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.
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.