In 1885, after graduating top in his class at Great Barrington High School the preceding year, Du Bois set off for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. A Congregational college for Negroes in the South, Du Bois was grateful to continue his education at attend Fisk, but had his heart set on enrolling at Harvard. Without the money to attend a university like Harvard and perhaps just a little shy on the educational training required for admittance, Harvard was still beyond his grasp. With the support of four Congregational churches in Great Barrington (Mass.), each pledging $25 a year to cover the tuition, however, Fisk was within his reach.
Despite his disappointment in having to defer his dream to attend Harvard, Du Bois was not unhappy to travel South. His family and friends, on the other hand, did not share his excitement. He recalls their reaction in his Autobiography: “My family and colored friends rather resented the idea. Their Northern free Negro prejudice naturally revolted at the idea of sending me to the former land of slavery, either for education or living.” Instead of sharing this sentiment, Du Bois actually looked forward to the change. With the loss of his mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois, earlier the same year, Du Bois suddenly felt alone. The realization dawned that those schoolmates, with whom he was used to being on equal terms, would now be socially isolated from him. Lacking a group of young people with whom he could identify and associate, Great Barrington seemed lonely. In Nashville he would come into contact for the first time with a large community of Blacks, and the prospect was exciting.
Arriving on campus at the age of 17, already a sophomore because of the superiority of his New England education, Du Bois not only performed well academically at Fisk, but socially. A popular student by his own account, he edited the school newspaper, the Fisk Herald, and devoted himself to public speaking, becoming in his own words “an impassioned orator.” His enthusiastic admittance into a large African American community is relayed in an 1886 letter to Mr. Scudder, a pastor in Great Barrington. He writes, “… I can hardly realize they are all my people; that this great assembly of youth and intelligence are representatives of a race which twenty years ago was in bondage.” In his youthful enthusiasm for what was new, Du Bois did not forget his past, closing the letter by saying “yet I have not forgotten to love my New England hills.”
Beyond the classroom, Du Bois wished truly to get to know and understand the South. Even though his scholarship covered his college expenses, Du Bois set out the summer after his first year at Fisk to teach in rural Tennessee. After a week of training at the Lebanon Teachers’ Institute, he passed the basic examination and was licensed to teach elementary school. Du Bois traveled about 50 miles outside of Nashville before finding a school in which to teach. It is here in Alexandria, Tennessee, well beyond the safety of Fisk society, Du Bois experienced first-hand the racial divide between white and black in the South. It is during this time, too, that Du Bois later claimed he discovered his own racial identity as a Negro.
In June 1888, Du Bois, one of five seniors, graduated from Fisk University. With Harvard on the horizon, he spent his summer in the mid-West. A former classmate proposed a scheme to get Du Bois and four other Fisk students work in a hotel in Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis. Knowing of the demand for music at this time of year, he suggested they form a Glee Club, and Du Bois serve as the business manager. Du Bois agreed, and spent the summer working as a bus boy and a business manager for the group, securing enough engagements to earn each member about $100. At the end of the summer, Du Bois traveled east once more, this time to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he fulfilled his dream of attending Harvard University.