UMass to post treasure trove of Du Bois documents online

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 4, 2009
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For well over three decades, his archives lay in a secure, climate-controlled room on the 25th floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library in Amherst, undisturbed but for the rare, restless scholar.

Now, more than 100,000 documents from the Du Bois collection at the University of Massachusetts, an array of diaries, photographs, and personal correspondence of the pioneering black scholar and civil rights activist, are being restored to their rightful place in the public eye.

The papers, which include speeches and unpublished essays and other writings, will be converted to digital form and posted on the Internet in a two-year, $200,000 effort, the library announced yesterday. The project will allow unprecedented access to the extensive collection, recognized as the leading Du Bois anthology in the world.

"There is some wonderful stuff here, tremendous material that deserves a wider audience," said Rob Cox, head of special collections at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. "Du Bois lived a huge swath of African-American history and American history, and can be accessed by anyone, anywhere."

Du Bois was born and grew up in Great Barrington, where his family was among the few black residents. He attended Harvard, where he became the first black to receive a doctoral degree. He would later famously remark about his time at Harvard - "I was in Harvard, but not of it."

He wrote his most famous work, "The Souls of Black Folk," in 1903, best remembered for the prescient phrase "for the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line."

The collection features letters between Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, and such historical figures as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Mohandas Gandhi, and Albert Einstein. It is used extensively by Du Bois scholars, who have primarily read the documents by microfilm. "We are constantly getting requests, from all over the world," Cox said.

Other highlights include a menu signed by a group of civil rights activists in 1905 at the first meeting of the Niagara Movement, the precursor organization to the NAACP. They met on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, in Ontario, because no restaurant in Buffalo would serve them.

Du Bois died in 1963 in Accra, Ghana, where he had moved in 1961 and became a naturalized citizen. The university acquired the papers in 1973 from his widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois.

Randolph Bromery, a former chancellor at UMass-Amherst, said Shirley Graham Du Bois was drawn to the idea of placing her husband's collection near his childhood home, and said he once told her that the home would be visible from the 25th floor of the library "if it weren't for the Berkshires."

"I think that connection is what triggered" her decision, said Bromery, who had no direct connection to Du Bois other than a realization of his papers' historical importance.

Since then, the papers have received a limited audience.

"Only the scholars and the researchers get up there," Bromery said. "Now it will be worldwide."

There are smaller Du Bois collections at Fisk University, a historically black university in Tennessee he attended, and Clark University Atlanta, Cox said. Du Bois taught at Atlanta University, as it was called before it merged with Clark College in 1988.

The UMass effort is being financed through a grant from the Verizon Foundation, which funds scholarly programs that use technology.

Once scanned and cataloged, the collection will be searchable via the Internet.

About 75 percent of the archives are personal correspondence. The archives include drafts of articles, books, and plays.

"It's amazing," Cox said. "He even saved a handbill from 1885, announcing he was giving the graduation speech at his high school."

Peter Schworm can be reached at