Memorial plaque for the black activist for civil rights WEB Du Bois at Humboldt University

When asked what WEB Du Bois means for Berlin, artist Jean-Ulrick Désert, who designed the recently unveiled Du Bois Monument at Humboldt University, finds the unforgettable words: “Du Bois means something different to every Berliner. Neither the city nor the university are monolithic. What does this mean for a native Berliner compared to a foreign student? What does this mean for a white or black student? “

During his lifetime, the monuments of the university made an impression on Du Bois. In his first autobiography, “Twilight of Dawn”, he describes the moment of entering the then Frederick William University in 1892. The author recalls “a large hall with high ceilings, decorated with busts of famous Berlin professors.” Now Du Bois has his own monument in this building. On July 1, 2022, Humboldt University celebrated the official dedication of its memorial plaque, which commemorates the time when a later pioneering philosopher, sociologist and activist paced these halls. Du Bois is not only the first black man to be honored by the university. But also the first person to be honored as a former student.

A look at Du Bois’ accomplishments makes it easy to see why he was awarded this honor: at the age of 95, he revolutionized sociology, rewrote American history, and founded Black Studies. before the letter. Initially, he acted politically as an activist for civil rights and a co-founder of the pan-African movement, later more and more often as an opponent of war and an anti-colonial communist. Karl Marx’s quote, which stands today on the stairs in the foyer of Humboldt University – “Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, but it is important to change it” – was embodied by few as well as he was. But what did Berlin mean to Du Bois?


Intellectual internet network Du Bois

Separated from the white world by a veil

The fact that he devoted his entire life to the service of social and political change also has to do with Du Bois’ stay in Berlin. Born in the peaceful Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he developed an early understanding of injustice – especially racial injustice which, as he describes in Black Souls, cuts him off from the white world with a “great veil.” On the year of his birth in 1868, the official abolition of slavery was only three years ago. Racist terror is still commonplace in the United States. In Du Bois’ first year in Berlin, 1892, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells describes the atrocities whites commit against blacks, especially in the southern states, under the telling title “Southern Horrors.”

The scientific achievements of the young Du Bois allow him an exceptional career. After studying at the historically black Fisk University in segregated Tennessee, he managed to get a place at the renowned Harvard University. At that time, even Harvard was orientating itself towards the German university system. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, who was invited by Humboldt University to deliver a short speech at the memorial plaque inauguration, describes the Berlin university as the “gold standard of academic achievement” at the time.

From an early age, Du Bois set himself the goal of raising the social status of the African American population as a scientist. Important parts of the craft for this “racial ascension” ideology are being learned in Berlin. The Du Bois professors were Gustav von Schmoller and Adolph Wagner, two of the main representatives of the newer historical school of economics who advocated research at the service of social parity and developed models for moral, state intervention in the market economy. Berlin also aroused Du Bois’ political interest, which he later deepened: the meetings of the local SPD in Pankow were his first contacts with Marxism, in which he committed himself from the mid-1930s.

Anthony Obst

A memorial plaque in the corridors of the Humboldt University in Berlin

The years of Du Bois in Berlin are significant

Years of study in Germany are also important to Du Bois, because for the first time they allow him to distance himself from his homeland and the racism that is omnipresent there. In 1950, he wrote about Germany: “It was the first time I met white people who treated me like a human being in this country.” But Du Bois’s stay in Germany was not free from racist experiences: For example, during his visit to Lübeck, he was overwhelmed by the locals’ overwhelming curiosity. And in a Berlin lecture, anti-Semitic history professor Heinrich von Treitschke made condescending remarks with racist insult.

These experiences were to herald what awaited Du Bois on his next longer visit to Berlin, during his trip to Nazi Germany in 1936. After publishing the monumental study of Black Reconstruction, which also described the undemocratic conditions in the United States, the denounced, 68-year-old went on a trip around the world to investigate the crisis of capitalism and democracy. After his departure, he wrote of the Nazi anti-Semitic campaign which he observed at the time as “surpassing anything I have ever seen in vindictive cruelty and public insult.”

In 1958, Du Bois returned to Berlin, which had been divided in the meantime. Six years earlier, the American government, in an atmosphere of anti-communist fever, withdrew his passport. He was accused of endangering national security by circulating an anti-nuclear petition. When he was able to travel again at the age of 90, the University of the GDR, which was renamed the Humboldt University, awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Du Bois lived in Kreuzberg and Schöneberg

In the 1890s, an administrative obstacle prevented him from earning a doctorate in Berlin. Three semesters during which he lived, among others at Oranienstrasse and Schöneberger Ufer, did not correspond to the six semesters required for PhD students. The doctorate that Du Bois received from Harvard in 1895 was the first Negro to be his consolation prize, as he used to joke.

The inauguration ceremony of his memory is now taking place 64 years later in the same Senate hall where Du Bois received an honorary doctorate. This reflects, as Dorothea Löbbermann, professor of American studies and the monument’s driving force, puts it, “a long history of producing black knowledge in a complex transatlantic and even global context.” From Accra, Ghana, where Du Bois died as a Ghanaian citizen in 1963, the director of the WEB Du Bois Center will be linked to the inauguration via live broadcast. Arthur McFarlane II is a great-grandson from Hawaii. In addition to the biographer of David L. Lewis, a representative of the US Embassy will also make a speech.

The last speech of the evening is also especially in the spirit of Du Bois. It comes from Alina Weiermüller, co-founder and president of the Black Students’ Union at Humboldt University. It highlights the structural shortcomings that black students still have to grapple with in the German university system. “If a university is to truly live up to the legacy of WEB Du Bois,” Weiermuller said, “it must go beyond the gestures of representation and create a space where black students thrive because of their environment, not in spite of it.”

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