Born in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a noted scholar, editor, and activist who fought discrimination and racism throughout his life. After graduating valedictorian from his Massachusetts high school in 1884, Du Bois attended Fisk University in Tennessee, where he was first exposed to the harsh realities of Jim Crow segregation. This marked a major turning point for Du Bois, who would later make significant contributions to debates about race, politics, and history in the United States. Notably, he was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and also served as editor of The Crisis magazine. By the time he died in 1963, Du Bois had written 17 books, edited four journals, and played an invaluable role in reshaping race relations in America.

After receiving a bachelor's degree from Fisk University, a private historically black university, Du Bois entered Harvard College in 1888. To pay his tuition and bills, Du Bois combined his money from summer jobs, scholarships, an inheritance, and even loans from friends. Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor's degree in the study of History, cum laude, in 1890. He was one of five graduating students selected to speak at that year’s commencement, thus breaking a highly symbolic racial barrier, as never before had Harvard bestowed an African American with the honor.

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Du Bois then received a scholarship to continue his Harvard studies as a graduate student. In 1895, he became the very first African American to earn a doctorate from the country's leading university when he received his PhD in History. A year later, his doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” was published as the inaugural volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

Numerous awards and organizations have been named in his honor, including the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, which was established in 1969 at Harvard. Later, in 2000, the on-campus Hutchins Center for African & African American Research began awarding the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal, which is considered Harvard's highest honor in the field of African and African American studies. More recently, in 2015, the Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard was founded. In addition to these landmark initiatives, a number of collections in the Harvard University Archives include materials that relate to Du Bois’s student experiences at Harvard and his later career.