DuBois and the city

Baltimore Glimpses

January 04, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

BIOGRAPHY of a Race," a major biography of W.E.B. DuBois, the black economist, historian and civil rights leader whom the New York Times called "the most outspoken, eloquent and influential black American," was published last fall to glowing reviews.

This important work by David Levering Lewis chronicles William Edward Burghardt DuBois' life from his 1868 birth (in Massachusetts) through 1919. A second volume will carry DuBois through his death in Ghana in 1963.

And no doubt it will be sketchy about DuBois' nearly two decades in Baltimore from 1939 to 1957. Not much is known about his life here. In those 18 years not a single interview with him appeared in this or any other daily Baltimore paper, though DuBois' brilliant "The Souls of Black Folk" had been published 33 years before he moved to Baltimore. Even the Afro-American had slim pickings on the man who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and edited its magazine, Crisis.

We do know this much about his life here: He and his first wife Nina came to Baltimore in 1939 and lived with their daughter, Yolande, a city school teacher, and her husband, Arnette Williams. The DuBoises lived the first 10 years or so at 2302 Montebello Terrace, near Cold Spring Lane in Morgan Park. The Williamses had to add an extra room to accommodate DuBois' vast collection of books.

Nina DuBois died in 1950. Her Sun obituary said she died "in the home of her daughter, Mrs. Yolande Williams, at 2417 Pulaski Street." (Her funeral was June 28 at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Caroline and Eager.) In 1951, DuBois married Shirley Graham, a prominent writer.

The DuBoises were then listed in the telephone directory at 2417 Pulaski, but there was no listing for the couple after 1956. In 1957, they moved to Ghana, where DuBois renounced his U.S. citizenship.

DuBois was very active in Baltimore. Here he announced his second and final break with the NAACP. Here he published "Dusk at Dawn" (1940), "Color and Democracy" (1945) and "The World and Africa" (1946). And here in the early '50s he completed his autobiography.

Retired from the State Department, Arnette Williams, DuBois' son-in-law, lives in Cross Keys. "He was always prompt," Mr. Williams recalls. "Whenever he had a speaking engagement, and I remember that he spoke occasionally at the Bethel church on Druid Hill Avenue, he'd always arrive early. But he'd leave early, too. He did not like to stand around and make small talk."

DuBois' only recorded speaking engagement before a white audience was in 1952 at St. John's College in Annapolis.

Some knew DuBois as an angry radical -- an elite, arrogant and brilliant man who did not suffer fools gladly. "He did have this reputation," Mr. Williams recalls, "but what most people don't know about him is that he had a terrific sense of humor. I mean he was funny. I used to call him our very own autocrat of the breakfast table. . . And more than that, he loved to read the comics. Believe it or not, the irascible and notoriously serious-minded W.E.B. DuBois, first black ever to receive a doctorate from Harvard, loved to read the funnies."

So W.E.B. DuBois, progenitor of the civil rights movement, activist working for the world's dispossessed, founder and then adversary of the NAACP, disillusioned citizen giving up American citizenship in anger, 1961 inductee to the Communist Party, fiery intellectual, has to be imagined at 2302 Montebello Terrace chuckling over "Mutt and Jeff," "The Katzenjammer Kids" and "Barney Google."

It's the other W.E.B.D., not the one struggling against the racism he found all around him, but the one laughing at the funnies.

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