Harvard University

Du Bois at Harvard graduation
Ever since Frank Hosmer, principal of Great Barrington High School, first encouraged Du Bois to take college preparatory classes, Willie settled his mind on attending Harvard University. Despite the many obstacles—lack of money, a sick mother to tend to, racial barriers—Du Bois determined that Harvard was the best institution in the country, and he wanted to be among the best. Even with the removal of some of those obstacles, his mother passed away soon after he graduated high school and the Congregational churches of Great Barrington collected enough money to cover tuition, Du Bois’s dream of attending Harvard was still unattainable. The money raised to cover tuition would not cover the expense of a Harvard education and Du Bois’s own educational training, good though it was, would not be enough to gain admission. He did have the support necessary to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and despite its distance from the New England of his childhood, Du Bois was eager to travel to South for the first time.

Du Bois’s years at Fisk were marked by academic success, he entered the school as a sophomore due to his excellent preparation, as well as social success, he was by his own account a popular student. Graduating in 1888, Du Bois’s determination to attend Harvard was renewed. Writing to the university the fall before his graduation, he inquired about admission and expenses. Du Bois was accepted based on his own outstanding academic record and on the strong recommendations of the Fisk faculty. He would have to repeat the last two years of his undergraduate work, but he would be able to fund most of the cost through the Price Greenleaf stipend he was awarded. Arriving on campus, Du Bois immersed himself in Boston’s African American community, but chose to hold himself apart from his Harvard classmates. He writes in his Autobiography, “Following the attitudes which I had adopted in the South, I sought no friendships among my white fellow students, nor even acquaintanceships. Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them. My class was large, with some 300 students. I doubt if I knew a dozen of them.”

His teachers, on the other, he got to know and know well. William James invited him to his home and steered him away from a pursuing philosophy as a career because of the difficulty of earning a living in the field. Studying also under George Santayana and William Ellery Channing, Du Bois later reflected that the quality of the faculty at Harvard was not better than those at Fisk, but certainly better recognized. He graduated cum laude on June 25, 1890 with a concentration in philosophy, one of six commencement speakers. Du Bois applied for and received a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Harvard in the social sciences. Earning his masters degree in two years, Du Bois was already in the process of petitioning Harvard to extend his graduate work in pursuit of a doctorate degree when he conceived a new plan to study in Germany. Having been denied a fellowship from the Slater Fund in 1891, Du Bois was invited to apply the following year. In 1892 he was awarded the fellowship in the form of scholarship money and loans, using the funds to study at the University of Berlin where he hoped to be awarded a doctorate in economics. Du Bois received funding for two years and inquired about a third year so that he could complete the degree, but his application was turned down.

While in Germany attending the University of Berlin Du Bois penned a letter to Fisk College students; it was published in The Fisk Herald (December 1892). In the letter he extolled Harvard University as “the institution which offers the greatest opportunities for liberal culture of any college in the U. S.” and he specifically named various Harvard faculty, deeming them “cultivated and highly trained people” (Du Bois 1892). Du Bois encouraged Fisk graduates to attend Harvard University for a second B.A. degree (which he had done) and/or for a graduate degree.

Returning home to seek employment and to complete his Harvard dissertation, Du Bois was offered the chair of classics at Wilberforce University in Ohio, a position he quickly accepted. During his first academic year at Wilberforce, Du Bois completed his doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, which was accepted on June 1, 1895. The work was immediately honored when it was selected as the first publication to be produced as part of a new series of scholarly monographs, Harvard Historical Studies, sponsored by the university.


  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1892). “Harvard.” The Fisk Herald, 10:3 (December): 1-4.
  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1968). The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: International Publishers.
  • Lewis, David Levering (1993). W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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