W. E. B. Du Bois, revered as a leading American intellectual of the 20th century, was formed in the nineteenth. After time at Fisk and then Harvard, he went on to the University of Berlin in the early 1890s, where experience outside of the United States contributed greatly to his developing understanding of the nature of racial identity. In Lines of Descent, new this month, Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the German world of ideas in which DuBois was immersed, a matrix of philosophical and social scientific inquiry from which ideas about the social construction of race emerged.
An African American traveling to Europe for graduate studies in the late 19th century was no common occurrence, especially for a person of modest means, as was Du Bois. His time at Fisk, in fact, was financed with money donated by neighbors and the congregation of his Great Barrington church. He then worked his way through Harvard, earning a second bachelor’s degree and an MA in history. With his sights set on Germany, Du Bois appealed to the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen, endowed by the philanthropist in 1882.
Determined to make a scholarly pilgrimage to Germany, Du Bois petitioned the Slater Fund for a fellowship, firing off a series of letters and testimonials to its head, former President Rutherford Hayes—the very man who gained the White House by agreeing to dismantle Reconstruction. (“To properly finish the education thus begun, careful training in a European university for at least a year is, in my mind and in the minds of my professors, indispensable to my greatest usefulness,” the Harvard graduate fellow wrote Hayes.) At last, the fund agreed to provide a stipend for up to two years, and Du Bois, recalling his flush of exhilaration, tells us that, when he left a meeting with President Hayes, the promise of a scholarship secured, he was “walking on air.”
Du Bois’s application for funds was supported by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, who wrote to Hayes of a “young colored man” who’d be just the sort to “invest in” for anyone helping “promising members of that race.” That remarkable letter follows.