What an enchanting baby he was! He had warm olive skin and wide, thoughtful eyes, and there were glints of red-gold in the curly hair that his mother loved to kiss. He was exuberant. His smile could set the room aglow, and even his tears sparkled like dew chased away by the morning sun. Wherever he went, the tiny boy was the center of attention. His proud parents almost worshiped their firstborn. It did not seem possible that such a spritely boy could ever know even a moment’s illness.
But in May of 1899 Burghardt, just past his second birthday, came down with what at first seemed a nasty cold. His fever rose steadily over the next few days and the “cold” revealed itself as the dreaded child-killer of the nineteenth century, diphtheria. His parents were frantic. As Nina kept constant watch over her son, Will raced across the city seeking medical help. It was futile. White doctors and hospitals refused to treat a desperately ill black child. There were two or three black physicians on the other side of town, but Will was unable to obtain their services. On May 24, after ten days of illness, Burghardt succumbed. His heartbroken father wrote, “He died at eventide, when the sun lay like a brooding sorrow about the western hills.”
Nina, who had built her life around her son, plunged into a depression that Will, heavy with grief himself, was unable to assuage. “In a sense,” he wrote years later, “my wife died too.”
The death of Burghardt did much to radicalize William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Even as he blamed himself for not at first realizing how seriously ill his son was, he also believed that the boy might have lived had treatment been more readily available (although there was no antitoxin for diphtheria at the time). He bore, as well, his wife’s bitterness over his having moved the family to Atlanta, where medical resources for blacks were so scanty, in order to advance his academic career.
In 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois was on the verge of becoming the second most influential black leader in the United States, after Booker T. Washington. Yet his son’s death seemed to render his efforts meaningless, coming as it did on the heels of another traumatic event, the torture and lynching of Sam Hose, an African-American man, just outside Atlanta on April 23. Hose had been hanged, burned, and dismembered before a mob of two thousand. The horrified Du Bois prepared a letter condemning the murder and strode toward the office of the Atlanta Constitution, intending to present it for publication in the editorial page. On his way, however, he learned that Hose’s charred knuckles were on display in a drug store window just down the block. Overwhelmed, Du Bois returned home and agonized over his sociological training and progressive faith in reason. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist,” he groaned, “when negroes were being lynched, murdered, and starved.”
Over the first decades of the twentieth century Du Bois moved steadily leftward, from progressive socialism to communism, and from a belief in racial integration to the grim conclusion that racial separatism was necessary for blacks. At the end of his long life, despairing of a solution to America’s “race problem,” he joined the Communist Party, renounced his American citizenship, and moved to Ghana. Du Bois died in Akkra on August 27, 1963, the day before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Will and Nina could know none of this in 1899, but they could not bear to have their boy buried in the city that had cared so little for him. They decided to lay Burghardt to rest in Du Bois’ hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. As they trudged in the funeral procession bearing the small coffin to the Atlanta train station, they heard white passersby sneer, “N—–s!”
With thanks to historians Mark Bauerlein and David Levering Lewis, and to the eloquent W.E.B. Du Bois himself. The family portrait shows W.E.B. and Nina Du Bois with their daughter Yolande, born in 1900.