Question of the Month
Was W.E.B. Du Bois the First African American to Receive a Ph.D.?
Q: I am an African American attending a mostly white high school. My teacher told us that W.E.B. DuBois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. He got it in 1895. That does not seem right to me. It seems like there would have been an African American Ph.D. before that. I did some Internet searching but I am not sure what is true.
-- Conrad Bunster - San Diego, California
A: One could make strong arguments that W.E.B. Du Bois was the leading African American intellectual and leading civil rights spokesperson of the 20th century. Born in February 1868, Du Bois' life closely paralleled America’s embrace of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy; throughout his 95 years, Du Bois used every tool at his disposal to fight racial injustices. Writers are often advised to write until they are empty; Du Bois never emptied. He wrote a small library of books, not limited to, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), John Brown (1909), Black Reconstruction (1935), Black Folk, Then and Now (1939), and three autobiographies, including my favorite, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940), a brilliant exploration of the relationship between theories of race relations and his own personal journey. He wrote social scientific books and essays, newspaper and magazine articles, novels, short stories, even poetry. In 1905, Du Bois was a founder and general secretary of the Niagara movement, an African American protest group of scholars and professionals which morphed into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. For 25 years, Du Bois was editor-chief of The Crisis, an NAACP publication, and this gave him a national platform to reach thousands of Black readers with his messages of Black pride and the wrongness of racial injustice. The historian, David Levering Lewis, highlighted Professor Du Bois’s life this way: "In the course of his long, turbulent career, W.E.B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism – scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.”
In 1888, Du Bois earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. That year, he enrolled at Harvard University with standing as a junior; Harvard would not honor his degree from Fisk because they considered it an inferior degree. In 1890, he earned a bachelor’s degree cum laude from Harvard, and was one of six commencement speakers. In 1892, he received a stipend to do graduate work in history and economics at the University of Berlin, where he studied from 1892 to 1894. It is accurate to say that, during this time, he blossomed intellectually. His graduate professors included Adolph Wagner, Heinrich von Treitschke, Gustav von Schmoller, and other leading German social scientists. He returned to Harvard and, in 1895, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from that august institution. It might be that this is what your teacher said or meant to say.
For African American scholars of my generation, Du Bois was a hero and a role model; this was especially true for those Black academicians who wanted to combine their scholarship with activism. When I was an undergraduate at Jarvis Christian College, a historically Black college, it was common to see young men and women walking around with copies of Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. In retrospect, I believe we liked this collection of prose pieces primarily because it contained the essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Washington, the founder and head of Tuskegee Institute, another historically Black college, emphasized industrial training for Blacks, rather than a liberal arts curriculum. There is nothing wrong with being a farmer or trade worker, but we wanted all the options available to White students. Worse yet, he argued that Blacks would only find economic prosperity and daily peace with Whites if we withdrew our demands to be treated as first-class citizens. This was, for us, a weak-kneed surrender. I am here putting words in his mouth, “Quit arguing for civil rights; you can’t feed a family with civil rights. Learn a trade, lower your head and your expectations.” The name Booker T. Washington was, for us, a slur to be directed toward a classmate who was not a fierce opponent of Jim Crow segregation. Now thirty years later, my critique of Washington has mellowed. Today, I see him as a thoughtful, practical, and shrewd politician who had a deep passion for Black people, but who was also convinced that a direct assault on Jim Crow would be both unsuccessful and detrimental. I still disagree with his approach, but I now appreciate the role that he played in moving this country toward becoming a more egalitarian society.
In my lectures I often say to audiences, “It should never take courage to speak the truth.” I sincerely believe that any situation where people are not allowed to speak openly and honestly is flawed. Of course, I say these words a generation removed from the Jim Crow period. The truth is that during that time it did take courage to attack the legitimacy of America’s racial hierarchy. Du Bois fiercely and tirelessly used his pen and voice to denounce the twin lies that Blacks were innately inferior to Whites and that America’s racial hierarchy was natural and legitimate – and his rebukes were often caustic and sarcastic. He was routinely dismissed as a “colored boy” who did not know his “proper place” in the social order. I deeply admire his scholarship, but I have even greater admiration for his activism. I love the quote from the social activist, Maggie Kuhn, "speak your mind, even if your voice quakes." Du Bois spoke his mind, and by doing so, he made it easier for you and I to speak the truth as we know it.
Oh, by the way, Edward A. Bouchet received a Ph.D. in Physics in 1876 from Yale University, thus becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from an American university. Because of his race, Bouchet was denied opportunities to teach at historically White universities. For 26 years, he taught chemistry and physics at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker institution in Philadelphia. Ironically, he resigned in 1902 at the height of the debate between Du Bois and Washington over industrial training versus classical education. Bouchet spent the next 14 years holding a variety of different jobs, including teaching at St. Paul's Normal and Industrial School in Virginia, serving as principal of Lincoln High School in Galipolis, Ohio, teaching at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, working as a business manager for a hospital in St. Louis, and working as a United States Customs Service inspector. In 1921, three individuals became the first Black women to earn Ph.D.s: Georgiana Simpson, University of Chicago; Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, University of Pennsylvania; and Eva Beatrice Dykes, Radcliffe College.
Finally, I want to encourage you in your studies. Like you, I am interested in the achievements of those who paved the way for African Americans, but I am more interested in helping contemporary youth create new histories of achievement. I suppose what I am saying is this: it would be great to one day watch you walk across a stage to receive a doctorate degree in economics or physics, or better yet, a doctorate in optometry or pharmacy from Ferris State University.
May 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum