (1940), Color and Democracy (1945) and The World and Africa (1946). He also was the first black person to be elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

After his wife's death, Du Bois married author Shirley Graham and took an apartment in New York City, but he continued to live part time in Baltimore.

In a 1970 article, James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, wrote, "An old newspaperman will wince on being referred to Baltimore telephone directories that list Du Bois, W.E.B., from 1940 to 1960, and on being reminded that no daily newspaper interview was ever printed."

Bready reported that Du Bois' only speech before a white group during his Baltimore years occurred in 1952, when he spoke at St. John's College in Annapolis.

Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with life in the United States, he moved to Ghana in 1962 after renouncing his American citizenship.

When he was 91, he traveled to China where he was feted at a celebration attended by Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai, and when he turned 93, he joined the Communist Party.

"In manner, Dr. Du Bois was reserved and somewhat formal, although his few intimate friends found him warm and companionable," reported The New York Times at his death. "He was distinguished by a mustache and goatee, pince-nez glasses, and he invariably carried a cane. His dress was immaculate."
--Frederick N. Rasmussen
Originally published Feb.11, 2006