David Graham Du Bois, 79; Professor, Journalist and Stepson of Famed Scholar
David Graham Du Bois, a retired professor and former Black Panther Party spokesman who devoted much of his life to preserving the legacy of his stepfather -- scholar and black liberationist W.E.B. Du Bois -- died Jan. 28 at a Northampton, Mass., hospital. He was 79 and had emphysema.
A longtime visiting professor of Afro-American studies and journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Du Bois was instrumental in persuading the university to rename its main library for his stepfather, a Massachusetts native who died in his adopted country of Ghana in 1963 when he was 95.
The library is the largest repository of the papers and writings of the civil rights pioneer, who helped found the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909 and edited its journal, Crisis.
Du Bois also established the W.E.B. Du Bois Foundation and dedicated his later years to advancing his stepfather’s dream of an encyclopedia of African history written largely by African scholars. Three of a projected 20 volumes of the Encyclopedia Africana: Dictionary of African Biography have been published since 1977.
Du Bois was born David Graham in Seattle and was named after his grandfather, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church who knew W.E.B. Du Bois and supported Crisis magazine. He was raised by his grandparents after his father died and his mother, activist and artist Shirley Graham, left for Europe to pursue a writing career. Among her works was “Tom-Tom” one of the first operas by an African American about African Americans.
David Graham legally changed his name to Du Bois after his mother married the then-83-year-old civil rights leader in 1951. Ten years later, she and the senior Du Bois moved to Ghana at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah and became citizens of the fledgling nation.
David Du Bois attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and served in the armed forces during World War II before earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Hunter College in New York City in 1950. He earned a master’s degree in history from New York University in 1956. He later studied Chinese for a year at Beijing University.
From China, he took a steamer to Egypt and spent the 1960s and early 1970s in Cairo working as a journalist.
“I fell in love with Egypt,” he once told the Boston Globe. “I got [there] and discovered that everybody looked like me, and I looked like everybody else. I was accepted as a human being without any reference to the color of my skin. It was an overwhelming experience. I found myself invisible.”
Covering such stories as the construction of the Aswan High Dam, he considered his Cairo period “the most fascinating” of his life. He was an editor and reporter for the Arab Observer, the Middle East News and Features Agency, and the Egyptian Gazette. He also was an announcer and writer for Radio Cairo and lectured on American literature at Cairo University.
In 1972, Du Bois returned to the United States and took a teaching position at UC Berkeley. He also joined the Black Panther Party and for four years was its official spokesman and editor of its weekly newspaper.
Critical of the militancy that marked the Panthers’ early history, he was a witness to its later forays into mainstream politics, such as Bobby Seale’s unsuccessful run for Oakland mayor.
During this time, Du Bois wrote a novel about African American expatriates during the 1960s called “And Bid Him Sing,” which was published in 1975 by Ramparts Press.
He became custodian of his stepfather’s legacy after his mother’s death in 1977. He was on the board of the Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana, which holds some of his stepfather’s papers, and became a Ghanaian citizen.
He taught at the University of Massachusetts from 1983 to 2001, when he retired.
He spent his last years trying to build support for the encyclopedia project, which he believed would correct “the omissions, the distortions and the lies that have appeared in most European-centered scholarship on Africa.”
Du Bois, who had long been divorced, had no children.