There’s no single, clear reason why, in late 1943, Atlanta University president Rufus Clement unceremoniously fired W.E.B. Du Bois, the university’s most acclaimed academic. But here’s the thing: The administration did not need a solitary excuse to dump Du Bois. There were so many to choose from.
For starters, while at the missionary-founded university, the agnostic sociologist produced scholarship questioning the black church. And despite his groundbreaking research on Southern blacks, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, a New Englander and celebrated Haahvud man, kept his distance from Southern-born colleagues and Atlanta neighbors.
It didn’t help that he’d insulted Spelman College president and AU board member Florence Read, saying Read, who was white and served as a direct connection to New York benefactors, “didn’t care about black people—or anyone else for that matter.”
On top of it all, he no longer had the protection of his chief supporter, former AU and Morehouse president John Hope, who had died in 1936. “No matter what Clement might have considered doing to help Du Bois, Florence Read controlled the purse strings,” says Carlton Brown, the current president of AU’s successor institution, Clark Atlanta University.
The administration might have foreseen what time would later prove: The stubborn septuagenarian scholar was not ready to retire. (Indeed, he would work until his death at age ninety-five.)
News of Du Bois’s termination caused a stir. Alumni decried the move. Students at AU, Morehouse, and Spelman sent a letter calling for Du Bois’s reinstatement. Academics such as Melville Herkovitz, founder of Northwestern’s anthropology department, protested. But the AU faculty responded to their celebrated colleague’s canning halfheartedly. Self-preservation likely fueled their reaction; after all, if the university could up and fire its most prominent professor without a pension, what would that mean for the rest of them? “In those days, faculty could not spend a lot of time being outraged,” says Brown.
All the complaints helped Du Bois get an emeritus title and a pension, but they didn’t win back his job. In 1944, when his contract was up, Du Bois left Atlanta.
Firing aside, Du Bois never represented a point of shame for the university, but neither did CAU aggressively link itself to its former faculty star. Few associate Du Bois with CAU the way, for example, Morehouse College is linked to its most illustrious alum, Martin Luther King Jr.
But over the past year, Clark Atlanta has made a concerted effort to underscore its connection with Du Bois. The university has hosted a yearlong series of seminars on Du Bois that will culminate with this month’s conference, “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Wings of Atlanta,” which includes fifty institutions and more than 140 panelists—among them the former director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre in Ghana; poet Amiri Baraka; and Evelyn Jenkins Carroll, who studied under Du Bois at AU in the 1930s.
“We want to recognize the legacy of interdisciplinary excellence and research on campus that Du Bois represents,” says Stephanie Evans, the conference organizer and chair of CAU’s Department of African American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies, and History.
Convened a half century after Du Bois’s death, the conference will “resituate the legacy of Du Bois in the South and at Clark Atlanta,” explains Evans. In addition, it emphasizes graduate education at CAU, which, as part of the Atlanta University Center, also serves as the graduate school for Spelman and Morehouse.
So why is CAU undertaking an ambitious effort to reassociate itself with Du Bois now? “Because this is Du Bois’s intellectual home,” says Brown. Du Bois spent twenty-three years—the bulk of his teaching career—at AU: from 1897 to 1910, and again from 1934 to 1944. It fostered arguably his best work: He wrote his most prominent book, 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, while at AU and also produced his finest historical scholarship, 1935’s Black Reconstruction, challenging conventional thinking on the post–Civil War South.
Brown and Evans were Du Bois experts before arriving in Atlanta. As an undergrad, Brown helped create the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—where Du Bois’s papers are housed. Evans is a Ph.D. graduate of that same department.