DIDJA KNOW?? By Pat Vaughn
John Budd Pitkin was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts January 24, 1803. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born, February 23, 1868, a free African American in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Both grew up in a fatherless home, raised by their mothers with the assistance of grandparents. Both were recognized as above average students with exceptional abilities. Both attended the First Congregationalist Church of Great Barrington but it is here that the common path of John Budd Pitkin and W. E. B. Du Bois separates. William’s mixed African American/white heritage descended through Dutch, African and English ancestors on their path to freedom. John descended from the 14th Century Pitcairnes of Warwood Castle, Northumberland, England.
John was encouraged by Rev. Wheeler to accept excessive leadership responsibilities for his age. He attended four academies for short periods, returning to his mother’s home suffering from exhaustion and the ever present threat of consumption. He was never able to graduate and a sense of failure may have been the cause of his erratic actions that resulted in his censure by the church leadership. John was deeply wounded by what he believed to be an injustice and left to take a teaching position in Maryland. It was in Baltimore that John met Otis Skinner and was introduced to the tenants of Universalism, going on to become a minister for the faith. When John was called, in 1830, to fill the pulpit for the first Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, he found acceptance: his leadership and dedication valued by his congregation. In 1835, Rev. Pitkin died from the chronic lung disorder that had been his lifetime plague. He was not yet 33 years old.
William was part of a racial minority in the village and attended the small integrated public school. His scholastic ability was recognized and encouraged in Great Barrington. When he was old enough to attend college, the First Congregational Church provided assistance toward his tuition. He went on to graduate from three great institutions of learning: Fisk University, Harvard University and the University of Berlin. His accomplishments in the academic field and civil rights would require more space than I have here: notably Author, Professor, Founder of the Niagara Movement, Social Activist, Research Director for the NAACP and editor of its magazine, The Crisis.
I must admit that when my research into Du Bois’ religious background, coming out of New England Congregationalism, revealed him to be a “pragmatic religious naturalist,” it caught me by surprise. Author Jonathon S. Kahn, in his book Divine Discontent, the Religious Imagination of Du Bois, compares his anti-metaphysical viewpoint in the sphere of religious naturalism as typified by William James, George Santayana and John Dewey. In W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, author Edward J. Blum writes, “W.E.B. Du Bois is shown to be thoughtful and creative on topics of religion, to possess a religious ingenuity rarely recognized. But he is not, in the comparative historical sense, religious. He was a church reformer who rarely attended church. He was priest with no church, a prophet who presented his works as history, sociology and fiction.”
By 1961, Du Bois had become completely disillusioned with the lack of progress in the United States and chose exile in Accra, Ghana, where he died in 1963 at the age 95.
The sixty-five years that separated their birth(s) encompassed major paradigm changes in scientific and industrial development as well as social and religious thought, all of which affected how these men perceived life and were regarded by the world they lived in.