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W.E.B. Du Bois | Biography


Youth and Education

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Mary Silvina Burghardt and Alfred Du Bois. Called "Willie" in his youth, Du Bois was raised by a doting mother after his father disappeared from the family early in his life. He attended integrated public schools in Massachusetts, and the principal of one school took special interest in his intellect, encouraging Du Bois to pursue his studies at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Receiving financial support from his community, Du Bois postponed his goal to go to Harvard and made the most of his years at Fisk from 1885–1888, studying the culture of the Jim Crow South in which he lived as closely as he studied his classroom courses. The term Jim Crow is an allusion to a racist minstrel character that came to describe Southern segregation laws.

With a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Fisk, Du Bois was admitted to Harvard College, which he paid for with a patchwork of sources including scholarships, loans, and the money he earned working during the summer. Harvard awarded him his second bachelor's degree cum laude in 1890, this one in philosophy, and the following year, he earned a master's degree in history. Before Du Bois completed his doctoral degree at Harvard he accepted a fellowship to do some graduate work at the University of Berlin, where he wrote a thesis on the history of southern U.S. agriculture. Throughout The Souls of Black Folk are traces of the cultural influence of those years on Du Bois in the form of musical and poetic references. In 1895 Du Bois became the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University.


Du Bois received numerous job offers upon his graduation from Harvard, and he decided upon a teaching position at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he taught classics and modern languages for two years. In 1896 the University of Pennsylvania invited him to be an assistant professor of sociology for the first case study of an African American community. For this project Du Bois moved to the African American neighborhoods of Philadelphia's Seventh Ward to perform field research that laid the groundwork for his study The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899. Du Bois also taught at Atlanta University, where he popularized the term the Talented Tenth, which refers to the educated, elite class that he believed was critical to African American cultural progress.


In 1905 Du Bois and other African American activists met in Canada near Niagara Falls to compose a rebuttal to African American educator Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise," which called for, among other things, an acceptance of segregation as a means for African Americans to achieve other gains. Many of the Niagara Movement's ideas were first expressed by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. In 1910 Du Bois and others at the second meeting of the National Negro Commitee formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Du Bois was asked to be its director of publicity and research. He edited the organization's monthly magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934.

Family and Legacy

In 1896 Du Bois married his Wilberforce student Nina Gomer, and a year later, they had a son named Burghardt. At just 18 months the little boy died from diphtheria (infection of the nose and throat), and this tragedy is the subject of the essay "Of the Passing of the First Born" in The Souls of Black Folk. In 1900 Du Bois and his wife welcomed their daughter Yolande. Nina Du Bois was committed to domestic life and rarely accompanied her husband in public. They also found it more suitable to live separately at times, when Du Bois's work took him away from home. Nina died in 1950. A year later Du Bois, 84, married Shirley Graham, a writer, musicologist, and political activist who was 30 years his junior. She and Du Bois were targeted by the McCarthy campaign because of their peace activism and socialist leanings, when Senator Joseph McCarthy attempted to defame hundreds of people during hearings in which he accused them of espionage and treason as part of an alleged communist infiltration. In opposition to democracy and free market capitalism, communism is an economic and political philosophy that advocates the public ownership of property and the means of production. While Du Bois did not officially join the Communist Party until he was 93, he renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1961. He and his wife then became citizens of Ghana, where Du Bois died on August 27, 1963.

As a scholar, author, editor, and activist, Du Bois was at the vanguard of the American civil rights movement. He is widely considered one of the most important African American figures of the early 20th century, and his writing, from novels and poetry to academic studies, remains highly regarded. The Souls of Black Folk is his most enduring and frequently studied work.

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