70th Anniversary: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Historic Lecture at St. John’s

March 25, 2022 | By Les Poling

Tutor George Russell
Click to watch St. John’s community members discuss the significance of W. E. B. Du Bois lecturing at St. John’s in 1952.

On January 5, 1952, St. John’s College senior Martin Dyer (Class of 1952)—the first Black student to attend St. John’s, and consequently one of the first Black students to be admitted into a white private college south of the Mason-Dixon line—initiated a correspondence with one of the defining intellectuals of the 20th century. “Dear Dr. Du Bois,” the letter began:

While still in high school, I had the good fortune of hearing you lecture on the Negro in America. Since then, I have always been intensely interested in your work. My indirect acquaintance with you became more intimate through my contact with your daughter, Mrs. Yolande Williams, who taught me high school history.

With the aid of Mrs. Williams and others, I was able to come to St. John’s College where I am now in my senior year. Unlike the students in the average American college, students here, I have found, recognize the vast discrepancies existing between American ideals and American practices and would like to offer intelligent opposition to the growing breach between what is and what should be.

… With this in mind, I thought it to be particularly desirable to write you and inquire of your availability to lecture one Sunday evening on POLITICAL FREEDOM AND THE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE.

Mr. Richard Weigle, the president of St. John’s, has expressed his desire to hear you lecture and is writing to let you know of pertinent details. It is my hope you will accept our invitation.

W. E. B. Du Bois—at that point 81 years old, long after writing works like The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America, though still an extraordinarily influential intellectual and civil rights activist—responded within the month. “Dear Mr. Dyer,” his letter read:

If requested by the authorities of St. John’s College, I think I can arrange to come for one Sunday evening lecture sometime during the spring.

I thank you for your kind letter.

Sincerely yours,

W. E. B. Du Bois

Four months later, Du Bois would become the first and only author to speak at the college whose works would become a mainstay on the St. John’s reading list on both campuses.

Du Bois in 1952

W. E. B. Du Bois led a multifaceted life as an intellectual, educator, writer, and activist. He had a very successful period in academia: he was the first Black American to earn a PhD from Harvard and published prolifically during his time at Atlanta University, which was the nation’s first institution to grant graduate degrees to Black Americans; in 1988, the university merged with Clark College to become Clark Atlanta University, the largest of the 37 United Negro College Fund member schools. In addition, Du Bois gained national prominence in the first decade of the 20th century as part of the Niagara Movement, an organization led by Black intellectuals who opposed Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, instead calling for the struggle for full civil rights for Black Americans.

Two events in the early 1900s shine a particularly bright light on Du Bois’ importance and continued influence in American society. First: Du Bois joined fellow civil rights advocates to cofound the NAACP (1909), accepting a position as director of publicity and research and creating the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis. Today’s NAACP website declares, “With Du Bois as its mouthpiece, NAACP came to be known as the leading protest organization for Black Americans.”

Second: Du Bois published one of his most enduring works, The Souls of Black Folk—an incisive and profound collection of essays that concern, broadly speaking, the rights and humanity of Black Americans and the struggle against American racism to realize those rights. Beginning with Du Bois’ famous declaration in the book’s foreword that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” The Souls of Black Folk explored and introduced a number of sociological concepts—including, notably, “double consciousness”—that would inform the civil rights movement for decades to come. As the writer Saunders Redding mused in an introduction to a later edition of The Souls of Black Folk, “The boycott of the buses in Montgomery had many roots … but none more important than this little book of essays published more than half a century ago.”

Such works and activities made Du Bois an icon; they also made him a target. A longtime critic of the United States government and of capitalism, Du Bois—who was surveilled by the FBI at different points throughout the 1940s and ’50s—became a victim of McCarthyism only one year before visiting St. John’s. As part of Du Bois’ peace activism (a vital part of his life, especially during and following the World War II), he served as chair of the Peace Information Center (PIC), an organization created in 1950 to build an American movement against nuclear weapons. The U.S. Department of Justice alleged that the PIC was a subversive front and demanded that Du Bois and other PIC leaders register with the federal government. When PIC leadership refused, they were indicted.

The United States v. Peace Information Center came to trial in 1951 but failed to materialize; the case was dismissed when Du Bois’ defense attorney, Vito Marcantonio, told the jury that Albert Einstein had offered to appear as a character witness. The affair is indicative of the time in Du Bois’ life; ever committed to his principles, he refused to back down in the face of institutional pressure from the U.S. government. Although the NAACP refused to issue a letter of support for Du Bois, he found vocal allies in a variety of figures, such as Langston Hughes, and continued to speak at institutions committed to free speech and open discourse—including St. John’s College.

On February 14, 1952, St. John’s President Richard Weigle formally invited Du Bois to speak in the college’s King William Room, writing: “It is the custom at St. John’s College to invite outstanding men and women to speak to students, faculty and interested members of the community on some contemporary topic of political, economic or sociological nature … We would be very pleased if you could accept an invitation to speak at one of these meetings on any Sunday evening in April.” Du Bois replied in March, simply writing: “I shall be glad to speak at St. John’s College Sunday, April 13th on ‘The Present Status of the Negro Problems in the United States’.”

Thus, on April 13, 1952, W. E. B. Du Bois arrived at the Annapolis train station, where Dyer escorted him to campus.

The Speech

The speech that Du Bois delivered in the King William Room does not exist in the college’s archives but a record of its title, “The Present Status of the Negro Problems in the United States,” does. A similarly titled lecture, “The Negro Problems of the United States,” was given at Antioch College six weeks after the St. John’s speech on May 27, 1952. The only college mentioned directly in the Antioch speech is St. John’s College; it is likely that the Antioch speech is a revised version of the St. John’s speech. It began by laying the groundwork for Du Bois’ consideration of civil rights, racism, and American society.

In exploring the social problem of race, Du Bois emphasizes historical and economic aspects of the problem above all others: “... Actions of human beings are never just present events,” he said. “They always form part of a continuous string of occurrences, all influencing and conditioning the other. A social problem like that of the Negro therefore can never be considered simply in its present condition. It must be treated historically so that it’s development will be sensed.”

Du Bois therefore asks, “What then was it that took place between the first importation of slaves and the day when Negro students, with some hesitation and doubt, were admitted to St. John’s College?” His narrative relates how, through imperialism and colonialism, the natural demand for labor was the occasion for the forced transfer of labor; as a result, more common class-based discrimination against the poor was transformed into discrimination on the basis of race independently of the state of wealth or education. Noting that, “it is characteristic of human beings that they must excuse their actions, they must try to find ethical sanctions for what they do,” even when it is wrong, Du Bois examines how industry and profit motivated a false “philosophy of race differences” that lies at the foundation of the problem. Although Du Bois observes the differences in laws in the former slave states and free states, he nevertheless argues that “an American citizen, no matter what his education, health or character, if he shows Negro descent or even if it is not apparent but known, will suffer some discrimination anywhere in the United States.”

Observing that the “organization of negroes within their own ranks … [has already] done the most to restore the concept of democracy to the United States,” Du Bois argues that all Americans must now attend to the industrial organization of the nation and its economic inequality, if the complex set of social problems, including the race problem, are to be solved. Du Bois challenges his listeners, at St. John’s and elsewhere, to consider the means by which the nation can live more fully according to democratic principles.

The Reception

Following the lecture, Du Bois joined students at the home of Priscilla Bender-Shore (Class of 1955) and Mel Shore (Class of 1954), two Johnnies who lived in converted on-campus barracks that housed married students and their families. In a 2007 article in The College magazine, Bender-Shore recalled the night with detail, including the fact that the college dean, Jacob Klein, objected to Du Bois’ politics; Klein was a refugee from Eastern Europe and Du Bois embraced Marxist social and economic theories. “There was a fundamental difference in ideology,” she said. “We could see that he wasn’t going to be honored and we thought he was a really important person.” According to the article:

“The Shores’ house was filled with students who were eager to question Du Bois about  civil rights and politics. Bender-Shore remembers little of the lecture topic or the discussion in her home, but Du Bois left a lasting impression. ‘He was a small man, very firm and confident, genteel,’ says Bender-Shore. ‘We felt very honored to have him among us.’”

The next morning, Dyer escorted Du Bois back to the train station, where he departed for Baltimore, bringing an end to one of the more remarkable nights in the history of the college—and raising questions in our community about the college’s unceremonious reception of one of the great minds of the time. “There was no fanfare that I can recall,” Dyer stated in the 2007 The College magazine article.

Du Bois and the Program

The Souls of Black Folk was first added to the St. John’s reading list in 1993 in Annapolis and soon became a mainstay on both campuses. Previously, the book had often been part of study groups, preceptorials, and guest lectures on Du Bois’ life and thought. That continues to this day, including a 2021 Annapolis lecture from scholar Jared Anthony Loggins entitled “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Democratic Catastrophe.”

Johnnies read The Souls of Black Folk in their senior year, during which they also examine and discuss works by authors that include Alexander Hamilton, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Baldwin, among others. Generally speaking, these authors and thinkers identified, explored, and contributed to the intellectual, social, political, and artistic movements that have molded the world of today’s Johnnies. By reading and discussing works that include The Souls of Black Folk, Johnnies dive into many of the ideas—realized and acted upon by Du Bois and others—that shape our world today.

Just as Du Bois declared that history is an inescapable part of the present in his lecture to St. John’s students in 1952, Souls of Black Folk is part of a long intellectual lineage dating back to Homer and Plato: like so many other works on the reading list, it is a social, political, and philosophical examination of right and wrong, the rights and properties of humanity, and the constitution of a just polity. Through it, students are challenged to better understand the human condition, to see contemporary social and political problems more clearly, and to engage more actively as citizens striving for a better world.

Commemorating Du Bois’ Visit to St. John’s College

April 13, 2022, will be the 70th anniversary of Du Bois’ lecture at St. John’s. To commemorate the historic day and honor Du Bois’ visit, the college will be reading his speech as part of an all-college seminar on both campuses. Members of the Alumni Association and alumni body are also holding small group seminars on the speech throughout the month of April, symbolically expanding the scope and meaning of what all-college seminar looks like. In addition, community members have shared their thoughts on the philosophy, work, life, and place of Du Bois in the world, in America, and at St. John’s College in an upcoming series of videos to commemorate his important contribution to the great books.

In Appreciation

The college would like to thank the late Martin Dyer for his role in bringing Du Bois to speak at the college and for his commitment to increasing diversity at St. John’s, where Dyer was an active member of the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors. The college also thanks former Greenfield Library staff member Cara Sabolcik, Whit Frazier (A98), and Owen Goldin (SF79) for resurfacing, researching, and sharing important documents surrounding the Du Bois lecture; Dino Anderson (A99) for recognizing the approaching 70th Anniversary of Du Bois' visit to St. John's; and members of the college’s College History Task Force, Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, as well as the broader alumni, staff, faculty, and student community for their interest in reviving conversation about this historic visit.

To join in or start your own seminar on Du Bois’ speech, connect with classmates or regional chapters, log on to SJC Connect.