The Person

My Birth and Family

I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills,five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which began thefreeing of American Negro slaves. The valley was wreathed in grassand trees and crowned to the eastward by the huge bulk of EastMountain, with crag and cave and dark forests. Westward the hillwas gentler, rolling up to gorgeous sunsets and cloud-swept storms. The town of Great Barrington, which lay between these mountainsin Berkshire County, Western Massachusetts, had a broad Main Street,lined with maples and elms, with white picket fences before thehomes. The climate was to our thought quite perfect.

In 1868 on the day after the birth of George Washington was celebrated,I was born on Church Street, which branched east from Main inmidtown. The year of my birth was the year that the freedmenof the South were enfranchised, and for the first time as a masstook part in government. Conventions with black delegates votednew constitutions all over the South, and two groups of laborers--freedslaves and poor whites--dominated the former slave states. Itwas an extraordinary experiment in democracy. Thaddeus Stevens,the clearest-headed leader of this attempt at industrial democracy,made his last speech, impeaching Andrew Johnson on February 16,and on February 23 I was born.

The house of my birth was quaint, with clapboards running up anddown, neatly trimmed; there were five rooms, a tiny porch, a rosyfront yard, and unbelievably delicious strawberries in the rear. A South Carolinian, lately come to the Berkshire Hills, ownedall this--tall, thin and black, with golden earrings, and givento religious trances. Here my mother, Mary Burghardt, and myfather, Alfred Du Bois, came to live temporarily after their marriageceremony in the village of Housatonic, which adjoined Great Barringtonon the north. Then after a few years my father went east intoConnecticut to build a life and home for mother and me. We meantimewent to live on the lands of my mother's clan on South EgremontPlain in the southern part of our town.

The black Burghardts were a group of African Negroes descendedfrom Tom, who was born in West Africa about 1730. He was stolenby Dutch slave traders and brought to the valley of the Hudsonas a small child. Legally, Tom was not a slave, but practically,by the custom of the day, he grew up as either slave or serf,and in the service of the Burghardts, a white family of Dutchdescent. Early in the 18th century, "Coonraet Borghardt"and Tom came east from the Hudson Valley and settled in BerkshireCounty, Massachusetts, which was described as a "howlingwilderness." When the Revolutionary War broke out, Tom Burghardt"appears with the rank of private on the muster and payrollof Captain John Spoors company, Colonel John Ashley's Berkshirecounty regiment."

Tom "was reported a Negr." He enlisted to serve forthree years; but how long or where he served the records do notshow. At any rate this war service definitely freed him and hisfamily from slavery; and later the Bill of Rights of 1780 declaredall slaves in Massachusetts free. Tom's mother or wife was alittle black Bantu woman, who never became reconciled to thisstrange land; she clasped her knees and rocked and crooned:

Do bana coba--gene me, gene me,
Ben d' nuli, ben d' le--

The song came down the years and I heard it sung at my grandfather'sfireside. Tom died about 1787, but of him came many sons; oneJack, who took part in Shays' rebellion; and a daughter namedNancy Pratt. Jack is said to have married the celebrated MomBett as his first wife. Violet was Jack's second wife, and fromthese two were born a mighty family, splendidly named: Harlowand Ira, Chloe, Lucinda, Maria and Othello!

These Burghardts lived on South Egremont Plain for near 200 years. The last piece of their land was bought from a cousin of mineand given to me in 1930 by a group of friends. Among them wereJane Addams, Clarence Darrow, Mrs. Jacob Schiff and MoorfieldStorey. I planned eventually to make it my country home, butthe old home was dilapidated; the boundaries of the land had beenencroached upon by neighbors, and the cost of restoration wasbeyond my means. I sold it in 1955.

Here in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the black Burghardtslived. I remember three of those houses and a small pond. Thesewere homes of Harlow and Ira; and of my own grandfather, Othello,which he had inherited from his sister Lucinda. There were 21persons in these three families by the Census of 1830. Here asfarmers they long earned a comfortable living, consorting usuallywith each other, but also with some of their white neighbors.

The living to be earned on the farms gradually became less satisfying,and the group began to disintegrate; some went to the ConnecticutValley; some went West; many moved to town and city and foundwork as laborers and servants. Usually their children went toschool long enough to learn to read and write, but few went further. I was the first of the clan to finish high school.

Work for black folk which would lead to a more prosperous futurewas not easy to come by. Just why this was so it is difficultto say; it was not solely race prejudice, although this playedits part; it was lack of training and understanding, reluctanceto venture into unknown surroundings, and fear of a land stillstrange to family mores which pictured travel as disaster. Inmy family, I remember farmers, barbers, waiters, cooks, housemaidsand laborers. In these callings a few prospered. My cousins,the Crispels of West Stockbridge, owned one of the best homesin town, and had the only barber shop; my Uncle Jim long had apaying barber business in Amherst; several hotel cooks and waiterswere in charge of dining rooms, did well and were held in esteem;a cousin in Lenox was a sexton in the most prominent church, andhis wife and four daughters ran an exclusive laundry; the familywas well-to-do, but they worked hard and unceasingly. Few ofmy folk entered the trades or went into mercantile business orthe professions. My cousin Ned Gardner, a nice-looking and well-bredman, worked his whole life at the Berkshire Hotel; honest, prompt,courteous; but he died a waiter. One uncle became the lifelongservant of the Kellog family, and the legend was that his unpaidwages kept that family from suffering until one daughter marriedthe Hopkins who helped build the Pacific Railroad. She was lefta rich widow and returned to Great Barrington in 1880. This circumstancehelped me enter the profession of teaching.

My mother's ancestral home on Egremont Plain, the house of mygrandfather, Othello, one of three farming brothers, was sturdy,small and old-fashioned. There was a great fireplace, whose wrought-irontongs stand now before my fireplace as I write. My immediatefamily, which I remember as a young child, included a very darkgrandfather, Othello Burghardt. I dimly remember him, "UncleTallow," strong-voiced and redolent with tobacco, who satstiffly in a great high chair beside the open fire, because hiship was broken. He was good-natured but not energetic. The energywas in my grandmother, Sally, a thin, tall, yellow and hawk-facedwoman, certainly beautiful in her youth, and efficient and managingin her age. She had Dutch and perhaps Indian blood, but the restof the family were black.

Othello and Sally had ten or more children. Many of these hadmoved away before I was old enough to know them; but I remembermy Aunt Lucinda, who married a Gardner, and after his death aJackson; then my Aunt Minerva, whose married name was Newport. The youngest children were my Uncle Jim and my mother, Mary Silvina. She was born in 1831, and died in 1885, at the age of 54 years. 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. She gave one the impression of infinite patience,but a curious determination was concealed in her softness.

As a young woman she had a son, Idelbert, born of a love affairbetween her and her first cousin, John Burghardt. The circumstancesof this romance I never knew. No one talked of it in the family. Probably the mating was broken up on account of the consanguinityof the cousins. My mother became a silent, repressed woman, workingat household duties at home, helping now and then in the neighbors'homes, and finally going into town where her married sisters livedand where she worked as a housemaid. When she was 35, AlfredDu Bois came to town

In the early 17th century, two French Huguenots, sons of CretianDu Bois, migrated from Flanders to America. Perhaps a third sonwho spelled his name Du Bose went South. Louis and Jacques DuBois settled in Ulster County, New York State. They were in allprobability artisans descended from peasants; but the white Americanfamily declares they were aristocrats, and has found a coat ofarms which they say belongs to them.

From Jacques in the fifth generation was descended James Du Bois,born about 1750, who became a physician in Poughkeepsie, New York,and migrated to the Bahamas. Lord Dunmore, Governor of New Yorkand later of Virginia and the Bahamas, had given grants of landto various members of the Du Bois family, who were loyalists,and young Dr. James Du Bois went to the Bahamas soon after theRevolution and took over several plantations and one lake of saltwhich still bears his name. He prospered after some vicissitudes,and founded a family.

Whether, as is probable, he took a slave as a concubine, or marrieda free Negro woman--in either case two sons were born, my grandfatherAlexander in 1803 and a younger brother, John. After their mother'sdeath, Dr. James Du Bois brought both boys to New York in 1810. Both were white enough to "pass," and their fatherentered them in the private Cheshire School in Connecticut. Hevisited them regularly, but on one visit, about 1820, he suddenlyfell dead.

The white New York family removed the boys from school and tookcharge of their father's property. My grandfather was apprenticedto a shoemaker. Just what happened to John, I do not know. Probablyhe continued as white, and his descendants, if any, know nothingof their colored ancestry. Alexander was of stern character. His movements between 1820 and 1840 are not clear. As the sonof a "gentleman," with the beginnings of a gentleman'seducation, he refused to become a shoemaker and went to Haitiat the age of perhaps 18. Boyer had become President just afterthe suicide of Christophe, and held power until 1843, bringingthe whole island under his control and making a costly peace withFrance.

Of grandfather's life in Haiti from about 1821 to 1830, I knowfew details. From his 18th to his 27th year he formed acquaintanceships,earned a living, married and had a son, my father, Alfred, bornin 1825. I do not know what work grandfather did, but probablyhe ran a plantation and engaged in the growing shipping tradeto the United States. Who he married I do not know, nor her relatives. He may have married into the family of Elie Du Bois, the greatHaitian educator. Also why he left Haiti in 1830 is not clear. It may have been because of the threat of war with France duringthe Revolution of 1830 and the fall of Charles X.

England soon recognized the independence of Haiti; but the UnitedStates while recognizing South American republics which Haitihad helped to free, refused to recognize a Negro nation. Becauseof this turmoil, grandfather may have lost faith in the possibilityof real independence for Haiti. Again trade with the United Stateswas at this period exceeding the trade of England or France andamounting to more than a million dollars a year. This trade wascarried on with Northern cities like New Haven, but it was alsodemanded by the rapidly growing Cotton Kingdom in the South. Also, perhaps domestic difficulties with his wife's family andover family property may have arisen. For any or all of thesereasons my grandfather left Haiti and settled with his son, nowfive years of age, in New Haven.

He arrived from the West Indies at a critical time: David Walkerhad published his bitter Appeal to Negroes against submissionto slavery, in 1829; Nat Turner led his bloody Virginia slaverevolt in 1831; slavery was abolished in the British West Indiesin 1833; the rebelling slaves of the ship Amistad landedin Connecticut in 1839, and their trial took place in New Haven. Riots against Negroes occurred in New England cities, in NewYork and Philadelphia in this decade, and Negroes held conventionsin Philadelphia. Among other things these Negroes determinedto build an industrial college in New Haven, and later PrudenceCrandall tried there to let Negro girls enter her seminary, tothe disgust of the whites. In New Haven, the abolitionists SimeonJocelyn and Arthur Tappan worked, and here Garrison visited.

In New Haven my grandfather settled. He opened a grocery storeat 43 Washington Street. The color line was sharp in New Havenand abolitionists were stirring up dissension. In Trinity parishof the Episcopal church were a few colored communicants, includingmy grandfather. But the rector, Harry Croswell, was reactionaryand openly condemned the abolition movement. Soon the coloredcommunicants of Trinity were given to understand that they wouldbe happier in their own racial church. Alexander Crummell, thegreat Negro minister, encouraged this move, and the example ofAmos Beman who was building the Temple Street Negro CongregationalChurch, made the move inevitable.

This must have infuriated my grandfather, and yet his very pridedrove him into joining this segregated church. He was made treasurerprobably because he owned property; eventually he became the firstsenior warden of St. Luke's, as this "jim-crow" churchwas called. It still exists. Also, he and certain other Negroeswith property were permitted to buy lots at the rear of the newGrove Street Cemetery, opposite the Yale campus. Years laterwhen this cemetery was enlarged, those Negro lots lay on the centerpath. Here my grandfather lies buried and here I shall one daylie. [5]

Alexander, in addition to his grocery, now became steward on thepassenger boat which ran between New Haven and New York. Herehe reformed the treatment of the servants, kept the boats in first-classorder, and achieved a degree of independence. He was in chargeof repairing and hiring. He had charge of the workers and sawto it that the Negro servants were served their meals regularlyat a table. But race segregation in New Haven and New York wasgrowing, and grandfather, after a time, determined that Springfield,Massachusetts, offered a better place for him and his family tolive. In 1856 he removed to Springfield. He bought a farm notfar from the city, down the Connecticut River, and establishedhis family in the city of Springfield. He spent the winters there,but in Spring and Summer kept his stewardship of the New York-NewHaven boats. He lived well: "bought a silk vest at LawsClothing Store for $6.75. . . . Had a few invited guests at supper,one-half past six o'clock, champagne, a rather poor quality fromWebster's . . . dedication ball at city hall." He joinedthe white Episcopal church and notes attendance at lectures. "Finished reading Shakespear's Othello," he writes oneday.

Suddenly, in late May 1861, my grandfather took a trip to Haiti. This may have been caused by the outbreak of the Civil War. Perhaps he had just lost an American wife. In March, 11 Americanslave states had seceded and formed the Confederacy. In April,Southern ports were blockaded, and on May 14, Lee became Brigadier-General. The relation of colored folk to the war was uncertain, and myfather, Alfred, was eligible for drafting. The future of coloredfolks in the United States was a problem; then, too, the rectorof St. Luke's was Theodore Holly, who early in 1861 had led amigration of Negroes to Haiti, and painted a future for them there. It is possible also that grandfather was seeking property eitherof his father, Dr. James Du Bois, in the Bahamas, which was buta few hundred miles north from Haiti; or, perhaps, especiallyin Long Key, his birthplace; or from the family of his formerHaitian wife. But he was a reticent man, and even his diary issilent on the most important points.

"Thursday, May 9. Have thoughts of leaving the vessel, butwant resolution to do so. Wrote to friends we should sail onFriday the 10th. Feel ashamed to back out, will wait a day ortwo longer but feel like one rushing on his fate. If God forsakesme, I am undone forever. 'There is a divinity that shapes ourends, rough hew as we will.'

"May 15. Sun rose clear, wind west. Hove anchor, got underway 20 minutes past six o'clock. God speed the ship, and grantme deliverance from my enemy that I may conquer before I die." (Who was this enemy? The white Du Boises? The colored Haitians?)

On his lonely trip grandfather writes poetry, not very good, butindicating deep emotion. On May 19:

A single soul, One! Only one!
Of all I know or ever knew
My star by night, by day the sun
Now guide my bark, now bound my view.
It may be right, perchance tis wrong
To love without the priestly ken,
Such things are often known among
The disappointed Sons of Men.
Bodies may be joined together
By priestly craft and laws, so strong
In vain you try the bonds to sever
Yet love in laughter breaks the thong.

(Was grandfather confessing desertion of a Haitian wife whom hehad not married and excusing his marriages in the United States?)

"Monday, June 3: Landed in Port Au Prince, took board atMr. Fredd's, Rue Caserne; rain clearing; mosquitoes, jackasses,Negroes, mud water, soldiers, universal filth.

"Saw emigrants at the emigrant house in a condition thatif not changed soon will send many to the grave. Poor men andwomen, I am sorry, heart sorry for them. They put on an air ofcheerfulness, which I am satisfied there is not one of them, butwould give all they had in the world if they could stand whereI did a few weeks ago."

Boyer had ruled Haiti. He had united the whole island under Haitianrule and had finally made peace with France, albeit on almostfatal terms. Four Presidents succeeded in the next four years;and then for ten years came the Emperor Faustin, who had beenthe slave Soulouque. The regime had an impressive magnificence,but was an economic failure.

The empire was overthrown in 1859 and Geffrard, a progressiveand hard-working man, became President, from 1859 to 1867. Hepromoted education and industry and tried to cooperate with Americanabolitionists and colored leaders like Holly in encouraging theimmigration of American Negroes. It was under Geffrard that mygrandfather arrived. He "saw the President, Baron Dennis,August Elie; invited me to take passage in government steamerto St. Mark." It was in the vicinity of St. Mark that hehad resided when he formerly lived in Haiti, and here his sonAlfred had been born. Perhaps here were his strongest ties toHaiti. He stayed from June 4 to June 9. He says no word of whathe did or whom he saw. We only know that on June 10 he was boundhome on a British steamer "just eight days after I went ashore;I felt happy to arrive. I am more than happy to leave."

The ship loaded 6,000 tons of salt, the commodity which was thebasis of Alexander's father's wealth, but Alexander does not mentionthe fact; nor apparently does he stop at Long Key where he himselfwas born. He is silent until Monday, June 24, when he lands inthe United States. It is possible that in Haiti he received fundswhich gave him greater independence, or again it may be that hehad left Alfred in Haiti, when he left in 1830; that his wifehad died and that in 1861 he returned to get his son and bringhim to America. This is conjecture.

Soon after returning he seems to have given up his New Haven workand connections and taken up a new career in Springfield, Massachusetts,where he had been living for some time. On July 12, 1861, "DuBois and Thomas rented a shop on Main Street of W. W. Parsonsat $150 a year."

I saw grandfather but once, when I was 15 and he 77. Always heheld his head high, took no insults, made few friends. He wasnot a "Negro"; he was a man! Yet the current was toostrong even for him. Then even more than now a colored man hadcolored friends or none at all, lived in a colored world or livedalone. A few fine, strong, black men gained the heart of thissilent, bitter man in New York and New Haven. If he had scantsympathy with their social clannishness, he was with them fightingdiscrimination.

Beneath his sternness was a very human man. Slyly he wrote poetry--stilted,pleading things from a soul astray. He loved women in his masterfulway, marrying after his Haitian experience three beautiful wivesin succession, in the United States, clinging to each with a certaindesperate, even if unsympathetic affection. As a father he wasnaturally a failure --hard, domineering, unyielding. His fourchildren reacted characteristically: one was until past middlelife a thin spinster, the mental image of her father; one died;one passed over into the white world, and her children's childrenare now white, with no knowledge of their Negro blood; the fourth,my father, bent before grandfather, but did not break --betterif he had. He yielded and flared back, asked forgiveness andforgot why, became the harshly-bold favorite, who ran away andrioted and roamed, and loved and married my brown mother.

He arrived in Great Barrington in 1867. He was small and beautifulof face and feature, just tinted with the sun, his wavy hair chieflyrevealing his kinship to Africa. In nature, I think, he was adreamer--romantic, indolent, kind, unreliable. He had in himthe making of a poet, an adventurer, or a Beloved Vagabond, accordingto the life that closed round him; and that life gave him alltoo little.

I really know very little of my father. He had been brought fromHaiti by his father. How he was schooled, I do not know. NewHaven then had separate schools and all public schools were poor.Perhaps he was put into one of the better private Negro schools,which existed in New Haven at times. What he did between the agesof 15 and 35, I do not know. He probably worked and wanderedhere and there. There is no hint of his marrying during thistime. But his picture which he gave mother showed him in theuniform of a Civil War private. How long he served or where,I do not know, nor whether he enlisted as colored or white. Connecticutraised two Negro regiments.

When my father came to Great Barrington in 1867, the black Burghardtsdid not like him. He was too good-looking, too white. He hadapparently no property and no job, so far as they knew; and theyhad never heard of the Du Bois family in New York. Then suddenlyin a runaway marriage, but one duly attested and published inthe Berkshire Courier, Alfred married Mary Burghardt andthey went to live in the house of Jefferson McKinley. Here theylived for a year or two and against them the black Burghardt familycarried on a more or less open feud, until my birth.

I was of great interest to the whole town. The whites waitedto see "when my hair was going to curl," and all myBurghardt relatives admired me extravagantly. They still lookedaskance at my father and he was not attracted by them. Thereloomed the question as to where we were going to live and whatmy father was going to do for a living. He must have had somemoney on hand when he came, and he recoiled from grandfather Burghardt'shome where Mary and her baby were expected eventually to live.After a year or more of hesitation, father went away to establisha home for his family. He would write for mother to come. Motherand I went to live on Egremont Plain with the Burghardts. Ina few months father wrote from New Milford, a small town in Connecticutabout 40 miles south of Great Barrington on the Housatonic River. Mother hesitated. She had seldom been out of her hometown. Once as a girl she had taken an excursion to New York. The familyobjected to her leaving and expressed more and more doubt as tofather. The result was in the end that mother never went andmy father never came back to Great Barrington. If he wrote, theletters were not delivered. I never saw him, and know not whereor when he died.

My mother worried and sank into depression. The family closedabout her as a protecting guardian. The town folk who knew theBurghardts took her and me into a sort of overseeing custody. We lived in simple comfort, and living was cheap. And yet asI look back I cannot see how mother accomplished what she did. Her brother and sisters, her cousins and relatives always stoodby. My silent older half-brother early went to work as a waiterand was seldom home, but always he was ready to help.

My mother seldom mentioned my father. She was silent before familycriticism. She uttered no word of criticism or blame. I do notremember asking much about him. Why, I am not sure; but I thinkthat I knew instinctively that this was a subject which hurt mymother too much even to mention.

As I look back now, I can see that the little family of my motherand myself must often have been near the edge of poverty. YetI was not hungry or in lack of suitable clothing and shoes, ormade to feel unfortunate in company with my fellow students. That was partly because most village folk were poor or middleclass. There were but few rich families. Most of my schoolmatesbelonged to families of small farmers, artisans, or shopkeepers. When special expenditures were called for, new shoes or schoolbooks, the money often came from gifts from my uncle or auntsor less frequently from white families, long closely connectedwith the Burghardts. There may have been other gifts but theywere never conspicuous. I never wore cast-off clothes. I neverasked folk outside the family for money. Our landlord, Mrs. Cass,received no rent, I am sure, for long intervals. I think therent was four dollars a month, and finally it was accounted forby settlement as a gift when I went to college.

We continued to live with grandfather Burghardt until I was aboutfive, and grandfather died. The family then moved into town. We lived on the Sumner estate on south Main Street, where wehad rooms over what was once the stables. There was a nice wideyard and a running brook which afforded me infinite pleasure. Right opposite the front gate was the long lane leading downto the public school grounds. I suspect this nearness to schoolinduced mother to choose this home. Then after grandmother died,we moved up to Railroad Street, right next to the station. Welived with a poor white family, kindly, but the wife was nearinsanity.

Soon after, my worrying mother had a paralytic stroke from whichshe never entirely recovered. As I remember her, she was alwayslame in her left leg, with a withered left hand. We always walkedarm in arm. The misfortune never seemed to me to hurt us. Icontinued in school and had plenty to eat. Aunts and cousinsdid our mending and neighbors were always ready to help out. Sometimes mother went out for a day's work and people seemed tolike to have her. I always went to bring her home at night andwas never left alone.

We soon moved to the Cass home which mother and I occupied duringmy high school days. It was on Church Street and stood back ofthe Cass residence and next to the horsesheds of the Congregationalchurch, which was empty except on Sunday. We occupied two roomsand a pantry on the ground floor and two bedrooms on the secondhalf-story.

None of these successive homes had modern conveniences: the "backhouse" and running water were outdoors; our heat came fromstoves. Usually the houses were weatherproof and we had furnitureenough for health and comfort. We had no gardens, but sometimesa border bit of land. Always after I was 12, I had a bedchamberto myself, a luxury which I never dreamed was so rare until Iwas much older.

In the public schools of this town, I was trained from the ageof six to 16, and in the town schools, churches, and general sociallife, I learned my patterns of living. I had, as a child, almostno experience of segregation or color discrimination. My schoolmateswere invariably white; I joined quite naturally all games, excursions,church festivals; recreations like coasting, swimming, hikingand games. I was in and out of the homes of nearly all my mates,and ate and played with them. I was as a boy long unconsciousof color discrimination in any obvious and specific way.

I knew nevertheless that I was exceptional in appearance and thatthis riveted attention upon me. Less clearly, I early realizedthat most of the colored persons I saw, including my own folk,were poorer than the well-to-do whites; lived in humbler houses,and did not own stores. None of the colored folk I knew wereso poor, drunken and sloven as some of the lower class Americansand Irish. I did not then associate poverty or ignorance withcolor, but rather with lack of opportunity; or more often withlack of thrift, which was in strict accord with the philosophyof New England and of the 19th century.

On the other hand, much of my philosophy of the color line musthave come from my family group and their friends' experience. My immediate family eventually consisted of my mother and herbrother. Near to us in space and intimacy were two married auntswith older children; and a number of cousins, in various degreesremoved, lived scattered through the town and county. Most ofthese had been small farmers, artisans, laborers and servants. With few exceptions all could read and write, but few had trainingbeyond this. These talked of their work and experiences, of hindranceswhich colored people especially encountered, of better chancesin other towns and cities. In this way I must have gotten indirectlya pretty clear outline of color bars which I myself did not experience. Moreover, I couldn't rationalize my own case, because I foundit easy to excel most of my classmates in studies, if not in games. The secret of life and the loosing of the color bar, then, layin excellence, in accomplishment. If others of my family, ofmy colored kin, had stayed in school instead of quitting earlyfor small jobs, they could have risen to equal whites. On thismy mother quietly insisted. There was no real discriminationon account of color --it was all a matter of ability and hardwork.

This philosophy saved me from conceit and vainglory by rigorousself-testing, which doubtless cloaked some half-conscious misgivingson my part. If visitors to school saw and remarked on my brownface, I waited in quiet confidence. When my turn came, I recitedglibly and usually correctly because I studied hard. Some ofmy mates did not care, some were stupid, some excelled, but atany rate I gave the best a hard run, and then sat back complacently.

I entered public school at the age of about five or six. Forten years I went regularly to school, from nine o'clock untilnoon, and one o'clock until four each day, five days a week, tenmonths a year. The teachers were mature women, most of them trainedin State Normal Schools and invariably white American Protestants. Miss Cross, my first primary teacher, was stern and inflexible,but with an inward kindliness and sense of fairness which madeher a favorite of mine; and since I was a bright boy who got hislessons, I became a favorite of hers.

The school grounds were not particularly attractive or large,and yet they were ample for the play of children at recess. Agreat choke-cherry tree with bared roots gave shade in the summer,and fences hemmed us in from the private homes at the side andthe low meadows beyond. The primary schoolhouse was wooden, withwooden hand-made furniture, and usually pretty well crowded. The grammar and high school building was brick. We had shortdevotions and singing each morning and there my clear young voicebrought some initial distinction.

Gradually I became conscious that in most of the school work mynatural gifts and regular attendance made me rank among the best,so that my promotions were regular and expected. I look backupon my classmates with interest and sharpened memory. They wereboys and girls of town and country, with a few Irish and neverbut once another colored child. My rapid advancement made meusually younger than my classmates, and this fact remained truein high school and at college and even when I began my life workit influenced my attitudes in many ways. I was often too youngto lead in enterprises even when I was fitted to do so, but Iwas always advising and correcting older folk.

Of course, I was too honest with myself not to see things whichdessert and even hard work did not explain or solve. I recognizedingrained difference in gift. Art Benham could draw picturesbetter than I; but I could express meaning in words better thanhe; Mike Gibbons was a perfect marble player, but dumb in Latin. I came to see and admit all this but I hugged my own gifts andput them to test.

As playmate of the children I saw the homes of nearly everyone. The homes I saw impressed me, but did not overwhelm me. Manywere bigger than mine, with newer and shinier things, but theydid not seem to differ in kind. One class of rich folk with whomI came in contact were summer boarders who made yearly incursionsfrom New York. I think I was mostly impressed by their clothes. Outside of that there was little reason so far as I could seeto envy them. The children were not very strong and rather toowell dressed to have a good time playing. I think I probablysurprised them more than they me, for I was easily at home withthem and happy. They looked to me just like ordinary people,while my brown face and frizzled hair must have seemed strangeto them.

The schools of Great Barrington were simple but good, well-taught;and truant laws were enforced. I started on one school ground,and continued there until I was graduated from high school. Iwas seldom absent or tardy. The curriculum was simple: reading,writing, spelling and arithmetic- grammar, geography and history. We learned the alphabet, we were drilled vigorously on the multiplicationtables and we drew accurate maps. We could spell correctly andread with understanding.


5. In fact, Dr. Du Bois was buried after a State funeral, inAccra, Ghana, at the beach perhaps 100 yards from the AtlanticOcean.

From W.E.B. DuBois, The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century.New York, NY: International Publishers Co. Inc., 1968, pp. 61-77.

Forward to "Harvard in the Last Decades of the 19th Century"
Back to the Index