How W.E.B. Du Bois Found His Final Resting Place in Ghana

The civil-rights pioneer and author found his final home—and his burial site—in the first African country to win independence from colonial rule.

Amy Yee

03.05.17 12:15 AM ET

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.

The museum features hundreds of books Du Bois brought with him to Ghana. Their titles reflect his eclectic background: British Slavery and the AbolitionThe Mark of the OppressorInto ChinaTime in New EnglandHistory 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.