W.E.B. Du Bois by David Levering Lewis by David Levering Lewis - Read Online



The two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of W. E. B. Du Bois from renowned scholar David Levering Lewis, now in one condensed and updated volume

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois—the premier architect of the civil rights movement in America—was a towering and controversial personality, a fiercely proud individual blessed with the language of the poet and the impatience of the agitator. Now, David Levering Lewis has carved one volume out of his superlative two-volume biography of this monumental figure that set the standard for historical scholarship on this era. In his magisterial prose, Lewis chronicles Du Bois's long and storied career, detailing the momentous contributions to our national character that still echo today.
W.E.B. Du Bois is a 1993 and 2000 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction and the winner of the 1994 and 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

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Title Page

Copyright Notice




1. Postlude to the Future

2. Mary Silvina’s Berkshire Prodigy

3. The Age of Miracles: Fisk and Josie’s World

4. The Age of Miracles: Harvard and Lehrjahre

5. Wilberforce: Book, Mentor, Marriage

6. From Philadelphia to Atlanta

7. Social Science, Tuskegee, and Clashing Temperaments

8. Going Over Niagara, The Souls of Black Folk, and Booker T. Washington

9. Scholar Behind the Veil and the Birth of the NAACP

10. NAACP: Rise of the Crisis, Decline of the Wizard

11. Connections at Home and Abroad

12. Crises at the Crisis

13. The Perpetual Dilemma and the Wounded World

14. The Reason Why

15. Rearranging Ethiopia Abroad and at Home

16. Civil Rights by Copyright

17. The Possibility of Democracy in America

18. Holding on, Amorously and Angrily

19. A New Racial Philosophy

20. Atlanta: The Politics of Knowledge and Soldiering On

21. Against the Grain: From the NAACP to the Far Left

22. Exeunt




Also by David Levering Lewis

About the Author


To Allegra

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them: and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

—Frederick Douglass, West Indian Emancipation, August 4, 1857

Had it not been for the race problem early thrust upon me and enveloping me, I should have probably been an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the established social order into which I was born. But just that part of this order which seemed to most of my fellows nearest perfection seemed to me most inequitable and wrong; and starting from that critique, I gradually, as the years went by, found other things to question in my environment.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Autobiography: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century

Genius … means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.

—William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)


Two decades ago, I embarked on a biography of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in the conceit that everything could be said in a single volume. By midstream, after hundreds of pages written and numerous manuscript collections and personal interviews still undone, I was properly deflated. Fifty years old at the end of World War I, Du Bois had four lucid decades of militant progressivism and pioneering scholarship remaining. He and I had yet to experience World War I, the cold war, the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, and West African self-exile. His was a larger-than-life story too large, I decided, to be compressed into a single volume of reasonable girth. Necessity served as mother of inspired convenience, therefore, and W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 served up the first half of the life in 1993. W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 finished the life and times of this extraordinary personality in 2000, several years later than anticipated.

William Edward Burghardt was not easy to live with, but he was one of the twentieth century’s most prescient thinkers and an American social reformer who, irrespective of race, had few contemporary peers. Much of what he wrote and exemplified politically—his informed critique of American exceptionalism, his global perspective on racial justice—has perdurable significance that urgently merits critical appreciation today. Simply put, notwithstanding a putatively postracial United States with its projected nonwhite majority and presidency, Du Bois’s famous prophecy about the problem of the color line remains relevant. Although I believe I was right that Du Boisian timelessness and timeliness demanded the pace and scope offered by two volumes, I now worry that these very attributes may become both less familiar and more distorted in the new culture of electronic literacy, depleted attention spans, and a penchant for handily packaged information.

The challenge of reducing a two-volume life and times to a single volume, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, 1868–1963, presented all the old dilemmas that the biographer believed he had resolved between two covers. Cutting away prose and jettisoning pages is a process akin to self-mutilation, an agony unwisely borne without the help of an empathetic skeptic and skillful surgeon. The indefatigable Kendra Taira Field of New York University’s graduate history department performed her surgical tasks with consummate professionalism and judicious enthusiasm. There is a minimum of new matter. Errors of fact are corrected. This pared-down Du Bois is faithful to the interpretations of its parent. Its objective is to deliver more with less.

—David Levering Lewis

Stanfordville, N.Y., October 15, 2008



The announcement of W.E.B. Du Bois’s death came just after Odetta finished singing, a mighty trumpet of a voice that had accompanied the nonviolent civil rights movement from early days. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), broke the news in his precise midwestern voice that always reminded you of a proper Protestant pastor or one of the older men behind the counter at Brooks Brothers. From late morning into mid-afternoon, the scalding sun and suffocating clamminess had exacted their toll from more than 250,000 men, women, and young people who crowded the length of the Reflecting Pool of the nation’s capital in extraordinary response to the charge of Asa Philip Randolph, grand old man of civil rights and the moving force behind the March on Washington. Tall, white-maned, and as ebony as an African chief’s walking stick, Randolph had summoned Americans to Washington that twenty-eighth day of August, 1963, in all their professional, social, and ethnic variety to act, as he said in his cathedral baritone, as the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.¹

Before Wilkins’s brief, epochal announcement, speaker after speaker had stepped up to the altar of microphones to music and song by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Marian Anderson; and Mahalia Jackson. As the sun blazed down, the marchers witnessed a who’s who of America’s civil rights, religious, and labor leadership. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches, with a speech too dry for this evangelical occasion, was followed by young John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose speech in its original draft, threatening to lay waste to the white South, had brought down upon his militant head the collective wrath of the civil rights elders and Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of the Washington archdiocese. Lewis finally agreed to soften his words, but not by much, and the crowd cheered when he intoned, Listen, Mr. Kennedy, listen, Mr. Congressman, listen, fellow citizens—the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a ‘cooling-off’ period. The United Automobile Workers’ ebullient Walter Reuther almost matched Lewis’s cautionary rhetoric, telling a nation on guard against Soviet imperialism that it could not defend freedom in Berlin, so long as we deny freedom in Birmingham. Then came Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to read James Farmer’s powerful speech. Had Farmer not insisted on staying in jail in Plaquemine, Louisiana, his baritone delivery would surely have made eyes water and pulses rise even more than the intense McKissick succeeded in doing. Whitney Young Jr., the handsome, gregarious new head of the National Urban League (NUL), was more at home in the boardrooms of corporate donors than in trying to stir crowds, and his too rapidly read message showed it.² When Matthew Ahmann of the National Conference for Interracial Justice (NCIJ) used up his ten minutes in moral generalities, the thermometer stood at eighty-two humid degrees and attention spans evaporated.

Now Roy Wilkins was at the microphone, to be followed by Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress. But instead of beginning his prepared address straightaway, Wilkins opened by saying that he was the bearer of news of solemn and great significance. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was dead. He had died in his sleep around midnight, on the twenty-seventh, in Ghana, the country of his adopted citizenship. Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path, Wilkins told the suddenly still crowd, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause. The NAACP head asked for silence, and a moment almost cinematic in its poignancy passed over the marchers. Saddened, though unsurprised by Wilkins’s announcement, Rachel Davis DuBois (the mother of intercultural education) wondered aloud at that moment if Du Bois’s spirit, now free from his body, in some mysterious way might have hovered in our midst. Unrelated by ties of blood or marriage to the legendary old icon, she had known and loved him deeply much of her life. Jim Aronson, another white Du Bois stalwart, would write in the Socialist weekly, the Guardian, of an aged, black woman in the crowd weeping, ‘It’s like Moses. God had written that he should never enter the promised land.’³ Aronson left unsaid what all who had known him at the end understood, that Du Bois had finally concluded that this weeping woman’s promised land was a cruel, receding mirage for people of color. And so he had chosen to live out his last days in West Africa.

Legendary Dr. Du Bois (for few had ever dared a more familiar direct address) appeared to have timed his exit for maximum symbolic effect. Someone told the actor Sidney Poitier and the writers James Baldwin and John Killens the news while they were standing with several others in the lobby of Washington’s Willard Hotel early that morning. ‘The Old Man died.’ Just that. And not one of us asked, ‘What old man?’ Killens recalled.⁴ In a real sense, Du Bois was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, as the paramount custodian of the intellect that so many impoverished, deprived, intimidated, and desperately striving African-Americans had either never developed or found it imperative to conceal. His chosen weapons were grand ideas propelled by uncompromising language. Lesser mortals of the race—heads of civil rights organizations, presidents of colleges, noted ministers of the Gospel—conciliated, tergiversated, and brought back from white bargaining tables half loaves for their people. Never Du Bois. Not for him the tea and sympathy of interracial conferences or backdoor supplications, hat in hand and smile fixed, in patient anticipation of greater understanding or guilt-ridden, one-time-only concessions. From an Olympus of scholarship and opinion, he waved his pen and, as he wrote later, attempted to explain, expound and exhort; to see, foresee and prophesy, to the few who could or would listen. Many, many listened, and one who did, Percival Prattis, the aggressive editor of the influential Pittsburgh Courier, wrote proudly at the time of the Old Man’s McCarthy-era trial as a foreign agent, They could not look at him and call me inferior.

Born in Massachusetts in the year of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and dead ninety-five years later in the year of Lyndon Johnson’s installation, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois cut an amazing swath through four continents (he was a Lenin Peace Prize laureate and his birthday was once a national holiday in China), writing sixteen pioneering or provocative books of sociology, history, politics, and race relations. In his eighties, he found time to finish a second autobiography and produce three large historical novels, complementing the two large works of fiction written in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The first African-American to earn a Harvard doctorate, he claimed later that it was a consolation for having been denied the few additional months needed to take a coveted doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin. The premier architect of the civil rights movement in the United States, he was among the first to grasp the international implications of the struggle for racial justice, memorably proclaiming, at the dawn of the century, that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line.

Du Bois was one of the founders of the NAACP and fearless editor of its monthly magazine, the Crisis, from whose thousands of heated pages scholarship, racial propaganda, visionary pronouncements, and majestic indignation thundered and flashed across America for a quarter of a century. In its peak year, the magazine reached one hundred thousand devoted subscribers. Professor, editor, propagandist, he was also once a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and, at least until the last decade of his Promethean life, civil rights role model to an entire race. In its transcendence of place, time, and, ultimately, even of race, his fabulous life encompassed large and lasting meanings. Always controversial, he had espoused racial and political beliefs of such variety and seeming contradiction as to bewilder and alienate often as many of his countrymen and women, black and white, as he inspired and converted. Nearing the end, Du Bois himself conceded mischievously that he would have been hailed with approval if he had died at fifty. At seventy-five my death was practically requested.

Wilkins was into his speech now, mincing no words about the sugar water of civil rights proposals of the Kennedy administration. As the ovation for the NAACP secretary died down, Mahalia Jackson electrified the great crowd with I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned. A few minutes later, at 3:40 P.M. on that catalytic August day, Martin Luther King Jr., the new shepherd of the ’buked and scorned, soared into one of the noblest speeches in the history of the American republic. Meanwhile, in Accra, Ghana, preparations for the elaborate state funeral were already well along that Wednesday, before the network-television eyes for the planet turned away from the March on Washington at 4:30 P.M. Osagyefo president Kwame Nkrumah of the Republic of Ghana had commanded that the farewell for his friend and teacher, the Father of Pan-Africa, be movingly splendid. The Osagyefo was the second African to take command of a state south of the Sahara (even seasoned Africa watchers routinely forgot that the leader of the Sudan had assumed his duties in January 1956, more than a year before Nkrumah); his title was a self-created one derived from the Akan language, and roughly meaning Redeemer. With three hundred million pounds sterling in its treasury and the most educated population in the sub-Sahara, Ghana’s ruler advertised his republic of seven million as the lodestar of black Africa, the beacon for independence and unity throughout the continent. The state funeral for W.E.B. Du Bois on Thursday afternoon, August 29, 1963, was meant to celebrate and symbolize Ghana’s claim to Pan-African leadership.

The body lay in state in the spacious white bungalow at 22 First Circular Road. It was a long barge of a house, a gift of the Ghana government, moored gently in Shirley Graham Du Bois’s flourishing garden. This was the second Mrs. Du Bois, musicologist, novelist, playwright, former American Communist Party (CPUSA) activist, now, by her own admission, in her fifty-seventh year of tempestuous willpower and talented improvisation. A handsome African-American woman of fair complexion and features strongly imprinted by Native American ancestry, her take-charge personality, piercing eyes, and prominent nose made her seem even handsomer and taller than her five feet two inches.⁷ From 10:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M. on the twenty-ninth, Shirley Graham Du Bois had received those coming to pay final respects. Efua Sutherland, a tall, cocoa-brown woman of great beauty, arrived to console and stayed to help with the last-minute oversights of African occasions. She was the director of the Ghana Drama Society and had brought William Branch, a young black American actor and freelance journalist, with her. Branch’s coverage of the funeral in Harlem’s Amsterdam News would be a trove of detail. A broad spectrum of the diplomatic corps (but no one from the embassy of the United States), officials of Ghana government, representatives from state-supported academic and cultural organizations, and many people from the large resident African-American community came to offer condolences, to express what the widow’s husband had meant to the world, to Ghana, or simply to themselves, and to gaze silently for a few seconds upon the remains in the bronze casket. Du Bois lay deep in his burnished vessel, bronzed flesh encased in bronzed metal, cravated and light-suited, his features even more refined in death, the finely spheroidal cranium and trimmed Wilhelmine mustache and goatee completing the effect of assured apotheosis.⁸

The script for the last rites called for a triple ceremony of leave-taking: first, in the bungalow, largely among close family friends and a few persons of position in government, diplomacy, and the burgeoning cultural community of the capital; a second, public and photographed, on the grounds of the compound beneath a thatched, stone-pillared gazebo that had been completed too late for the deceased to enjoy in the evenings; and a final march and symbolic fanfare among thousands by the ocean. Shortly after two, a general’s signal sent a detachment of infantry in full dress to enter the rear of the bungalow. Shirley Graham Du Bois stood silently, comforted by Efua Sutherland and others, as the soldiers entered in lockstep, closed the lid of the coffin, and removed it to the red-carpeted gazebo. A traditional libation was poured on the ground. The coffin, resting on a silver catafalque, was reopened. Four soldiers in crimson jackets, heads bowed, rifles reversed, stood beside each pillar. Above the body lying in serene repose, a Chinese lantern glowed and, occasionally, swayed slightly.

By then, the grounds of the bungalow were packed with the grieving and the curious. Men, women, and children of all classes—market women, cabinet ministers, and Europeans—reverently filed past the bier. The easy fellowship of the day was underscored by a pennanted Rolls-Royce gliding up to disgorge Prime Minister Hastings Banda of Nyasaland, an energetic little man who self-importantly acknowledged greetings as he bounded through the crowd into the gazebo. President Nkrumah was convinced that such freewheeling contact with his own people was too dangerous. A bomb in a potted plant in a far-north place called Kulungugu had nearly killed him the year before. Shortly before 3:00 P.M., therefore, the commissioner of police ordered the compound cleared. Fellowship gave way to maximum-security autocracy in a wail of sirens and backfiring motorcycles as a behemoth Russian Chaika limousine arrived. (There were only three of these machines in the country—Nkrumah’s, the Du Boises’, and the Soviet ambassador’s, whose country’s gift they were.) The leader of Ghana, a trim, slight man with a polished forehead, descended briskly, wearing his customary frown of deep concentration. He was dressed in an impeccably tailored, black version of the Nehru jacket, now his signature on state occasions.

As Nkrumah strode down the red carpet to the gazebo, Mrs. Graham Du Bois, in black dress and veiled hat, descended the steps of the bungalow to greet him. She leaned slightly upon the chief of state’s left arm as they approached the casket together. Nkrumah stood head bowed for three minutes. Then, solemnly, he placed his right hand upon Du Bois and allowed something of the moment’s deep emotion to play across his face. Shirley Graham Du Bois followed, repeating the gesture, her tender expression of the moment before giving way to one of ineffable grief. The stillness was broken by what the Evening News described as the chanting of a state linguist (the witch doctor of mocking Europeans) pouring a traditional libation upon the ground and asking God in Akan to lead Africa’s son into the next world. The newspapers tell us that at that precise moment, rain fell in sheets, an unmistakable sign to Ghanaians that the gods had granted Du Bois citizenship in their world. Nkrumah briskly returned to his limousine, under an attendant’s umbrella. As he drove away, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had come.¹⁰

Precisely on the hour, the chief of the defense staff of the Ghanaian army and the commissioner of police presented themselves to Mrs. Graham Du Bois. Army pallbearers began sealing the coffin, lacing the red, gold, and green colors of Ghana around it, then hoisted it atop a howitzer gun carriage drawn by a black Land Rover. On the one-mile drive to the staging area at the old printing office, Shirley sat deep in the rear plush of the Chaika that had given her husband so many hours of pleasure and contemplation. Following several cars back with Efua Sutherland, William Branch wondered to himself how his own country’s officials could behave so pettily, as the cortege passed the American embassy and he caught sight of its staring personnel and the Stars and Stripes at full staff in front.¹¹ Within a few minutes, they reached the Old Government Printing Office, where the funeral parade would assemble.

Thus it was that a few minutes after 3:00 P.M., in keeping with the punctuality always insisted upon by Nkrumah, the bronze casket began the final leg of its ceremonious journey. To Nkrumah—who approved as the American title of his life story, Ghana: The Autobiography—a sense of history and of occasion were second nature. Arrangements for the Burial of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois were intended to advertise abroad and to enhance at home, with solemnity and pageantry, the reality of an African nationhood still being consolidated.¹² O God, Our Help in Ages Past filled the heated air as the trombones and tubas of the Central Army Band followed behind the Chaika and the slow-moving caisson. Next came two double columns of elite infantry in gold-braided tunics of crimson—rifle stocks reversed and cradled in underarm position—executing the distinctive, ceremonial glide, the famous Slow March, learned from British drillmasters. The three-thirty sun spangled off medals won during the Ghana army’s participation in the United Nations peacekeeping action in the former Belgian Congo. The shh-wutt-shh-wutt of the Slow March and the mournful notes of the band funneled through the great arch at Black Star Square, where several thousand hushed onlookers watched from bleachers under skies now blown blue and clear of clouds.

Osu Castle, old Christiansborg, sits on a spit of land less than fifty yards from the Atlantic, one of the half dozen stone holding-pens built along the coast by Portuguese, Danish, and Dutch slave traders. For the Europeans, the gold of the old Gold Coast had become, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, not mineral but animal. Few sacks of gold dust were ever stored in Portugal’s infamous Elmina Castle (the Mine) one hundred miles west southwest of Accra. Instead, a ghastly collaboration had come to pass as the smart, corner-cutting Fanti people of the coast leapt at the opportunity to enter into the European spiderweb market of rum, cloth, trinkets, firearms, and chattels gradually interlacing four continents. For four hundred years, African slave magnates fed several million black men, women, and children to Elmina, Christiansborg, and the other grim, dank coastal entrepots from Senegal to Angola that supplied the rapacious Atlantic slave trade. Of the between ten and fifteen million people estimated to have been shipped out of Africa between 1450 and 1860, millions of them came from the Gold Coast.¹³ But all this was now understood to be part of a history best left to historians. For the people of postcolonial Ghana, Osu Castle symbolized, in its reincarnation as the residence of their head of state, the reassertion of sovereignty and the resolve to become players on the modern world stage.

So, with fitting ceremony, the people of Ghana took their Pan-African Moses down to the sea, to entomb him just outside the white walls of looming Osu Castle. The Ghanaian Times would wax conventionally metaphoric the following morning about that enigma of a fighter, that phenomenon of a sage, sleep[ing] the long sleep in a spot that symbolizes his true return to the home of his ancestors.¹⁴ Yet his burial in the soil of Ghana meant much more than that, as Nkrumah certainly knew and intended his people to appreciate over time. It implied mitigation of African peoples from collusion in slavery—not through alibi or justification but through a recognition that, in selling Du Bois’s ancestors into bondage, the Africans who had profited were, in reality, no more free than those who ended on auction blocks. The message of Karl Marx delivered by Du Bois to all Africans, as to the rest of the less developed world, was that the market economy perfected in northern Europe always made the weak weaker—and most of the strong weaker.

Du Bois had shaped and launched upon the rising tide of twentieth-century nationalisms the idea of the solidarity of the world’s darker peoples, of the glories in the forgotten African past, of the vanguard role destined to be played by Africans of the diaspora in the destruction of European imperialism, and, finally, as he grew older but more radical, of the inevitable emergence of a united and Socialist Africa. Master of seductive syntheses of scholarship and prophecy, only Du Bois would have serenely foretold, but a few months into the din of the guns of August 1914, that a belief in humanity means a belief in colored men and that the future world will, in all reasonable probability, be what colored men make it. In what were virtually his last words of warning, he had written that a body of local private capitalists, even if they are black, can never free Africa; they will simply sell it into new slavery to old masters overseas.¹⁵ Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, then, meant enormously more than the ethnic romanticism of roots traced and celebrated. It signified militant, anticapitalist solidarity of the darker world.

Standing before the starkly white walls of Osu Castle, Ghanaian ambassador plenipotentiary Michael Dei Anang read Du Bois’s Last Message to the World, composed six years earlier in the deceased’s Brooklyn home. As he read, eight bareheaded officers threaded ropes underneath the gleaming casket in preparation for its final descent. Speaking through Ambassador Dei Anang’s clipped British accent, the old sage told the world that he had loved people and my play, but always I have been uplifted by the thought that what I have done will live long and justify my life; that what I have done ill or never finished can now be handed on to others for endless days to be finished, perhaps better than I could have done.¹⁶ Among the honorary pallbearers was an unusually tall, gaunt, and handsome African-American whose priestly bearing and ideological fervor had earned him the rare honor of intimate collaborator and de facto editor of the Great Man’s last large undertaking, the Encyclopedia Africana, funded by Nkrumah’s government through the Ghana Academy of Sciences. Alphaeus Hunton, once professor of literature at Howard University, intended to devote the remainder of his life to the monumental task whose creator was being lowered into the ground to the bugled notes of the Last Post.

Nkrumah’s farewell message was read over Ghana Broadcasting that night a few hours after Martin Luther King described his incandescent dream in another time zone. The Osagyefo must have been deeply moved when writing his speech. It was plain yet vibrant, and as the Ghana Broadcasting announcer read of shared experiences and plans, something of Nkrumah’s sense of personal loss entered his own voice. It recalled the time in 1945 when Nkrumah and George Padmore, the brilliant Trinidadian journalist who had been Nkrumah’s intellectual sibling until his death in Ghana three years before, had organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England, with Du Bois’s blessings and mediating presence as chairperson. I knew him in the United States and even spoke on the same platform with him, Nkrumah boasted of his days as a university student in America. (Du Bois had had to be rather carefully reminded of the occasion years later.) The man Padmore called the greatest scholar the Negro race had produced became a real friend and father to me, Nkrumah continued. He had asked Dr. Du Bois to come to Ghana to pass the evening of his life with us. The president’s radio apostrophe ended after a few more phrases with a perfect summation: Dr. Du Bois is a phenomenon. May he rest in peace.¹⁷

During the next few days, the newspapers would tally the impressive cable traffic—from J. D. Bernal of the World Peace Council, Gus Hall of the American Communist Party, Chief Awolowo of Nigeria, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Mohammed Ben Bella of Algeria, Kim Il Sung of North Korea. Walter Ulbricht of the German Democratic Republic wished that the memory of Dr. Du Bois—an outstanding fighter for the liberation and prosperity of Africans—continue to live in our hearts. The cables from Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai were appropriately lengthy and less formulaic than most of the others, reflecting the political and personal camaraderie that had been so much advertised during the Du Boises’ two sojourns in China. Chou En-lai’s farewell remarkably summed up the course and meaning of his friend’s near hundred-year odyssey as one devoted to struggles and truth-seeking for which he finally took the road of thorough revolution. His unbending will and his spirit of uninterrupted revolution are examples for all oppressed peoples. The day after the state funeral, the Ghanaian Times carried a moving front-page editorial under the Akan headline, NANTSEW YIE! (Farewell!). The following day, the rains came again, heavily and steadily.¹⁸



Willie Du Bois, as his family and the townspeople knew him, was born on Church Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868, a Sunday. On Saturday, the town had celebrated George Washington’s birthday. The birth certificate reads William E. Duboise, colored, issue of Alfred Duboise and Mary (no maiden name given), whose February fifth nuptials in the nearby village of Housatonic the previous year had been duly noted in the Berkshire Courier. The town clerk very likely spelled the father’s name as he heard it pronounced Dewboys rather than the Gallic Dew-Bwah. There is no way of knowing if Alfred Du Bois, whose birthplace is given as San Domingo, Hayti, was the clerk’s informant. Dewboys may have been what Alfred’s people had found it handiest to be called, as generations of them roved back and forth from the Caribbean and through New York and Connecticut and across Massachusetts. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, and other problematically named Americans, Alfred’s son would unfailingly insist upon the correct pronunciation of his surname. "The pronunciation of my name is ‘Due Boyss,’ with the accent on the last syllable," he would patiently explain to the uninformed.¹

Most of what is known about these years comes from Du Bois himself, whose compelling prose re-creations of the town, the times, the races, and of his own family and himself are landmarks in American letters. He was to leave his hometown at age seventeen, returning during the following fourscore years only infrequently, and always for brief stays. Fifteen years after leaving, the village prodigy had transformed himself, almost beyond recognition, into a cosmopolitan traveler and distinguished scholar. But the importance of the Great Barrington period, its imprint upon all that Willie Du Bois grew to be, was deep, and certainly singular. His sense of identity or belonging was spun out between the poles of two distinct racial groups—black and white—and two dissimilar social classes—lower and upper—to form that double consciousness of being he would famously describe at age thirty-five in The Souls of Black Folk. Because he sedulously invented, molded, and masked this village world to suit his egocentric, if inspired, purposes of personal and racial affirmation, a sojourn there needs to be leisurely and probing enough to recover the Great Barrington that its most famous citizen knew and yet did not wish to know or have known. There were family matters of which he was deeply ashamed, others that made him angrier than he could admit to himself.

Great Barrington is the last town of any size in the wedge of western Massachusetts just before reaching the New York state line and the Hudson River, twenty-four miles beyond. Albany is northwest, about forty-five miles away. The town lies high and clear-aired in the dip of two mountain ranges, the Berkshires to the east (one of them resembling Mount Greylock, the humpbacked inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick thirty miles to the north), and the Taconic chain to the west with nearby vaulting Mount Everett. For a few blocks, Great Barrington nestles along the west bank of the Housatonic as it winds south out of the Berkshire Valley across Connecticut, finally emptying into Long Island Sound at Bridgeport. Berkshire historian Charles Taylor, one of Willie’s earliest mentors, discovered the first European mention of the Housatonic when Major John Talcott’s Connecticut troops pursued a party of fugitive Indians into this region in August 1676, at the close of King Philip’s War, overtaking them on the banks of the Housatonic, inflicting severe chastisement on them. The site of that chastisement was not far from the house where Willie was born. The Housatonic turns up again in a 1694 entry in Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth’s journal. Accompanying the Massachusetts and Connecticut commissioners to a powwow with the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy at Albany, Wadsworth, a Bostonian and future president of Harvard College, records his progress through a howling wilderness in which they took lodgings, about sundown, in ye woods, at a place called Ousetonuck, formerly inhabited by Indians. Two wars against the French, King William’s and Queen Anne’s, more or less secured English claims below Lake Ontario, including the Berkshire region, by the early eighteenth century. On April 24, 1724, twenty Muhheakunnucks (as the European chronicler called the local tribe) affixed X’s at Westfield to a deed conveying their lands along the Housatonic to one Colonel John Stoddard and captains John Ashley, Henry Dwight, and Luke Hitchcock for 460 pounds of powder, three barrels of cider, and thirty quarts of rum.²

But as Anglo-American Deweys, Ingersolls, Kelloggs, and Phelpses came to claim and clear western Massachusetts, they found that the Hudson Valley Dutch—Burghardts, Hollenbecks, and Van Deusens—were also arriving or often already in place. Among the welter of documents generated by these long-standing colonial disputes was the 1741 petition to the Massachusetts General Court of one Coenraet Borghghardt for restitution of the very same property Colonel Stoddard and his friends had acquired from the Muhheakunnucks. The disputed acreage encompassed much of the western part of the township that would be incorporated in 1761, without a name, but soon to become known as Great Barrington.³ By then, the Dutchman and his family were among the undisputed proprietors on the plain stretching west from Great Barrington across gentle Green River to Egremont Village. This same Coenraet Borghghardt, Coonrad Borghardt, or Conraed/Conrad Burghardt (the first of the Berkshire Burghardts) soon came into possession of a slave boy named Tom, born in West Africa, probably in the early 1730s, and sold by Dutch slavers in New York. During four days in October 1780, Tom served as a private in Captain John Spoor’s company, whose regimental commander was a Colonel John Ashley. The regiment mustered and hurried (too late) to lift the British seige of forts Ann and George, for which service Tom probably won his freedom. Tom Burghardt died in Great Barrington, about six years after the cause for which he had apparently been willing, however briefly, to give his life triumphed at the Battle of Yorktown. Nothing more is known about him except that he had a wife (who may have also been born in West Africa) and that there were begats aplenty from his line.⁴

One son, Jacob or Jack, born about 1760, fathered at least six children, one of whom, Othello, was Willie Du Bois’s maternal grandfather. When Captain Daniel Shays’s indebted farmers and veterans, driven by hard money and harsh courts to sedition, marched through the Housatonic Valley on their way to seize the arsenal at Springfield in February 1787, Jack Burghardt may have played a small part in Great Barrington’s biggest drama of the century. Either he joined Shays’s men or stood solidly with the forces of order under Colonel John Ashley at Sheffield (both of which incompatible distinctions his great-grandson claimed at different times). Willie Du Bois also found a sketchy place for his maternal great-grandfather in the War of 1812.

Handsome, free, and heir to a fair amount of good farmland near South Egremont Village, Jack, after the death of his first wife, Violet, became, sometime in early 1790, the young husband of Elizabeth Freeman, a Berkshire woman of such exceptional achievements that she was to live on, inspirationally, in Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel. Mum Bett (as she was affectionately known to black and white throughout the state) helped to deliver a mortal blow to slavery in the Bay State, in 1783, by suing her abusive Sheffield mistress, Colonel John Ashley’s wife, and winning her freedom and thirty shillings’ damages before the county court in Great Barrington. Later, when Shays and his rebels appeared at Stockbridge, Mum Bett hid her employers’ family silver and bluffed the men from the door. Her watercolor portrait at the State Historical Society confirms Elizabeth Freeman’s legendary grit and intelligence, inviting conjecture about what her life can have meant to the great-grandson by marriage who mentions her proudly (a rather celebrated figure) in two autobiographical works.

As with much else to do with early Burghardt history, Du Bois has left several confusing and contradictory accounts of the little black Bantu ancestor who sang a sad West African tune, still heard at the fireside of his childhood:

Do bana coba, gene me, gene me!

Do bana coba, gene me, gene me!

Ben d’nuli, ben d’le.

Willie never learned the meaning of her song whose exact origin and translation have continued to defy linguists. Perhaps the best hypothesis suggests that it was a Wolof song from Senegambia about confinement or captivity: "gene me, gene me [gene ma, gene ma]!get me out, get me out!" In two remembrances of his Burghardt kin—Darkwater (1920) and The Autobiography (1968)—it is great-great-grandfather Tom’s unnamed mate who clasped her knees and rocked and crooned the African song. In Dusk of Dawn (1940), it is Jack’s Violet, mother of the six surviving Burghardts, who pines for Africa.⁷ Violet seems a more likely candidate, but it was the influence of the song, rather than the singer, that finally mattered to Willie. It was his one truly palpable tie to that African homeland he would spend an academic and political lifetime trying to interpret and shape. Africa is, of course, my fatherland, he would write sixteen years after spending a few months during 1923 in Monrovia, Liberia. What is it between us that constitutes a tie which I can feel better than I can explain?⁸ Violet’s song had been the earliest prompting of a very New England and supremely intellectual great-grandson to try to discern a few true notes of a remote, vestigial, and mysterious heritage.

From Du Bois’s recollections and a culling of town-hall records, a reasonable estimate would fix the number of African-American families in the region at less than thirty; a few of them, like the Thomas Burghardt who worked for the Kellogg family, were substantial property owners. Most were Burghardts, with a smattering of Crawfords, Freemans, and Pipers, although a small influx of freed slaves from the South was just beginning. With rare exception if any, Great Barrington’s African-Americans stayed away from the mills. Not only did industry-wide policy keep them out, most of them did their best to affect the same superior attitude of their white Protestant neighbors toward the Catholic newcomers who had no choice but to work in the mills. Mill work was long, hard, low-paying, regimented work. The old African-American families that ventured out of farming preferred personal service, and, at least until the 1870s, tended to have the pick of gentler jobs as domestics, barbers, stewards, and coachmen. Dr. C. T. Collins had opened his hotel in 1854, heralding the prosperous summer resort trade that was making Great Barrington, along with Lee and Stockbridge, favored retreats of New York and Connecticut’s new leisure classes.

There were actually three Great Barringtons, and the white newcomers were pressing against the door of domestic service, a challenge coming just as the Burghardt farms on Egremont Plain were less able to compete with produce shipped by river and rail from great distances. Economic historian Christopher Clark notes that Berkshire Valley dependence on imported foodstuffs as well as other goods was well advanced by the 1870s. Three of Jack Burghardt’s sons, Othello, Ira, and Harlow, struggled along on the plain beyond Green River in neat houses set back from the main road within easy walking distance of each other. Harlow seems to have held on best. His property transactions in the town hall Registry of Deeds show a fair amount of profit from land sales during the period, including a December 19, 1868, transaction for eighty dollars.¹⁰ Othello had the least gumption, or so thought his demanding grandson. Uncle Tello, as Willie called his mother’s father, was said to be too fond of the medicine prescribed for a hip injury, and left much of the running of things to his capable wife, Sarah or Sally, a handsome, tan woman from Hillsdale, New York. The federal census tracks Othello Burghardt’s occupational vagaries decade by decade: 1850, whitewasher; and 1860, laborer; until that for 1870 finds him with no occupation at eighty, in a nimbus of pipe tobacco by the fireside.¹¹

But whether energetic or indolent, this black yeomanry was grappling with large, impersonal forces, and as Great Barrington’s established white families began to prosper, its black ones, Willie Du Bois’s among them, were sliding into subsistence. The black families clung fiercely to basic moral values—churchgoing, work, wedlock, and legitimate births. The speech was an idiomatic New England tongue, with no African dialect, Willie says. The family customs were New England, and the sex mores. None of them had gone much beyond learning the alphabet, and few of them saw the need for more formal education.¹² Hemmed in by a racially exclusive industrialism, the whitening of domestic work, and their own deep conservatism, they were like Uncle Tello, stuporous by his fireside, atrophying, or, like cousin John Burghardt, determined not to be licked and moving on. But if the rising tide of development threatened some with drowning, in the crucial area of public education it promised a lift for all those with enough motivation. Before Willie Du Bois’s first birthday, Great Barringtonians voted two thousand dollars to create a public high school. Until then, only private institutions like the Bostwick, Kellogg, Simmons, and Sedgwick schools for the affluent offered training beyond the early grades.¹³ A plain, rectangular building went up next to the old wooden elementary schoolhouse in 1869, the town’s second brick structure after the Episcopal church. It would be Willie Du Bois’s salvation.

The real world Tom Burghardt’s faltering descendants made for themselves appears much transformed in the mythopoeic prose of Tom’s illustrious great-great-grandson. In those lyrical memoirs, whether Darkwater, A Pageant in Seven Decades, Dusk of Dawn, or the Autobiography, we are drawn to participate in a chronicle of epic sweep, at once familial, racial, national, global, and prophetic. Enchantingly, heroically, they employ the language of the saga. Each alludes to the author’s portentous birth by a golden river in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The place of birth is idyllic and the circumstances neither rich nor poor but suited in their modesty to the author’s large destiny. In local-color accents redolent of Washington Irving, Great Barrington is fairly faithfully pictured as a little New England town nestled shyly in its valley with something of Dutch cleanliness and English reticence. The house of his birth is quaint, with clapboards running up and down, neatly trimmed. There is a rosy front yard to frolic in and unbelievably delicious strawberries in the rear. Elsewhere, we read of a rather nice little cottage … furnished with some comfort.¹⁴

Whereupon the chords of destiny begin to sound ever fuller. His own people were part of a great clan. These Burghardts lived on South Egremont Plain for near 200 years. The founding ancestor’s relationship to his master, Coenraet Borghghardt, is subtly altered. Sullen in his slavery, Tom Burghardt had come through the western pass, from the Hudson "with his Dutch captor," rather than brought there by him. Tom’s four days of service in Captain Spoor’s company becomes an enlistment to serve for three years in the War of Independence.¹⁵ By the time of the Autobiography Tom’s son Jack definitely decides his place is with Daniel Shays against the forces of monopoly capital. From Jack and Violet are born a mighty family, splendidly named: Harlow and Ira, Chloe, Lucinda, Maria, and Othello! Du Bois’s exclamation point is like an arpeggio notation for successive chords about the ancestral home on Egremont Plain, that sturdy, small and old-fashioned dwelling, the house of my grandfather Othello. Here, ten more shoots of the mighty family burst forth from broken-hipped Othello and the once-attractive Sally, now thin, yellow, and hawk-faced—one of them, Mary Sil-vina, Will Du Bois’s mother, sometime in 1831. Hers is a dulcet movement: Mother was dark shining bronze, with smooth skin and lovely eyes; there was a tiny ripple in her black hair; and she had a heavy, kind face.¹⁶ In the surviving photograph, she is an erect, dark-skinned woman with sad eyes, a strong chin, and rather voluptuous lips.

Where and how Mary Silvina met Alfred Du Bois elude the historian and genealogist, at least for the present. Alfred may have made his way to Great Barrington in 1867, small and beautiful of face and feature, just tinted with the sun, his wavy hair chiefly revealing his kinship to Africa. His people were free people of color, descended from Dr. James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, a wealthy physician of French Huguenot origins. James Du Bois’s family had chosen the cause of George III over that of George Washington, receiving as reward from the British crown extensive lands in the Bahamas. A few years later, the Du Boises and their cousins, the Gilberts, had spread their plantation holdings to Haiti. On the island of Long Cay in the Bahamas, James sired at least three sons and a daughter from his slave mistresses. He took two of the children, probably the lightest in complexion, Alexander and John, with him when he returned to New York about 1812, enrolling them in Connecticut’s exclusive Cheshire School for Boys. James Du Bois died, unexpectedly, not long afterward, and his Creole sons found themselves disowned by their white relatives and forced to give up boarding school for skilled labor. John resigned himself to his marginal lot, dying in late December 1830 in his late twenties in Fair Haven, Connecticut. Alexander was apprenticed to a shoemaker, but bolted to become a small merchant in New Haven. Marrying there in 1823, he and Sarah Marsh Lewis had several children by 1830, only one of whom, Augusta, survived into adulthood.¹⁷

The enigmatic Alfred Du Bois was born in Haiti no later than 1833, where Alexander had gone alone to try to salvage what he could of a once considerable patrimony. When Alexander returned to the United States soon after Alfred’s birth, he left the boy and his mother behind. Whether estranged or not, Alexander and Sarah in New Haven were still legally married; understandably, he elected to come back to the city and his tobacco shop without Hai-tian dependents. When and how Alfred left Haiti remains conjectural, but by the time he appears in the 1860 census he may have been plying the trades of barber and cook or waiter in upstate New York for several years. Perhaps, as Willie speculates, his father came through the western pass from New York to try his luck in the Valley of the Housatonic. An adoring son deploys Homeric imagery for the roving young god’s advent, announcing, Alfred, my father, must have seemed a splendid vision in that little valley under the shelter of those mighty hills.¹⁸ Yet Willie almost surely came to suspect years later that his father’s story amounted to more than having been a well-meaning, romantic rakehell, indolent, kind, unreliable, who came and soon departed from the valley and his family, only to die shortly thereafter.¹⁹

Gay and carefree, in the son’s debonair description, refusing to settle long at any one place or job, Alfred was, at various times from 1858 through 1862, a baker, barber, and waiter in Albany, New York, giving the federal census taker his age as twenty-eight in 1860, and that of his presumed wife, Hannah, as twenty-one. Hannah is last seen struggling on alone, according to the 1866 Albany directory, as a washerwoman.²⁰ By then, Alfred had deserted as well his Civil War unit, Company D, 20th Regiment, United States Colored Troops (New York). Having signed up at Amenia, New York, for a three-year term, he mustered in at Poughkeepsie on January 23, 1864. Private Alfred Du Bois gave his age as thirty and Connecticut, rather than Haiti, as his birthplace. Although his son would have been surprised to learn of actual service with Union forces at Port Hudson, Louisiana, Alfred’s record was predictably feckless. The Records of the Adjutant General of the United States reveal the unimpressive truth. Laid up in Port Hudson General Hospital with bouts of diarrhea and dysentery, then assigned there as a medical attendant after recovering, he was listed as absent without leave in August 1864 after being ordered to rejoin his regiment. On February 7, 1865, Alfred was dropped as a deserter, eight weeks before Appomattox, which makes it highly likely that he committed bigamy when he and Mary Silvina presented themselves to be married by Reverend Amos E. Lawrence in February 1867.²¹ With his indeterminate color and Franco-Haitian background, a moral chameleon like Alfred would have found the hothouse atmosphere of occupied New Orleans full of potential. Maybe a stint as a physician (only a step up from barbering then), perhaps the bagging of a rich widow (the war had made many), or, possibly, scheming to make himself useful to the city’s rising mulatto politicians detained him for a time. Equally likely, he may have returned to wander over the familiar terrain of upstate New York on the lookout for a grubstake. For some reason, Willie gave his father’s age as forty-two when he appeared in Great Barrington, although the town-hall registry makes him, as well as his bride, only thirty-four. Mary Silvina would actually have been nearer thirty-six, if her death certificate is correct. Alfred would have been no more than thirty-six, and probably a year younger, having been born after 1831. The son’s mistake could explain his readiness to believe that Alfred had died in the early 1870s.²²

As crucial as she is to Willie Du Bois’s life, Mary Silvina is never more than a shaded figure, hovering, always approaching, but never to be beheld in the high noon of abundant evidence. She gave one the impression of infinite patience, her son recalled almost eighty years after her death, but a curious determination was concealed in her softness. Rebelliousness, perhaps, more than determination?²³ His mother had not always been the reticent homebody Willie remembered. He recalled dimly that she may have gone to New York City once, but he left that intriguing possibility unexplored.²⁴ Again, however, as with his father, Willie may very well have heard things—family gossip, rumors among the townspeople, or, perhaps, simply intuited meanings from what went unsaid—to suspect that his mother had lived a fuller, more complicated life in her youth. She had transgressed Burghardt family tradition in the most fundamental way. There was only one illegitimate child throughout the family in my grandfather’s and the two succeeding generations, Willie would boast. But that one exception was Mary Silvina herself, whose firstborn, Adelbert, the family claimed to be the issue of a romance with John Burghardt, a first cousin—a love affair broken up on account of consanguinity.²⁵ Adelbert was the half brother about whom Willie was never quite able to write comfortably—or even correctly, consistently rendering his name as Idelbert. The fact that Adelbert’s illegitimate birth in 1862 is unreported at either Great Barrington or South Egremont Village town hall suggests that Mary Silvina had left home. There is no Mary in Othello’s household on the 1860 census for Great Barrington. Nor is she reported there on the 1865 interim census, although Adelbert, listed as three years old, is.²⁶

Adelbert Burghardt himself could of course have thrown light on the circumstances of his Connecticut birth, as well as something of his mother’s character. That the affair with the cousin was a probable fabrication appears to be confirmed by Adelbert himself, who insisted that he was born in Connecticut and later that his father was a man named Charles Craigg or Craig. A black man named Charles Craig worked in the home of Artemis and Judith Bigelow, wealthy white citizens of Great Barrington. The 1870 census lists his profession as coachman, the line of work Du Bois’s older brother would follow.²⁷ The rather silent Mary Silvina clearly was a woman with a past that proper New England townspeople would have called, if not scarlet, certainly pink. There is her deep aversion to alcohol, no doubt grounded in too many observations of painful drunkenness. By the time she met Alfred, probably somewhere in upstate New York, she was in her mid-thirties and compromised, although far from being a creature pummeled in the way of other poor working women, white and black, whom industrializing America was degrading in ever-larger numbers.²⁸ Alfred Du Bois was not the stunning cavalier described by his son, but to Mary Silvina, in her circumstances and given her yearnings, this short, debonair, light mulatto war veteran with the French surname and the rarefied pedigree must have seemed a unique catch.

*   *   *

SO WITH SOME circumstance, Du Bois trumpeted in Darkwater, having finally gotten myself born, with a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but, thank God! no ‘AngloSaxon,’ I come to the days of my childhood. The house where he was born was one of two on Church Street belonging to Thomas Jefferson McKinley, an enterprising ex-slave who worked as a coachman for the Humphrey family, sold vegetables, and quietly accumulated considerable real estate. Alfred and Mary lived next door to McKinley, on the north side of Church Street, just a few yards from the Housatonic, at what is today number 51. Both houses were torn down about 1900, and M. T. Cavanaugh’s plumbing supply roughly marks the spot today. The house was, as Willie described it, sturdy, neat, large enough, with fair-sized front and back yards, and convenient to Main Street. Their lives together should have been off to a good start.²⁹

The collapse of Mary Silvina’s marriage came quickly, however. Willie always believed that the black Burghardts had made Alfred feel so unwelcome that he took his barber’s tools elsewhere, fully expecting that Mary Silvina and the new baby would shortly follow. Not only were the black Burghardts seen as clannish rustics, deeply hostile to all that was different or new, Du Bois almost bitterly accuses his mother’s people of color prejudice. These black Burghardts didn’t like it [marriage to Alfred], because he was too white, he insisted, and he had a lot of extra manners which they weren’t used to.… At any rate, they practically drove him away. When a historian from Columbia University’s Oral History Project delicately probed the year before Du Bois left for Ghana, reproach gave way to raw indictment, exposing the festering wound inflicted by a father’s absence upon a still-tortured son. To the interviewer’s question, Your father ‘didn’t just run away?’ Du Bois’s agitated denial was, No … I know, from testimony from other parts of the family, that they made it just as uncomfortable for Alfred as they could. Then, reflecting upon the doleful implications of in-group color prejudice, Du Bois added, I don’t suppose it was simply a matter of color. It was a matter of culture. In the son’s final ordering of ultimate blame, Alfred was absolved because he came from a different world.³⁰

And yet, subconsciously, he must always have wondered. The family’s brooding conspiracy of silence about Alfred was deeply unsettling. He watched as his mother sank into depression. If Willie asked her very little about Alfred because he knew instinctively that this was a subject which hurt too much even to mention, how much of his reticence also came from knowing instinctively that his father had caused much of the pain? That he was not illegitimate like his older brother meant a great deal to a sensitive boy born into the last generation of Victorians and growing up in a typical New England town.³¹ The stigma of bastardy on top of poverty and blackness in a fishbowl community of whites must have been an appalling threat to the Burghardts. Star-crossed love with a first cousin was supposed to repair Mary Silvina’s transgression, although the extent to which the fiction was actually believed is doubtful. But the stigma of spousal desertion remained. Willie would have needed to believe Mary Silvina when she told him that Alfred had intended for them to follow him to Connecticut, and that he had waited and hoped until his death. But as this, too, was a fiction, undoubtedly it retained its hold over mother and son only to the degree that it remained unexamined and accepted on faith. What boy would choose to believe that his father had deserted him when the romantic myth of the well-intentioned cavalier allowed the blame to be shifted to jealous, rustic clansmen?

Adelbert’s version is certainly very different. According to Willie, his older brother was silent—a cipher, evanescent, and conveniently unavailable. His virtual absence from Willie’s autobiographies—aside from two or three sentences—makes it difficult to probe the nature of their relationship. Willie, of course, had no memory of that strangely confused night when some of his Burghardt cousins—the Jackson boys, George, Henry, and Samuel—fired pistols from the riverbank near the Church Street house, throwing Alfred into frenzied packing and a precipitous exit from Great Barrington. Apparently, Adelbert never told Willie about the details of this night until long after they reached adulthood. Although Adelbert said long afterward that what was merely a rustic prank had been mistaken for a deadly plot—for some reason [he] thought they were after him—Alfred certainly had reason to think he was escaping from angry Burghardts who had found out about the Albany Hannah or some other indecent chapter in his life. And there was more Adelbert could have told. Seventy-seven years later, living on public welfare in Brooklyn, he sent word to his now famous brother that he wanted to share information about the family. The gigantic collection of Du Bois papers is silent about the response, if any, Adelbert received.³² Were there things about his family (especially his father) Willie sensed early on that it was better not to know for the sake of the family past he preferred to invent? In any case, Alfred Du Bois appears to have