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The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois Reverberates Throughout Our Neighborhoods

In 1909, the activist, scholar, educator, writer, and editor W.E.B. Du Bois (February 23, 1868 —August 27, 1963) co-founded what has come to be the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was headquartered at 70 Fifth Avenue beginning in 1914. Around this time, he also founded the NAACP’s in-house magazine The Crisis, cited as the most widely read and influential periodical about race and social justice in U.S. history, and the first magazine ever published for African Americans. In the very same building as the NAACP and The Crisis, Du Bois operated a publishing house, which released the first-ever magazine for African American youth, The Brownies’ Book. Decades later in 1948, Du Bois began teaching the very first African-American history and culture class ever taught at a university, just around the corner from 70 Fifth Avenue at the New School for Social Research at 66 West 12th Street. And this impressive list is just the beginning of W.E.B. Du Bois’ many accomplishments in and associations with Greenwich Village and the neighborhood south of Union Square.

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1919. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections.

NAACP, The Crisis and The Brownies’ Book, 70 Fifth Avenue

From 1914 until the mid-1920s, 70 Fifth Avenue housed the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP was founded just 5 years before moving to 70 Fifth Avenue, by W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, Bishop Alexander Walters, Rev. William Henry Brooks, and Ida B. Wells, among others.

70 Fifth Avenue, 2020.

While at 70 Fifth Avenue, the NAACP experienced extraordinary growth, accomplishment, and challenges. It confronted the epidemic of lynchings of African-Americans and race-based violence taking place at the time; discrimination in voting, housing, and employment; and the proliferation of demeaning, derogatory, and dehumanizing representations of African Americans in media such as The Birth of A Nation.

“The Crisis” issue, 1924. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis provided a forum for Du Bois’ uncompromising philosophy of racial equality. Particularly during its years at 70 Fifth Avenue, The Crisis was an incomparable showcase for Black writers and artists, containing the first publication of the writings of Langston Hughes, as well as works by Zora Neale Hurtson, Countee Cullen, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Arthur Schomberg, and Jean Toomer. From an initial circulation of 1,000 in its first year of publication, the magazine’s circulation peaked while at 70 Fifth Avenue in 1919 at over 100,000, making it more popular than established journals like The New Republic and The Nation.

W.E.B. Du Bois and staff in the office of The Crisis, 1900-1930. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

The Crisis placed a special emphasis upon education, promoting the rise of African-American colleges and African American studies. Du Bois and The Crisis also had a notable commitment to gender equality, providing leadership roles to women and showcasing the works of many female writers and artists.

W.E.B. Du Bois in the office of The Crisis, 1935-1963. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

Also at 70 Fifth Avenue, W.E.B. Du Bois founded and operated DuBois and Dill Publishing, a short-lived but highly impactful publishing house. The enterprise, located for its entire existence at 70 Fifth Avenue, furthered DuBois’ mission of inspiring African Americans with stories of their peers and predecessors, as well as guiding them toward a better future. One of the publisher’s most influential periodicals was The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine ever made for African American youth. 

The Brownies Book 1920 issue. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The New School for Social Research, 66 West 12th Street

Decades after working at 70 Fifth Avenue, on September 27, 1948 W.E.B. Du Bois began teaching the very first African American history and culture class ever taught at a university, at Greenwich Village’s New School for Social Research. Du Bois’s “The Negro in American History” was a survey course which began with a focus on Europe, Africa, and Latin America in 1600, and addressed slavery, the cotton kingdom, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and the contemporary United States.

Syllabus for the ‘Negro in American History’ Class, Fall 1948 at The New School. Photo courtesy of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Special Collections and University Archives.

Through his course, Du Bois wanted to examine American history and stories through the lens of the Black experience. Since American history was told by white people, who Du Bois argued would never include the Black perspective, Du Bois believed it was important to tell Black history separately. Ultimately, however, Du Bois hoped to bring the histories together to express and explore their entanglements. His course featured several guest lecturers, bringing an array of voices, specialties, and experts from around the country into the classroom, and putting his Pan-African activist theories into action.

Other Connections to Our Neighborhoods

W.E.B. Du Bois accomplished tremendous feats while in our neighborhoods, but his legacy reverberates in even more ways than this. He worked with and inspired a number of our renowned residents, and his name reappears often and unexpectedly across different histories.

Sarah Smith Garnet.

In 1911, suffragist, civil rights activist, and Greenwich Villager Sarah Smith Garnet accompanied her sister, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, to London, England for the first Universal Races Congress. The conference, where Steward presented the paper “Colored American Women,” was attended by W. E. B. Du Bois. Author, political activist, and lecturer Helen Keller, who spent time in Greenwich Village’s more radical spaces in the 1910s, also knew and worked with many great local leaders, including W.E.B. Du Bois.

1955 “Freedom” issue. Photo courtesy of NYU via Wikipedia.

Trailblazing activist, playwright, and Greenwich Villager Lorraine Hansberry worked with W.E.B. Du Bois as a staffer of the Black newspaper Freedom in the early 1950s. Du Bois founded a later iteration of Freedom, called Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Movement, which was published out of Room 542 at the St. Denis Hotel (now demolished) in the neighborhood south of Union Square. In 1950, the Peace Information Center, for which W.E.B. Du Bois served as chairman, also found an home at the St. Denis.

The University Place Bookshop, one of the longest-running “Book Row” shops in the neighborhood south of Union Square, bears yet another connection to Du Bois. The store’s proprietor, Walter Goldwater, was the son of the influential political radical Dr. Abraham Goldwater, who was personally acquainted with notable leftist and civil rights figures including Du Bois. In the 1950s, as the store developed critical connections with public libraries and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Goldwater issued a new edition of Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction.

Finally, Du Bois was one of many renowned figures drawn to Harlem’s AME Zion Church, which spent a significant part of its history in the nineteenth century neighborhood of “Little Africa” in Greenwich Village.

To learn more about W.E.B. Du Bois, the many groundbreaking organizations and publications he founded and led, and the local figures whose lives he touched, check out the “Course of History Changed” Tour of the Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours map; the Civil Rights and Social Justice Map; and the African American History Tour and Leftist and Labor Tour of the “Virtual Village” — South of Union Square map.

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