William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois. Mary Silvina Burghardt's family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington, having long owned land in the state; she was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors. William Du Bois's maternal great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom. Tom's son Jack Burghardt was the father of Othello Burghardt, who was the father of Mary Silvina Burghardt.
William Du Bois's paternal great-grandfather was an ethnic French-American, James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, who fathered several children with slave mistresses. One of James' mixed-race sons was Alexander, who traveled to Haiti, and fathered a son, Alfred, with a mistress there. Alexander returned to Connecticut, leaving Alfred in Haiti with his mother. Alfred moved to the United States sometime before 1860, and married Mary Silvina Burghardt on February 5, 1867, in Housatonic, Massachusetts. Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after William was born. William's mother worked to support her family (receiving some assistance from her brother and neighbors), until she experienced a stroke in the early 1880s. She died in 1885.
Great Barrington's primarily European American community treated Du Bois generally well. He attended the local integrated public school and played with white schoolmates, though the racism he experienced even in this context would be one of the subjects of his later adult writing. Teachers encouraged his intellectual pursuits, and his rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans. When Du Bois decided to attend college, the congregation of his childhood church, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington, donated money for his tuition.
Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois's first experience with Southern racism, which encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, and lynchings. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890, where he was strongly influenced by his professor William James, prominent in American philosophy. Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor's degree, cum laude, in history. In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.
In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work. While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He came of age intellectually in the German capital, while studying with some of that nation's most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner and Heinrich von Treitschke. After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies; in 1895 he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
In the summer of 1894, Du Bois received several job offers, including one from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute; he accepted a teaching job at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois was strongly influenced by Alexander Crummell, who believed that ideas and morals are necessary tools to effect social change. While at Wilberforce, Du Bois married Nina Gomer, one of his students, on May 12, 1896.
After two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois accepted a one-year research job from the University of Pennsylvania as an "assistant in sociology" in the summer of 1896. He performed sociological field research in Philadelphia's African-American neighborhoods, which formed the foundation for his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, published two years later while he was teaching at Atlanta University. It was the first case study of a black community.