W. E. B. Du Bois: Nevertheless, Men Strive to Know

This blogpost originally appeared Feb., 22, 2017

Sepia toned photograph of a man in a suit in profile
W. E. B. Du Bois (detail) / Addison N. Scurlock / c. 1911 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 

Sociologist, poet, scholar, and civil rights activist are but a few of the ways to describe the many careers of William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois throughout his ninety-five years of life. Born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois excelled as a writer even in his teenage years, when he contributed articles to the Springfield Republican and the New York Globe. He enrolled at Fisk University in Tennessee and later completed his B.A. at Harvard University. Remaining there for graduate school, in 1895 he became the first African American to earn a doctorate from the institution. He went on to publish more than twenty books and deliver hundreds of lectures that altered the discussion of race relations in the United States.

The National Portrait Gallery holds seven works depicting Du Bois, including a c. 1911 photograph by Addison N. Scurlock (1883–1964). By the time Du Bois sat for Scurlock, he had taught at Atlanta University, published his collected essays The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and had likely already started as the editor of The Crisis (1910), the journal for the recently founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The resulting photograph presents Du Bois with his gaze slightly lowered—possibly reading, or at the very least immersed in thought. His pose, the bright lighting, and the barren background allowed for a greater emphasis on the shape of Du Bois’s head, and particularly his forehead. Whether consciously or not, Scurlock may have been drawing from the conventions that emerged in nineteenth-century American art referencing the pseudoscience of phrenology. An emphasis on Du Bois’s forehead would have highlighted the strength of his intellect.

Well-versed in the photographic medium’s power to provide information about a person, Du Bois too would have been mindful of how best to emphasize his scholarly prowess. He was also aware that some photographers were unable to accurately capture darker skin tones, nor did they have “the sense of [its] delicate beauty or tone.” When sitting for Scurlock, who was also African American, however, Du Bois sat before a nationally known expert practitioner. The Scurlock Studio (1911–94) was instrumental in defining and making visible Washington, D.C.’s African American population. It is no surprise that Du Bois would have patronized the studio while visiting the city. He continued to order photographs from them, for both personal and professional reasons, for decades.

Scurlock’s portrait depicts Du Bois as a leading thinker of his day, and in fact Du Bois would go on to establish himself as the intellectual source for some facets of the civil rights movement. He traveled throughout the world delivering addresses, conducting research, and meeting with international leaders. He eventually settled in Ghana, where he died on August 27, 1963, one day before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.