Writer, activist shaped generations with his prose

W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded NAACP, fought for equal rights

Duke Energy is celebrating Black History Month this February by highlighting a person of achievement from each state in Duke Energy’s service territory. Today, Tennessee: W.E.B. Du Bois, writer, sociologist, activist (1868-1963)

Most people know W.E.B. Du Bois as a writer. But Trevor Pearce, assistant professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte, said it’s important to appreciate that he was much more.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born 150 years ago in Massachusetts. When he left the relatively tolerant Northeast for Nashville’s historically black Fisk University (thanks to generous townspeople who took up a collection to send him to college), he encountered a level of racism he hadn’t experienced before. It influenced his life and work.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Having discovered black intellectualism at Fisk – a school originally built for former slaves – Du Bois wanted to teach a new generation of black intellectuals. He became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. (Today, it is Clark Atlanta University.)  

“He was a pioneering social scientist, a philosopher, a novelist,” Pearce said, “and a very important activist-journalist.”

In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship to attend the University of Berlin for graduate studies. “At that time, the highest level of education you could get was in Berlin,” Pearce said. “That was even more prestigious than Harvard.” Du Bois in 1895 became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois co-founded the NAACP in 1909 “as a biracial organization to address racial injustice,” said David Taylor of Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. “Du Bois believed in a pluralistic society.”

The first NAACP president was Moorfield Storey, a white former president of the American Bar Association. Du Bois was the only black member of the founding board of directors. He also founded the group’s newspaper, The Crisis, which has been in print since 1910.


He didn’t believe compromise was possible when it came to equality. Du Bois led the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group that insisted on full equal rights for African-Americans. This was in contrast to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of submitting to white political rule in exchange for a promise of basic educational and economic opportunity.

Despite all the ways in which Du Bois influenced society – with his scholarship, his interest in the arts and sciences, his activism – he is still best remembered for his powerful prose. His essay collection, “The Souls of Black Folk” is a seminal work in African-American literature.

From the first chapter, he lays out an issue still present 150 years after Du Bois’ birth – the duality of the African-American. “One ever feels his twoness,” he wrote. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”   

Learn more: freedomcenter.org, ganttcenter.org, blackpast.org, The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture.  

At Duke Energy

Duke Energy is committed to supporting diversity and equality in the workplace and the communities it serves. The company works to create an environment of advocacy that supports Duke Energy's effort to attract, develop, engage, and retain a diverse workforce. The company has a strong network of Employee Resource Groups focused on the needs of our employees, communities and customers. One such group is Advocates for African-Americans (A³), which provides educational and recruitment support to attract, retain and engage African-American talent, offers professional and leadership development for members, and promotes African-American cultural awareness through activities and events.