The library at UMass stands out, quite literally. As one of the tallest library buildings in the world, it might get noticed on its own, but its 26 floors of bricks and books are towered over by its namesake,W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most influential African-American intellectuals and activists of the 20th century. Summarizing the life and career of a man like Du Bois is no easy task. As a person who confronted injustice wherever he saw it, whenever he saw it, he lent his name and talents to dozens of causes and organizations. Born in the early days of Reconstruction, he witnessed many of the major events that shaped America over nearly a century, from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education, from the onset of Jim Crow to the March on Washington.
As the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, Du Bois originally planned upon an academic life, and he made important scholarly contributions to history and sociology, among other disciplines. Having witnessed the effects of racial violence and repression first hand, however, as well as the vibrancy and resilience of African-American culture, Du Bois left the academy to dedicate himself to challenging the status quo. Never the leader of a mass movement, he was nevertheless an inveterate organizer, helping to found the Niagara Movement in 1904 and its successor the NAACP in 1909, becoming a key theorist of the Pan-African Movement, and a significant supporter of African-American literary and artistic production. A theorist of social justice, editor, agitator, essayist, poet, and novelist, he famously observed that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” but he came increasingly to recognize that racial justice could not be won without also addressing the entrenched problems of educational and economic inequality, women’s rights, and the struggle for peace, and without opposing colonial domination of the Third World.
The Du Bois Papers arrived at the Department of Special Collections in 1973 through the efforts of Randolph W. Bromery and Du Bois’s widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois. Having been spread out at locations from New York to Accra, Ghana, they contain over 165 linear feet of manuscript material representing the bulk of Du Bois’s personal papers. The collection is an invaluable resource for examining the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, and thanks to Du Bois’s stunning breadth of vision, it offers insight into topics ranging from urban sociology to the history of education, African-American religion, the Harlem Renaissance, American political culture, and international relations.
To promote use of the collection, the Department of Special Collections has built a substantial and rapidly growing Web site featuring digitized versions of over 15 books by Du Bois, numerous articles and documents, over 850 photographs, an extensive finding aid, and virtual exhibits. Annually on about February 23, Du Bois’s birthday, the department sponsors a physical exhibit of materials from the collection and an invited lecture by a prominent African-American historian on Du Bois’s life and legacy.
Collection Profile and Overview: Robert S. Cox
Illustrations: Josh Silver/University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries