Born on October 2, 1897, Burghardt Gomer Du Bois was the beloved firstborn child of Nina and Will. Living only eighteen months before contracting diphtheria, the loss of their only son was a tragedy that continued to haunt Du Bois years later and altered Nina forever.
Hired by the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant in sociology to conduct a study of the African-American community in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, the couple’s first apartment was situated in the very same slum that was the subject of the study. Vacating the Seventh Ward during Nina’s pregnancy for a more suitable home, Du Bois took no chances when it came to the birth of his first child. With fond memories of his own childhood, he sent his wife home to Great Barrington, Massachusetts for the birth. Engrossed in his work on The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois was not present for the happy occasion, but he was thrilled to learn that he had a son. Thrilled, but preoccupied. Du Bois finally traveled north to see his son for the first time a few weeks after Burghardt’s birth. He was overcome with emotion. In Burghardt, he saw the future of his race. Later he described his vision when gazing upon his infant son: “[I] saw the strength of my own arm stretched onward through the ages of the newer strength of his; saw the dream of my black fathers stagger a step onward in the wild phantasm of the world; heard in his baby voice the voice of the Prophet that was to rise within the Veil.”
By the end of 1897 Du Bois completed his one-year appointment at the University of Pennsylvania and relocated his family to Atlanta where he had accepted a professorship the summer before. The move was a dramatic one for them both, but especially for Nina who had never experienced the overt racism encountered in the deep South. Although she was active during the early years of their residence in Atlanta, the move was unsettling, and she was happiest when devoted to the care of their son. The couple’s happy home life was abruptly altered, however, when after a ten-day illness, Burghardt died on May 24, 1899. Even while dealing with this overwhelming personal tragedy, Nina and Will were confronted with the painful cruelty of racism in the South. As Burghardt’s illness worsened, Du Bois sought out one of the few African American doctors in the city to care for his son but was unsuccessful, and with no white physicians willing to treat a black child his son went without medical treatment. Soon after his death, Burghardt Gomer Du Bois was brought home to Great Barrington where he was buried in the Mahaiwe Cemetary.