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

A mural on a brick wall reads "W. E. B. Du Bois / William Edward Burghardt Du Bois 1868-1963 / "Du Bois' legacy is beneficial to all those who seek freedom and justice" - Rev. Esther Dozier" The images are of Du Bois reading, writing, and with his wife and child. A car is parked in front of the mural and a two-hour parking sign sits in the middle of it.

In August 1921, W. E. B. Du Bois, preeminent black intellectual and founder and editor of The Crisis (the NAACP’s national monthly magazine), wrote of Idlewild, a small rural resort area in northern Michigan, “For sheer physical beauty—for sheen of water and golden air, for nobleness of tree and flower of shrub, for shining river and song of bird and the low, moving whisper of sun, moon and star, it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years.” Captioned “Playing at Idlewild,” the eight photographs that accompanied the article mostly depicted idyllic scenes of resort goers rowing on and swimming in a tree-lined lake. Little more than a decade earlier, Sierra Club founder John Muir similarly observed in Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley “a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their adamantine bosses, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music,” leading him to contend that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”

John Muir’s environmental values—rooted in ideas about nature’s beauty and its restorative potential for mind, body, and soul—are well known to environmental historians. They were, after all, foundational to Muir’s and fellow preservationists’ ultimately unsuccessful defense of the Hetch Hetchy Valley from damming and flooding, a battle lost to more utilitarian values proffered by the Progressive Era’s development-minded conservationists like Gifford Pinchot. Du Bois’s environmental values, on the other hand, are considerably less well understood. While Muir and Pinchot are constantly (and reductively) juxtaposed with one another, rarely are contemporary intellectuals like Muir and Du Bois considered in direct conversation with one another, even as the environmental humanities have made great strides in exploring the way race and ethnicity inflect environmental experiences and consciousness (attention to environmental justice is but one example). But Du Bois and Muir deserve to be considered together because more concerted efforts to put black and white perspectives on nature in closer conversation (following the lead of scholars like Kimberly K. Smith and Scott Hicks) helps us see not only the significant ways those perspectives converged but also the ways race—and racism—made them distinct.

“Chicago scares me,” wrote Du Bois in 1921. The frightening corner of State and Madison Streets (dubbed “the world’s busiest corner”) in 1903. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Compared to Hetch Hetchy, the Idlewild about which Du Bois rhapsodized was hardly “wild,” particularly since the forested landscape he described had only recently begun to recover from being denuded for its vast lumber stores just a generation or two earlier. But compared to Chicago, which Du Bois had apparently visited just prior to the Michigan countryside, Idlewild might as well have been Hetch Hetchy. “Chicago scares me,” Du Bois confessed: “the crowd at State and Madison [in the downtown Loop], the ruthless raggedness and grime of the blazing streets, the brute might of the Thing.” Idlewild, along with many African American resorts like it, was primarily promoted as a retreat from the “brute might” of modern urban life—a place to play, and to “give strength to body and soul,” as John Muir put it. Although it had more modern amenities than he let on, Du Bois’s description of the rural resort was characteristic: it was “not fashionable: men in khaki, women in knickers and overalls, no servants, food cheap, Victrolas for orchestra, no high-heeled shoes.” Instead, the primary attractions were “hiking, fishing, tennis, rowing, dancing, spooning and sleeping. Especially sleeping. Long, quiet, glorious naps, night and day, to the sound of dancing waters.”

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Both Du Bois and Muir, like many early twentieth century Americans of all races and ethnicities, valued these wild, rural, and remote places for largely the same reasons: they offered a restorative contrast to the sort of urban industrial life embodied in cities like Chicago. As Muir contended, everybody needed such places. But for African Americans like Du Bois, the stakes were even higher, and the promise of nature was arguably even greater. For one thing, African Americans in the North—the population from which resorts like Idlewild predominantly drew—were almost entirely city dwellers (unlike black Southerners, for whom more rural, agricultural lifestyles still held significant sway, especially in the Cotton Belt). For another, as Du Bois made clear later in the same article, Idlewild offered the potential for “absolute freedom from the desperate cruelty of the color line and for the wooing of the great silence which is Peace and deep Contentment,” away from “the White Devils of America” and the “White Souls of Justice” alike.

Bridging African American and Environmental Histories

This year marks the sesquicentennial of W.E.B. Du Bois’s birth and, roughly speaking, the centennial of the commencement of the Great Migration’s first wave, when approximately 1.5 million African Americans left the South for Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Pittsburgh between World Wars I and II. (Although there is no particular year the migration began, the Chicago Defender began actively promoting the mass migration in 1917.) Du Bois studied and eventually taught in the South, but unlike the African Americans who streamed North in the Great Migration—and many of those who then retreated to rural northern resorts like Idlewild from cities like Chicago and Detroit—Du Bois’s roots were in the North.

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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.

Du Bois’s understanding of nature’s importance was fundamentally informed by race.

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.

Du Bois and the Progressive Era Environment

Black and white portrait of a W. E. B. Du Bois looking dignified in a checkered suit leading on his right elbow.

W.E.B Du Bois as a young man at either Fisk or Harvard University. Photo from the New York Public Library.

In his 1895 Atlanta Exposition address, Booker T. Washington, Du Bois’s chief intellectual rival and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, infamously counseled African Americans to resist the urge to migrate out of the agricultural South, instead exhorting them to “cast down your bucket where you are.” For millions of black Southerners, remaining in the South meant contenting oneself with the sort of labor on the land that African Americans had performed for centuries. Washington preached gradualism, contending that, for African Americans, “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour […]. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

Finding dignity in environmental labor has deep roots in American thought, including Thomas Jefferson’s idealization of the yeoman farmer. But Du Bois recognized that, in the postbellum South, the deck was stacked against African Americans in multiple ways. Disfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, the threat of lynching, and the exploitation of black labor all worked toward keeping black Southerners shackled to the land, making dignity in common labor all but impossible. Washington downplayed that reality, and Du Bois roundly criticized his accommodationist agenda in The Souls of Black Folk, arguing that his intellectual rival was effectively asking “black people give up, at least for the present […] higher education of Negro youth” in addition to political and civil rights. By contrast, Du Bois touted and embodied the idea of the “Talented Tenth,” which in part held that higher education, not the industrial education and common labor promoted by Washington and his Tuskeegee Institute, was the key to the race’s advancement.

That distinction between Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” and Washington’s glorification of common labor is foundational to a divide in the way the two men understood nature and how they believed nature mattered—and should matter—to African Americans. For the professionals in Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” who retreated to resorts like Idlewild—as well as working class urban strivers who no longer directly labored on the land—nature was primarily an aesthetically pleasing leisure escape from urban environments. For Washington and the black Southerners to whom he spoke most directly, nature could offer leisurely respite, but it was primarily something to be shaped with the most scientifically sound and efficient methods characteristic of the Progressive Era.

Nature became mainly a site of leisure rather than labor.

Like the Muir-Pinchot conflict between preservationism and conservationism, there is a distinct danger in reductively overplaying the differences between Du Bois’s and Washington’s environmental consciousnesses (Washington also extolled the virtues of leisure in nature, for example, and much of the Tuskegee Institute’s industrial education program prepared black Southerners for trades well-suited to city life). But if Du Bois’s environmental aesthetic resembled Muir’s preservationism, then Washington’s more utilitarian environmental ethos—steeped in productive and efficient environmental labor—more closely matched Gifford Pinchot’s conservationism.

When the Great Migration began on the heels of Washington’s death in 1915, it signaled not only a repudiation of his exhortation to “cast down your bucket where you are” and a vote of confidence for Du Bois’s more ambitious race agenda, but it was also a sea change in the way many African Americans would experience nature. For the black migrants who left the South for northern cities, nature became mainly a site of leisure rather than labor.

Nature and the Color Line

The Great Migration was a watershed moment in African Americans joining the nation’s broader urbanization trend (in 1920, more than half the nation was urban-dwelling for the first time in history) which in turn spurred the proliferation of rural leisure resorts in the early twentieth century. Countless urban dwellers effectively followed John Muir’s advice when they sought out nature as a temporary escape from cities’ stressful physical (polluted air, water, and land) and social environments (tensions along axes of race and class, among others). Although black resorts primarily welcomed those in the “Talented Tenth” who most benefited from expanded opportunity in the North, the much more numerically massive working classes sought out more easily accessible urban green spaces like city parks. Those slices of urban nature were nearly always contested by white urban dwellers, however, and black migrants were repeatedly subject to race segregation, prejudice, and violence there.

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In the rural North, resorts like Idlewild held special significance for W.E.B. Du Bois and thousands more African Americans because they embodied the ultimate promise of the Great Migration: an idyllic nature retreat ostensibly outside the bounds of white supremacy that plagued Great Migration destinations like Chicago. But the “absolute freedom from the desperate cruelty of the color line” Du Bois touted at Idlewild was more illusion than reality. Idlewild’s very location—in a remote inland area far from Lake Michigan and deeply scarred by the nineteenth century timber industry—was evidence of the color line. Du Bois may have rightly lauded Idlewild’s natural beauty, but white resorts tended to be located in even more desirable, more aesthetically pleasing, more expensive areas (often along Lake Michigan’s shore) where the natural environment had been less impacted by extractive industry. And while it may have been easier for Du Bois and other resort goers to forget the color line amidst Idlewild’s forests and beaches, it lurked at the resort’s borders and waited for them upon their return to the city. Nature in the North, just like the built environment, was de facto segregated—all too much like the Jim Crow South migrants had hoped to escape.

If Idlewild and other black resorts in the North bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the Jim Crow South, they were also sites that blended Du Bois’s and Washington’s ideas about nature and race. A portrait of Washington hung in Idlewild’s clubhouse, and Robert Abbott (founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, the black newspaper instrumental in encouraging migration North) once referenced Washington’s infamous 1895 address when he said that “People will make no mistake in lowering their buckets at Idlewild.”1 It was a provocative translation of Washington’s advice, promoting a rural leisure resort to a Northern audience, many of them migrants, who had spurned the accommodationist rationale for remaining in the agricultural South. Indeed, scholars have pointed out that much of the “Talented Tenth” in migration destinations like Chicago pragmatically adapted Washington’s bootstrapping accommodationist ideology to a northern racial climate that, while still oppressive and restrictive, left more room for advancement than the Jim Crow South. Abbott and other black leaders in Chicago fought tirelessly for racial equality in many facets of life while effectively downplaying racial integration in favor of building up separate black institutions like the Defender and Idlewild. In time, Du Bois’s own thinking would come to more closely resemble this approach, but with a stridently defiant edge that recalled Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism and presaged the black nationalists of the 1960s.


Little more than a decade after he touted Idlewild’s virtues, Du Bois had grown increasingly frustrated that the color line in the North was just as stubbornly persistent as it was in the South. The promise of the Great Migration seemed more distant than ever as segregation in the North grew worse and the Great Depression left scores of African Americans unemployed and hungry. All this compelled Du Bois to argue for economic self-determination, via self-segregation if necessary, in a series of controversial Crisis editorials that led to his resignation from the integrationist NAACP. Du Bois thundered in one such “Postscript,” “we have got to renounce a program that always involves humiliating self-stultifying scrambling to crawl somewhere where we are not wanted; where we crouch panting like a whipped dog. […] No, by God, stand erect in a mud-puddle and tell the white world to go to hell, rather than lick boots in a parlor.” The beauty Du Bois saw in nature at Idlewild has been enjoyed by countless black resort-goers over the past century, but in many ways the resort was also an embodiment of Du Bois’s metaphorical mud puddle: both a measure of the great strides African Americans had made in the North and the racial barriers that persistently blocked them—barriers that men like John Muir never had to confront.

Featured image: A mural produced by the Railroad Street Youth Project that appeared on the side of Carr’s Hardware in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts from 2003 to 2012. Photo by Beverly Yuen Thompson, June 2012.

Brian McCammack is the author of Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Harvard University Press, 2017), which in 2018 was awarded the Organization of American Historians’ Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the American Society for Environmental History’s George Perkins Marsh Prize. He teaches at Lake Forest College, where he is Beerly Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Chair of Urban Studies, and he is currently working on a book that examines the origins of the environmental justice movement. Twitter. Contact.

  1. “Idlewild Host to Prominent Persons,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition), August 14, 1926, p.5