Yolande Du Bois

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Yolande Du Bois (October 21, 1900- 1961) was an American teacher known for her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. She is known as the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois and the former Nina Gomer, and she was briefly married to poet Countee Cullen.

Du Bois graduated from Fisk University and later earned an MA from Columbia University. She worked as a teacher, primarily in Baltimore, Maryland.

Early life[edit]

Yolande Du Bois was born October 21, 1900 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts,[1] her father's hometown, to W.E.B. and Nina (née Gomer) Du Bois.[2] They had arrived there from Atlanta, Georgia, shortly after the death of their infant son Burghardt from diphtheria in 1899.[1] When Yolande was growing up, she did not have a close relationship with her father. He was often away for his career, or living in a different city altogether for academic research and assignments.[3] Yolande was often ill. A family physician diagnosed the girl as having "inadequate levels of lime" when she had poor health. Some biographers thought that Yolande faked these illnesses to gain her father's attention.[3] As a child, Yolande was defiant toward her parents. She was aggressive and passionate in nature. Her father described their relationship as one in which she held the power. To gain some control, her parents sent her to Bedales, a British boarding school.[4] While dealing with racial discrimination, she graduated from Brooklyn's Girls' High School.[3]

Du Bois began attending Fisk University in 1920. In her sophomore year she fell ill, and spent the entire month of February in the hospital due to serious inflammation of the gums.[3] While in college, Yolande was in a loving romance with jazz musician Jimmie Lunceford. However, her father believed he was an unsuitable match. Defying her parents' wishes, she continued to see Lunceford for some time. The relationship ended when she conceded to her father's wish that she marry poet Countee Cullen, who had received early acclaim in his career.[4]

She graduated from Fisk and started teaching in Baltimore, Maryland at a public high school.

Marriage and family[edit]

Du Bois first met Cullen in 1923, when they were both students in college, she at Fisk and he at New York University (NYU).[5] She married Countee Cullen on April 9, 1928 at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, a wedding officiated by his adoptive father, Frederick A. Cullen, a minister. The two were introduced by Cullen’s close friend, Harold Jackman, in the mid 1920s, likely at the Jersey Shore, where Cullen's parents had a house in Pleasantville. With the approval of Yolande's father, Cullen proposed during the holiday season of 1927.

Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois spent the next couple of months planning the wedding, with little contribution from Yolande. The wedding became the social event of the year, a highlight among the black elite. Every detail of the wedding, including the rail car used and the number of people in the wedding party, was published by the public African-American press. Cullen was pressured by Yolande's father to pick up the marriage certificate early to prevent any problems or delays; he acquired it four days before the ceremony. Because of the wide political and activist circle of Yolande's father, some 1200 people were invited to the wedding, but 3,000 people crowded into the church for the ceremony. Yolande had 16 bridesmaids and Cullen had 9 groomsmen, with Jackman serving as the best man.[6][7]

After the wedding Yolande and Cullen visited Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Great Barrington, Massachusetts in a brief honeymoon. In June 1928 Cullen, his father, and Jackman traveled together to Paris, as Cullen had received a Guggenheim Fellowship for study in Europe. Yolande joined him in August. During the honeymoon, Yolande wrote to her father, saying that she was unsure about her marriage and her intimate relationship with her husband. Her father responded that she simply needed more experience.[7] By September 1928, her father was counseling Cullen on maintaining the marriage. After Cullen admitted to Yolande that he was attracted to men, she filed for divorce. Like the wedding, the divorce was negotiated between Cullen and Yolande's father; it became final in Paris in the spring of 1930. (Cullen married again in 1940 and stayed married until his death several years later.)

Later life[edit]

Yolande fell ill and moved back to Baltimore. She entered the American Hospital, where she was treated for an undisclosed illness.[8] After she was well, she returned to her teaching position. She took a job at Dunbar High School, teaching both English and history.[4]

While teaching, she met Arnette Franklin Williams, who had begun attending a night school held at Dunbar. Du Bois and Williams married in September 1931. Their daughter Du Bois Williams was born in October 1932. The family informally called her "Baby Du Bois." Soon after her birth, Williams moved to Pennsylvania for his football career and abandoned Yolande and his daughter.

Du Bois and her mother moved to New York City, where she began taking classes at Columbia University’s Teachers College.[9] She earned a master's degree from Columbia and returned to teaching in Baltimore. Her divorce from Williams was final in 1936.[4]

Career as teacher[edit]

Yolande Du Bois Williams returned to Baltimore, where she worked as a teacher and reared her daughter. Her mother died in 1950. Her father remarried about a year later.

Yolande Du Bois Williams died in Baltimore of a heart attack in March 1961.[1] Yolande was buried in the Mahaiwe Cemetery at Great Barrington, Massachusetts, her father's hometown, beside her mother, Nina Du Bois, and brother Burghardt, who had died as an infant.[8] Williams' grandson, Arthur E. McFarlane II, arranged to install a headstone at her grave in Great Barrington in 2014. That year was also the occasion of dedication of a new interpretive trail at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite, a National Historic Landmark in the city.[1]

After Yolande's death, her father accepted an invitation from Kwame Nkrumah to go to Ghana, where he worked on his proposed Encyclopedia Africana. He was unable to complete it before his death there in 1963. He was buried in Ghana. His second wife was also buried there, years later.


  1. ^ a b c d Scott Christianson, "Du Bois comes home from the grave", The Berkshire Edge, 20 May 2014
  2. ^ Randolph, Ryan P. (2005). W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Civil Rights. The Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 9781404226562.
  3. ^ a b c d Lewis, David Levering (2009). W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography. Macmillan. ISBN 9780805087697.
  4. ^ a b c d Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G. (2010-05-28). The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801894619.
  5. ^ Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press. p. 188. ISBN 0807855197. OCLC 57706672.
  6. ^ Wintz, Cary D.; Finkelman, Paul (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: A-J. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781579584573.
  7. ^ a b English, Daylanne K. (2004). Unnatural selections : eugenics in American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 58–59. ISBN 0807855316. OCLC 57707299.
  8. ^ a b Horne, Gerald; Young, Mary (2001). W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313296659.
  9. ^ Bolden, Tonya (2008). Up Close, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Twentieth-century Life. Penguin. ISBN 9780670063024.