ACCRA, Ghana — At the end of a globetrotting career that took U.S. civil-rights pioneer and author W.E.B. Du Bois from his home in America to Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and many other countries, he travelled to Ghana in 1961. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, had invited him to help write the Encyclopedia Africana. Renouncing his U.S. citizenship, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana and lived there until his death in 1963—he died on the eve of the civil-rights march in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream”speech and where Roy Wilkins of the NAACP announced Du Bois’s death from the podium.
Du Bois’s final home, a sleepy bungalow in a leafy enclave of Accra, Ghana’s capital, still stands. The tombs of Du Bois and his second wife, Shirley, sit next to his former home, which is today a tiny, modest museum at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH ROGERS/THE DAILY BEAST
The museum features hundreds of books Du Bois brought with him to Ghana. Their titles reflect his eclectic background: British Slavery and the Abolition, The Mark of the Oppressor, Into China, Time in New England, History of the Jews in the United States and American Novels and Stories of Henry James. Glass cases feature Du Bois’s graduation robes from Harvard; notebooks from 1905 covered with his even script; an 1868 photo of his father faded into sepia; scrolls that were gifts from China (Du Bois, who joined the American Communist Party in 1961, met and admired Mao Zedong); an 1884 photo with his high school class in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; and other memorabilia.
Scholar, author, civil rights pioneer and activist, and co-founder of the NAACP, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, a small western Massachusetts town that is a long way from west Africa. After graduating from Fisk University in Tennessee, he earned a second bachelor’s degree at Harvard University. In 1895 he became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. He went on to write 17 books, including the seminal The Souls of Black Folk, in which he introduced the idea of “twoness.” (A new edition of the book was published last month by Restless Books during Black History Month). Du Bois described this “double-consciousness” as “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Those strivings and ideals led him across the Atlantic to spend his last days in Ghana.
Du Bois was a leader in the pan-African movement that sought solidarity between all people of African descent. He was a major influence on Nkrumah, especially after they met at the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England. In 1947, Nkrumah led Ghana to break free from Britain’s colonial rule, making it the first African country to win independence. Ghana will celebrate its 60th anniversary as an independent nation on March 6.
In his poem “Ghana,” which is dedicated to Nkrumah, Du Bois wrote:
I went to Moscow; Ignorance grown wise taught me Wisdom;
I went to Peking: Poverty grown rich
Showed me the wealth of Work
I came to Accra.
Here at last, I looked back on my Dream;
I heard the Voice that loosed
The Long-looked dungeons of my soul
I sensed that Africa had come
Not up from Hell, but from the sum of Heaven’s glory.
B.S. Ato Keelson is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center in Accra. In an interview, he spoke about the relationship between Ghana and Du Bois, who “dreamed of coming back to Africa, his ancestral land,” says Keelson; Du Bois’ influence on Africa; and the cross-fertilization of ideas between Ghana and African American leaders.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
What influence did Du Bois’ have on pan-Africanism?
For us in Ghana, we see Du Bois as somebody who blazed the pan-African scene in Africa. Before independence, we had some Ghanaian pan-Africanists but they were not so prominent in activism. When Dr. Nkrumah, our first president, met Du Bois in the 1945 Pan-African Congress, he had the vision to help liberate the people of Africa. They got so much attached to each other. Dr Nkrumah invited Du Bois to Ghana to come and stay here.
For us, Du Bois being in Ghana became an eye opener. He was able to work with Nkrumah on a number of pan-African initiatives in Africa. He didn’t stay that long but even in that short time he was very influential for us, not only in Ghana but all of Africa. Those leaders who attended the Pan-African Congress became leaders of their countries, such as Jomo Kenyatta [Kenya’s first president] and Nkrumah. That influenced them to work hard to deliver their people from shackles of colonialism. They found Du Bois an inspiration.
What led Du Bois to settle in Ghana?
When Nkrumah came back to Ghana after the Pan-African Congress, he was always in contact with Du Bois. After gaining independence, Nkrumah needed people to help him to push pan-Africanism. He said the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with total liberation of the African continent. He needed Du Bois to help push this agenda through. He invited Du Bois in 1961. Du Bois had problems in the U.S. with renewal of his passport. When he came to Ghana, Nkrumah accepted him as a Ghanaian and Du Bois naturalized as a Ghanaian. He accepted Nkrumah’s invitation because he had the intention of helping Africa liberate itself from colonial rule.
Nkrumah didn’t just look at Ghana. He supported most of the African countries to gain independence. The light had been lit by Du Bois and Nkrumah and it was a matter of course that other countries follow. Certainly it was through Du Bois’s influence.
What progress has been made toward the vision of pan-Africanism?
Partially the vision has been achieved. There were major landmarks that had to be reached. First was the independence of African countries. That has been achieved. The second was unification of the African continent as one group. That was started with Organization of African Unity followed up with the African Union [a union that includes all 55 countries on the continent.] There were stumbling blocks here and there because we had different groups having different visions. So it was difficult for the African Union to be well-focused. Nonetheless, at least the AU exists. It’s not so strong as we expected but it’s working. The other component is the economic emancipation of people. That has not been achieved to a large extent. But the first major hurdle was independence of the African continent, and that has been achieved.
In the museum, there are photos of African American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and writer Maya Angelou visiting Ghana and meeting Nkrumah. What did coming to Ghana mean for African American leaders?
Du Bois is held so high in terms of pan-Africanism, and the struggle for independence and liberation of the black race. His presence in Ghana alone is something that Africans in the diaspora cherish. So any time they come, they want to come to the Du Bois Center to see his legacy. That is very important for us. The other part is the work that Nkrumah has done. His influence on the independence struggle and independence of African countries is one that gives Ghana that pedigree. People who come to Ghana want to see where Du Bois stayed and died.
The majority of our visitors are African Americans. Ghanaians don’t know so much about the Du Bois Memorial Center. We are trying to sensitize people in Ghana to cherish the achievements of Du Bois and Nkrumah.
Nkrumah gave Du Bois this house as his residence. What is the history of the Du Bois Memorial Center?
In 1963, Du Bois’s wife was still in Ghana because she was a close friend of the Nkrumah family until the 1966 coup d’état, which toppled Nkrumah’s government. Nkrumah’s wife was Egyptian. After the coup, she took Du Bois’s wife to Egypt. Du Bois’s wife continued to China because [W.E.B.] Du Bois had links to China. She went to China and died there in 1972.
Within that period, Du Bois’ house was ransacked. Most things were taken away. Du Bois came with a lot of books and regalia. We were able to salvage some of them. Not all, but some of them. In 1985, some Pan-Africanists in Ghana realized when diasporan Africans come to Ghana they can’t see the tomb of Du Bois. Du Bois was buried along the walls of Osu Castle, which was the seat of government at the time. It was such a security zone that they couldn’t see the tomb. These Pan-Africanists asked the president for help to relocate the tomb. Du Bois had wished that he be buried in front of his house. This request was made to the government of former president Jerry Rawlings. The body was re-interred in a specially designed tomb in front of his house. After the tomb was put in, the center was set up.
[Shirley Du Bois’s remains were eventually recovered from China and sent to Accra where they are interred alongside her husband.]
Amy Yee is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Economist and NPR. She is a former correspondent for the Financial Times based in India and New York. Follow her on Twitter at @amyyeewrites