Online: Object of the Month
Recently Discovered: A Letter from W. E. B. Du Bois
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Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
In this letter, dated 7 November 1895, 28-year-old W. E. B. Du Bois writes to Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar seeking Hoar’s assistance in securing a teaching position, either at Howard University or in the Washington, D.C., public schools. Acknowledging that he has “no claim upon an entire stranger to ask so great a favor,” Du Bois outlines for Hoar his personal ambitions as a historian and sociologist in order to demonstrate how a teaching position in Washington, with access to the vast libraries in the nation’s capital, would help him achieve these goals.
Who was W.E.B Du Bois?
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on 23 February 1868. In June of 1884 he became the first African-American graduate of the integrated public high school in Great Barrington. After graduation he enrolled at Fisk University in Tennessee, earning a bachelor's of arts in 1888. He then enrolled at Harvard University, earning a second bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a Ph.D. As part of his education he also spent two years in Germany at the Friedrich-Wilhelm III Universitat (now the Humboldt University of Berlin).
Du Bois's first teaching position was at Wilberforce University in Ohio, a position he held unhappily for two years. In this letter to Hoar, Du Bois writes that he feels Wilberforce is not an institution "with a growing future before it" and laments that he is unable to teach his "specialty" of history and social science. He also notes that Wilberforce has "no library for use" suited to his research needs.
Du Bois did not obtain a position in the Washington area at this time, but he was able to leave his position at Wilberforce. In 1896 he was invited by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a sociological study of black people in Philadelphia's seventh ward. The publication that resulted from this work, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), remains a pioneering work in urban sociology.
In 1897 Du Bois accepted a faculty post at Atlanta University, a position that allowed him to pursue his scholarly and personal interests and establish himself as a leader in his field of African-American history and sociology. Through the early twentieth century, Du Bois published a number of important works including The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and he was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois spent his final years in Ghana in West Africa, working toward the publication of the Encyclopedia Africana, a project that was not completed in his lifetime. Du Bois died on 27 August 1963, just months after becoming a citizen of Ghana.
Not His First Letter of This Kind
In this letter Du Bois calls on Senator Hoar to use his political influence to help him secure a teaching position in a city that would enable him to fulfill his ambition of becoming a leader in the study of black and white relations in America. Five years earlier, on 4 November 1890, Du Bois wrote a similar letter to former president Rutherford B. Hayes in hopes of securing financial support from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen. The fund, chaired by President Hayes, had been established in 1882 to support the education of freedmen in the South.
In his letter to Hayes, a response to a notice in the Boston Herald, Du Bois describes his educational pursuits up to that time, indicating that his field of interest was political science and the history of African slavery from the economic and social standpoint. He closes the letter, "If it appears to you upon investigation that I show 'any especial aptitude for study,' I respectfully ask that I be sent to Europe to pursue my work in the continental universities..." Du Bois's application for aid was rejected by the Slater Fund, but Hayes encouraged him to reapply. The following year, after the exchange of numerous letters, his application was accepted. In the spring of 1892 he received $750 from the Slater Fund, $375 as a scholarship and $375 as a loan. He used those funds, and a second award received the following year, to support his studies at the Friedrich-Wilhelm III Universitat.
Hidden in Plain Sight
This letter from Du Bois to George Frisbie Hoar was 'uncovered' earlier this year by Brian Gratton, a short-term research fellow, who was surveying the George Frisbie Hoar Papers in search of material related to immigration restriction legislation in the late nineteenth century. Although this letter was not pertinent to his research, he realized its importance and quickly brought it to the attention of the library staff. It was a "goose-bumps" moment to read the carefully crafted letter for the first time, and to discover the identity of the author—who was a little known scholar from Massachusetts at the time—on the final page.
The George Frisbie Hoar Papers
The George Frisbie Hoar Papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society consist mainly of family and political correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, speeches, and other writings by Hoar, a lawyer and politician from Worcester, Massachusetts, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate for 35 years. The voluminous collection contains materials related to Hoar's law practice and his public service at the municipal, state, and national levels. The papers contain particularly rich resources for the study of the development of the Republican Party, the political investigations in Louisiana during Reconstruction, the Salary Grab Act of 1873, the Disputed Election of 1876, the Sherman Anti-Trust and Silver Purchase Acts, and the controversial McKinley Tariff of 1890.
For Further Reading
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois. Ed. by Herbert Aptheker, volume 1. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973.
John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen. Organization of the Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen, 1882. Baltimore: J. Murphy, 1882.