First published on April 18, 1903 by the Chicago publisher, A.C. McClurg & Co., The Souls of Black Folk was an immediate success entering into its third printing only two months after its initial release. The work consisted of 14 essays on race–some published earlier in other forms while others were composed for the book–on topics ranging from the deeply personal, “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” to the political and controversial “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” Opening with perhaps the most often quoted words from the book, Souls quickly identifies ongoing racial inequality in the U.S. and around the world as the central of problem of the twentieth century:
“Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black at the dawn of The Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
Despite the fact that Du Bois had already published two scholarly books and scores of monographs and articles in national magazines, The Souls of Black Folk brought him international recognition. It was praised for literary merit and for its social commentary. It won the highest praise from the recognized master of American Letters. Henry James wrote that “the only 'Southern' book of any distinction for many a year is 'The Souls of Black Folk' by that most accomplished of members of the Negro race, Mr. W.E.B. Du Bois.” But Du Bois also stirred up a heated controversy with a chapter on Booker T. Washington. In criticizing Washington's philosophy of accepting the status quo in racial matters, Du Bois brought down the wrath of the “Tuskegee Machine” and those who supported it. It was Du Bois' opening salvo in a bitter controversy that was to change the nature and direction of black protest in America.
Reprinted 24 times from the first set of plates, it is estimated that between 18,000-20,000 copies of The Souls of Black Folk were sold between the time of its first publication and the time it was last issued in 1940. Du Bois had long been interested in reprinting the book in a cheaper edition to make it more widely available, but was unable to convince McClurg & Co. to either put out the cheaper edition or sell the plates. It wasn’t until 1948 when McClurg & Co. was no longer operating as a publisher that Du Bois finally secured the plates. Soon after the plan to produce a fiftieth anniversary of the work was conceived.
In 1953 the Blue Heron Press of New York, established by Howard Fast, published 1,000 copies of the new edition, which included a new forward by Du Bois, “Fifty Years After,” and comments by Shirley Graham Du Bois. While the book was already considered a critical success, the fiftieth anniversary edition was released without significant commercial advertisement, very likely an effect of the social and political climate of the McCarthy era. Instead a grass roots effort was launched by the Du Bois Foundation and led by Shirley Graham Du Bois in an effort to spread the word about the republication of Souls. Hundreds of letters were sent to Du Bois’s friends and colleagues throughout the U.S. seeking advance orders. When the Fisk community learned of the new edition of Souls, the alumni association partnered with the Du Bois Foundation to sell copies of the book as a way of honoring Du Bois’s legacy at Fisk as well as a way of raising funds for the university.