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W. E. B. Du Bois and the American Environment

Du Bois's ideas about the environment — and how Jim Crow shaped them — have gone relatively unnoticed by environmental historians.
Cleveland Public Library

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in February 1868, Du Bois’s America was battling over the terms of black freedom in the wake of the Civil War. So-called Radical Reconstruction had begun the year before, driven by Congressional Republicans like Charles Sumner, a Senator from Du Bois’s home state. Just weeks after Du Bois’s birth, President Andrew Johnson was impeached, largely because those same Radical Republicans believed his policies were hostile to freedmen and overly conciliatory to Southern whites. A few months later, the fourteenth amendment that guaranteed African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law was ratified. Those key postbellum moments in African American—and American—history are regularly put in conversation with Du Bois, particularly given that one of his most notable academic achievements, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), examined them in depth.

Yet Du Bois was also born into a nation grappling with dramatic environmental changes wrought by rapid technological development and urbanization, which some considered as much of a crisis as Reconstruction. Du Bois’s New England, after all, was also the New England of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote as eloquently on the abolition of slavery as he did of Walden Pond, just 150 miles east of Du Bois’s birthplace. It was also the New England of George Perkins Marsh, who had been born in Woodstock, Vermont, just 150 miles north of Great Barrington. Man and Nature, Marsh’s apocalyptic environmental warning driven in part by his observations of denuded Vermont forests, was published in the waning months of the Civil War, just four years prior to Du Bois’s birth. And just a month after Du Bois was born, John Muir first arrived in California, the place that would come to define his environmental activism.

While there is little to no direct evidence that those canonical environmental thinkers were formative in Du Bois’s evolving environmental consciousness, there is little question that Du Bois responded to the same trends of modernization and urbanization that drove Thoreau, Marsh, and Muir to embrace nature. Unlike those canonical environmental thinkers, however, Du Bois’s understanding of nature’s importance was fundamentally informed by race. As he famously wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois never posited nature as the solution to the color line, of course, but nature factored into African Americans’ intellectual and cultural challenges to the color line more than is commonly understood.