W.E.B. Du Bois and the Legacy — and Betrayal — of Black Soldiers


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By Matthew Delmont, New York Times

In “The Wounded World,” Chad Williams examines the scholar-activist’s struggle to complete a book about Black troops’ experiences during World War I.

W.E.B. Du Bois in the office of The Crisis.Credit…Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, (The New York Public Library)

In February 1938, W.E.B. Du Bois celebrated his 70th birthday by attending a convocation in his honor at Spelman College in Atlanta. Wearing his Harvard doctoral regalia, he delivered a speech surveying his life and work as a scholar and activist. As the historian Chad Williams describes in his illuminating new account, Du Bois told the friends and luminaries who had gathered how he was profoundly influenced and troubled by the First World War.

“I felt for a moment during the war that I could be without reservation a patriotic American,” Du Bois said. “I did not believe in war, but I thought that in a fight with America against militarism and for democracy we would be fighting for the emancipation of the Negro race.”

This hope soon gave way to disillusionment. Du Bois traveled to France after the armistice to interview Black troops. “I saw the mud and dirt of the trenches; I heard from the mouths of soldiers the kind of treatment that Black men got in the American army,” he said. “I was convinced and said that American white officers fought more valiantly against Negroes within our ranks than they did against the Germans. I still believe this was largely true.”

Those closest to him knew that for nearly two decades Du Bois had been trying to finish writing a massive history of the war, “The Black Man and the Wounded World.” Williams calls this unfinished project “Du Bois’s most significant work to never reach the public.” His deeply researched, crisply written story is structured around Du Bois’s struggle to finish this manuscript and grapple with the legacy of a war.

Read the full review.

Du Bois was one of the historians who wrote about Black progress during Reconstruction.

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