The rarely-told story of how civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois became a Ghanaian at age 93

Nii Ntreh October 16, 2019
W.E.B. Du Bois. Photo Credit:

What would make a world-famous African-American social scientist, civil rights activist and historian choose to live in 1960s Ghana at the ripe old age of 93?

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois is one of those historical figures who are so widely known that it is easy for individuals to presume there is nothing new about them.

It is a bit like how you think you know Lady Gaga’s real name because you know almost all the songs.

W.E.B. Du Bois eventually becoming and dying a Ghanaian is one of the least told stories about the man, partly because it came at the tail end of his life.

Another reason for this murmured period of Du Bois’ life might be because he did not successfully complete that task for which he moved to Ghana. Death, by way of old age, did not permit him.

In 1951, the US government seized the passport of Du Bois and other members of the civil rights struggle as well as the Communist Party.

That year, the scholar had turned 83, married his second wife and tried to mobilise funds to support Africans fighting for independence from European colonialists.

Du Bois had also petitioned the US government, asking it not to embark on a path of proliferating nuclear weapons. As history has made abundantly clear, the US government, after World War 2 at least, has never been pleased with people who asked it to calm down on wars and warlike enthusiasm.

1951 was a time when US senator Joe McCarthy had effectively convinced many that there were enemies within America acting on the whims of the Soviet government. Du Bois was branded un-American and accused of being a spy.

Du Bois was arraigned before a court but acquitted as there was a lack of evidence to convict him.

Writing for The Boston Review in 2017, Andrew Lanham said of Du Bois after the trial: “… The trial and the publicity around it ruined his career. He was left scrabbling to earn enough money just to buy groceries.”

Things went downhill after that. He was illegally prevented from going to Canada in 1952, and he and others were given back their passports only in 1958.

America had taken exception to the legitimate dissident of a man and he paid dearly for it.

But Du Bois suffered in a different way than others such as fellow renegade and film writer, Dalton Trumbo. They were both suspected of being Soviet agents, but after the storm, Trumbo arguably got his life back.

Du Bois never got back on his feet, and it is not out of the bounds of reason to say he suffered more because of the colour of his skin.

White people had decided by way of war, not moral conviction, that black people deserved better than to be slaves. This was supposed to be progress.

It reminds one of what Du Bois himself spoke of progress in The Souls of Black Folk: “[I]n its place stood Progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly.”

In 1960, Du Bois visited Ghana after failing to honour an invitation to celebrate the country’s independence in 1957. Later in 1960, he would visit Nigeria too.

But in 1961, he was convinced by Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, to move to Ghana and embark on a dream intellectual quest. Du Bois long wanted to compile an encyclopedia on Africa and Nkrumah had the means to make it possible.

The two men shared more than a liking for Africa. Du Bois and Nkrumah were self-described leftists focused on the threats white supremacy and imperialism held for people of African descent.

Du Bois also moved because largely, there was not much left for him Stateside.

So with his wife, Lola Shirley, Du Bois settled in Accra. Although he could not finish the encyclopedia, his intentions were clear.

Henry Louis Gates Jr notes that Du Bois wanted to write a scientific and comprehensive collection on African peoples, cultures and environments. The idea was to challenge the racist scholarship that had emerged from the European enlightenment period.

On how much Du Bois gave to the work, Dr. Nkrumah would in 1964 tell an editorial team which continued the project at the University of Ghana: ” Dr. Du Bois was happy to come to Ghana in the very evening of his life to embark upon this task; he took Ghanaian citizenship, and immediately plunged headlong into the stupendous work of setting out the general aims of this project and securing the interest and support of eminent scholars throughout Africa for its realisation. To him, this was an exciting state of affairs to produce such an Encyclopaedia”.

Du Bois himself did not renounce his American citizenship. The US government simply refused to renew his passport after 1961, effectively leaving him stateless while in Ghana.

Du Bois accepted an offer of Ghanaian citizenship and in 1962, wrote about what Ghana meant to him in the poem, Freedomways:

“I lifted up mine eyes to Ghana

And swept the hills with high Hosanna;

Above the sun my sight took flight

Till from that pinnacle of light

I saw dropped down this earth of crimson, green and gold

Roaring with color, drums and song.”

Today, the Encyclopedia Africana, as Du Bois chose to call his dream, is an actuality with the most recent edition publication coming in 2005.

He was buried in Ghana after his death at 95. And this seems only right; Du Bois’ was a soul longing for a home that wanted him.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: October 16, 2019


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