Education During Slavery

Who was the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University?

In 1895 W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) Du Bois (1868–1963), educator, writer, and Pan-Africanist, became the first black to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. He was also the first black to obtain a Ph.D. in history. While Du Bois is universally recognized as an important and influential leader, controversy surrounded his leadership and his progressive ideas on black-white relations often brought him into conflict with black leaders who espoused less radical approaches.

Du Bois was arguably the greatest African-American scholar-intellectual of the twentieth century. He employed his research and training to further the causes of social uplift and the educational and professional development of African Americans. One of his numerous writings, The Souls of Black Folk, is among the most influential texts of the twentieth century. His “Talented Tenth” theory, or the concept that the best-equipped tenth of the black race would lead the less advantaged 90 percent, countered Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist platform. As a founder of both the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, Du Bois was a pioneer of the modern Civil Rights Movement. He dedicated his life to ending colonialism, exploitation, and racism worldwide. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois graduated from Fisk University, where he had great exposure to African-American culture and began to politicize his thinking. He entered Harvard University, but had to do so as a junior since the school failed to recognize his Fisk degree, regardless of the quality of his education.

Throughout the 1950s, Du Bois’ criticism of American capitalism, imperialism, and racial inequality firmly tied him to leftist causes. He settled in Ghana in 1961, joined the Communist Party, and died there one day before the famous March on Washington.


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