Feature Stories

Deeply Du Bois

UMass Amherst’s W. E. B. Du Bois Center builds on its namesake’s legacy
  • W. E. B. Du Bois Center Director Whitney Battle-Baptiste holds an Old Spice bottle from the Du Bois homestead amidst the artifacts archive.

"I want my work at the Du Bois Center to enable a new generation of scholars, students, and citizens to uphold the tradition of Dr. Du Bois, and to help UMass Amherst students see that W. E. B. Du Bois is far more than the name on the library.”

-Whitney Battle-Baptiste

In the world of African American scholarship, one figure easily casts the longest and broadest shadow. “The work of W. E. B. Du Bois is the backdrop of everything we do,” says John H. Bracey Jr., professor and chair of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. “His recognition of the community and life behind what he called ‘the veil’ is the operative concept in virtually all studies of the African American experience.”

Nor was Du Bois’s influence limited to the academy; he was known and admired throughout the world by anti-colonial activists and radicals in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. He died, aged 95, on August 28, 1963, on the eve of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington. The next day NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, addressing the quarter-million people gathered before the Lincoln Memorial, paid tribute. “At the dawn of the 20th century,” Wilkins said, “his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause.”

Throughout his long life Du Bois confronted racism, poverty, the subordination of women, environmental degradation, and the horrors of war and nuclear weaponry. He promoted education as a fundamental right, and was a central figure in movements for world peace, civil rights, and self-determination for people of African descent.

At UMass Amherst, Du Bois’s face—high-domed, almond-eyed, hawk-nosed, trimly goateed—seems to be everywhere. The towering main library is named for him and houses a vast archive of his papers and memorabilia. The Afro-Am department is likewise named for Du Bois and counts among its onetime faculty his widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and their son, David Graham Du Bois. Out in the Berkshires, on the outskirts of Great Barrington, the university has assumed stewardship of the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, where he spent the formative years of his childhood living with his maternal grandparents.

And then there is the W. E. B. Du Bois Center. Established in 2009 and housed in the library, it keeps alive his legacy of melding high scholarship and passionate activism to engage the nation and the world in interdisciplinary discussion around global issues of race, labor, and social justice. The Du Bois Center makes its resources readily available and accessible to the public, runs an annual fellows program, maintains and expands the archive, and conducts energetic educational outreach to connect students, educators, scholars, and the public through lectures, symposia, scholarships, and collaborations.

Since last January the dynamo driving all of this activity has been the center’s new director, historical archaeologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste, associate professor of anthropology. Her area of research focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender in the shaping of cultural landscapes across the African Diaspora through the archaeology of such African American domestic spaces as the Du Bois Homesite. Her theoretical interests include Black Feminist theory, African American material and expressive culture, and critical heritage studies. Battle-Baptiste earned a bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education from Virginia State, a Historically Black University. She went on to receive a master’s degree in history from the College of William & Mary and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. The author of Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011), she is currently working on a collection of narrative essays about women of color in the field of archaeology, also to be published by Left Coast.

Battle-Baptiste has worked on such historic sites as the Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tenn.; Rich Neck Plantation in Williamsburg, Va.; the Abiel Smith School in Boston; the Millars Plantation on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera; and the Du Bois Homesite. The latter helped draw her to UMass Amherst.

“When I first joined the faculty in 2007,” says Battle-Baptiste, “I was well aware of Professor Robert Paynter’s archaeological work at the Du Bois site; it was one of the central reasons I wanted to join the Department of Anthropology. As a specialist in African American domestic spaces, I found the idea of working at Dr. Du Bois’s ancestral home a logical step in my academic career, and it has certainly proven to be that. At UMass Amherst I’ve learned and developed my craft. I’ve stayed connected with the Du Bois Collection at the library, participated in the stewardship of Du Bois’s legacy here in Massachusetts, and come to understand how enduringly relevant his words and thoughts are to our contemporary needs as a society.”

Two recent events reflected Battle-Baptiste’s fervor in spreading Du Bois’s message. In March, at Hampshire College, she served on a panel, “Black Womyn’s Lives Matter: Experiences from Within the Movement.” The panelists shared details of their personal and professional journeys, including experiences in social and political organizing, academia, and community activism, and told of obstacles they have faced and continue to face.

In June, local high school students of color from Project eLEVate, which promotes awareness of African American heritage and culture, visited the Du Bois Center. Battle-Baptiste spoke to them about Du Bois’s national and global significance, and granted them the memorable thrill of handling items from the archive.

“We live in complicated times,” Battle-Baptiste continues. “I want my work at the Du Bois Center to enable a new generation of scholars, students, and citizens to uphold the tradition of Dr. Du Bois, and to help UMass Amherst students see that W. E. B. Du Bois is far more than a name on the library. He influenced everything from modern sociology, Pan Africanism, the civil rights movement, and nuclear disarmament to social, economic, and racial justice on a global scale. We as a nation need to engage in much deep and sometimes painful introspection, and at the Du Bois Center we want to reach beyond research, beyond the boundaries of the academy, to build relationships with community partners and produce work valuable to all members of our society, shedding light on critical issues confronting people throughout the world today.”

University Relations