Five College Archives and Manuscript Collections
W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999 (Bulk: 1877-1963)
382 boxes (168.75 linear ft.)
Collection number: MS 312

Scholar, writer, educator, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who was involved in many areas of twentieth century racial, literary, and social reform movements. Includes over 100,000 articles of correspondence (more than 3/4 of the papers), speeches, articles, newspaper columns, nonfiction books, research materials, book reviews, pamphlets and leaflets, petitions, novels, essays, forewords, student papers, manuscripts of pageants, plays, short stories and fables, poetry, photographs, newspaper clippings, memorabilia, videotapes, audiotapes, and miscellaneous materials. A copy of the full published guide, which also includes a detailed listing of materials that were microfilmed is available at:

Terms of Access and Use:

There are no restrictions on access to the contents of the collection. Since many of the items are fragile, however, researchers are requested to use the microfilm whenever possible.

The collection is open for research.

Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Biographical Note

Du Bois was born in the small New England village of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, three years after the end of the Civil War. Unlike most black Americans, his family had not just emerged from slavery. His great-grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, and the Burghardts had been an accepted part of the community for generations. Yet from his earliest years Du Bois was aware of differences that set him apart from his Yankee neighbors. In addition to the austere hymns of his village Congregational Church, Du Bois learned the songs of a much more ancient tradition from his grandmother. Passed from generation to generation, their original meanings long forgotten, the songs of Africa were sung around the fire in Du Bois' boyhood home. Thus, from the beginning, Du Bois was aware of an earlier tradition that set him apart from his New England community - a distant past shrouded in mystery, in sharp contrast to the detailed chronicle of Western Civilization that he learned at school.

Du Bois' father left home soon after Du Bois was born. The youngster was raised largely by his mother, who imparted to her child the sense of a special destiny. She encouraged his studies and his adherence to the Victorian virtues and pieties characteristic of rural New England in the 19th century. Du Bois in turn gravely accepted a sense of duty toward his mother that transcended all other loyalties.

Du Bois excelled at school and outshone his white contemporaries. While in high school he worked as a correspondent for New York newspapers and became something of a prodigy in the eyes of the community. As he reached adolescence he began to become aware of the subtle social boundaries which he was expected to observe. This made him all the more determined to force the community to recognize his academic achievements.

Du Bois was clearly a young man of promise. The influential members of his community recognized this and quietly decided his future. Great Barrington, like most of New England, still glowed with the embers of the abolitionist fires that had only recently been dampened with the ending of the Reconstruction in the South. Together with the missionary inclinations of the Congregationalist Church, these sensibilities manifested themselves in the community's attitude towards Du Bois, who presented them with an opportunity to perform an act of Christian duty toward a promising example of what they considered to be the less fortunate races of the world.

Du Bois had always wanted to go to Harvard and he was initially disappointed when he learned that it had been arranged that he attend Fisk University in Nashville. But the experience changed his life. It helped to clarify his identity and pointed him in the direction of his life's work. When Du Bois left Fisk in the fall of 1885 it was the last time he would call Great Barrington his home. His mother had died during that summer and Du Bois entered a world that he would claim for his own. Du Bois arrived in Nashville a serious, contemplative, self-conscious young man with habits and attitudes formed by a boyhood in Victorian New England. At Fisk he encountered sons and daughters of former slaves who had borne the mark of oppression but had nourished a rich cultural and spiritual tradition that Du Bois recognized as his own. Du Bois also encountered the White South. The achievements of Reconstruction were being destroyed by the white politicians and businessmen who had gained political control. Blacks were being terrorized at the polls and were being driven back into the economic status that differed from institutional slavery in little but name. Du Bois saw the suffering and the dignity of rural blacks when he taught school during the summers in the East Tennessee countryside, and he resolved that in some way his life would be dedicated to a struggle against racial and economic oppression. He was determined to continue his education and his perseverance was rewarded when he was offered a scholarship to study at Harvard University.

Du Bois' life was a struggle of warring ideas and ideals. He entered Harvard during its golden age and studied with William James and Albert Bushnell Hart. It was a progressive era and Du Bois was smitten with the ideal of science - an objective truth that could dispel once and for all the irrational prejudices and ignorances that stood in the way of a just social order. He brought back the German scientific ideal from the University of Berlin and was one of the first to initiate scientific sociological study in the United States. For years he labored at Atlanta University and created landmarks in the scientific study of race relations. Yet a shadow fell over his work as he saw the nation retreating into barbarism. Repressive segregation laws, lynching, and terror were on the increase despite the march of science. Du Bois' faith in the detached role of the scientist was shaken, and with the Atlanta Riot of 1906 Du Bois with his "Litany at Atlanta" passionately sounded a challenge to those forces of repression and destruction. At a time when Booker T. Washington counseled acceptance of the social order, Du Bois sounded a call to arms and with the founding of the Niagara Movement and later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People entered a new phase of his life. He became an impassioned champion of direct assault on the legal, political, and economic system that thrived on the exploitation of the poor and the powerless. As he began to point out the connections between the plight of Afro- Americans and those who suffered under colonial rule in other areas of the world, his struggle assumed international proportions. The Pan-African Movement that flowered in the years after World War I was the beginning of the creation of a third world consciousness.

Du Bois' style of leadership was intensely personal. He sought no mass following like Marcus Garvey, and the fierceness and unyielding determination with which he fought for his ideals alienated many who counseled less direct means of achieving limited political goals.

In the years after World War II the desperate struggles that Du Bois had waged came together in a vision that was to challenge many of the assumptions of his contemporaries. He had fought for many progressive causes but saw them consumed by a cold war mentality that silenced rational debate.

As he became more of an international figure, Du Bois was accepted less and less by his contemporaries at home. Yet when he left America to become a citizen of Ghana in 1961, he did not do so as a rejection of his countrymen. Returning to the land of his forefathers marked a resolution of many conflicts with which Du Bois had struggled all his life.

Du Bois' mature vision was a reconciliation of the "sense of double consciousness"- the "two warring ideals" of being both black and an American - that he had written about fifty years earlier. He came to accept struggle and conflict as essential elements of life, but he continued to believe in the inevitable progress of the human race - that out of individual struggles against a divided self and political struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors, a broader and fuller human life would emerge that would benefit all of mankind.

After a lifetime of struggle, Du Bois' last statement to the world was one of hope and confidence in the ability of human beings to shape their own destinies. "One thing alone I charge you," he wrote: As you live, believe in Life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the Great End comes slowly, because time is long.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999, document virtually every stage in his long career and show his involvement in many areas of twentieth century racial, literary, and social reform movements. In particular, the correspondence files, including well over 100,000 items show Du Bois' interactions with others in these realms. The earliest letter in the collection, a note to his grandmother, dates from 1877 when Du Bois was just nine years old. Among the latest is the draft of a letter, written not long before his death in 1963, appealing to the leaders of the Soviet Union and China to heal the divisions that had arisen in the world communist movement. The files, containing only a few items from his early youth, become more plentiful for Du Bois' student days in the 1880s and 1890s, and the commencement of his career as scholar and educator in the 1890s and 1900s. They are at their fullest during his period with the NAACP as editor of The Crisis, 1910-1934, and they remain nearly as abundant for the last thirty years of his life, 1934-1963.

This collection is organized into twenty-four series:

  • Series 1. Correpsondence, 1877-1965
  • Series 2. Speeches, 1888-1962
  • Series 3. Articles, 1887-1968
  • Series 4. Newspaper Columns, 1927-1961, n.d.
  • Series 5. Nonfiction Books, ca. 1896-1962
  • Series 6. Research Materials, 1896-1959, n.d.
  • Series 7. Pamphlets and Leaflets, 1902-1962
  • Series 8. Book Reviews, 1905-1961
  • Series 9. Petitions, 1947-1961
  • Series 10. Essays, Forewords, and Student Papers, ca. 1888-1962
  • Series 11. Novels, 1892-1961
  • Series 12. Pageants, 1913-1941, n.d.
  • Series 13. Plays, 1928-1940, n.d.
  • Series 14. Short Stories and Fables, 1895-1950s
  • Series 15. Poetry, 1907-1965, n.d.
  • Series 16. Miscellaneous Material, 1803-1964
  • Series 17. Photographs, ca. 1864-1963
  • Series 18. Memorabilia, 1913-1963
  • Series 19. Motion Pictures and Tapes, 1958-1979
  • Series 20. Newspaper Clippings, 1901-1955, n.d.
  • Series 21. Copies of Du Bois materials from other locations, 1870-1983
  • Series 22. Miscellaneous material concerning Du Bois and the Du Bois collection, 1969-1984
  • Series 23. Accretions to the Du Bois collections, 1890-1963

Information on Use
Terms of Access and Use
Restrictions on access:

There are no restrictions on access to the contents of the collection. Since many of the items are fragile, however, researchers are requested to use the microfilm whenever possible.

The collection is open for research.

Preferred Citation

Cite as: W.E.B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Additional Formats

Most of the Du Bois papers at the University of Massachusetts were microfilmed in l979 and are available in many locations in the United States and elsewhere, or through interlibrary loan, or by purchase from University Microfilms International.

Images from this collection are also available in the Online Exhibit of Materials from the Du Bois Papers.

History of the Collection
Custodial history:

During his lifetime Du Bois conscientiously retained his incoming letters, copies of his outgoing letters, and files of his speeches, articles, books and other manuscripts. While these files were most complete for the middle and later stages of his life, all periods are represented to some degree in this collection. Some papers were transferred at various times to Fisk University, Yale University and the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, but Du Bois retained ownership of most of his papers pending a final decision on a repository site.

When Du Bois moved to Ghana in 1961, he left the bulk of his papers with Herbert Aptheker in New York City and named him as editor of a planned edition of Du Bois' correspondence and other works. While Du Bois did take some correspondence and other manuscripts to Africa, Aptheker was left the greater part of the collection, which he and his wife arranged into workable order and supplemented with copies of many Du Bois materials they located in other repositories. The last two years of Du Bois' life generated additional papers including new correspondence, papers relating to the Encyclopedia Africana, and other manuscripts. At Du Bois' death in 1963, ownership of his files passed to his widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois. When President Nkrumah's government was overthrown in 1966, Mrs. Du Bois left Ghana in haste for Cairo, Egypt, taking the papers with her. Aptheker continued to care for the papers left with him until the entire collection went to Massachusetts in 1973. In the early 1970s, aware that plans for a permanent location had not been made, University of Massachusetts officials negotiated an agreement with Mrs. Du Bois for all of Dr. Du Bois' papers to come to the University. Since then, accretions to the collection have been received from David Du Bois, Herbert Aptheker, Randolph Bromery, David Levering Lewis, Veoria Shivery, U. S. Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigation (by request through the Freedom of Information Act) and others.

Processing Information

Processed by Robert W. McDonnell. Biographical essay by Kerry W. Buckley.

Additional Information
Contact Information
Special Collections and University Archives
W.E.B. Du Bois Library
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Amherst, MA 01003-9275

Phone: (413) 545-2780
Fax: (413) 577-1399
Additional Finding Aids Available

A copy of the full published guide, which also includes a detailed listing of materials that were microfilmed is available at