BLS Honors Voice of W.E.B. Du Bois


Public declaimers, led by Ruth Shiferaw (I), reenact the 1929 W.E.B. Du Bois eugenics debate on March 12. (Photo by: Ruth Shiferaw (I))

On March 12, Topol Fellow Ruth Shiferaw (I) and Boston Latin School Facing History teacher Ms. Judi Freeman celebrated civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois through a staged reading of his 1929 debate, along with other club leaders and longtime public declaimers.

Ms. Freeman initiated the event to honor the legacy and influence of Du Bois, using the little-known debate to bring awareness to his oratory skills and his impact on black history.

This debate took place between Du Bois, an acclaimed pioneer for civil rights and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Lothrop Stoddard, a writer and white supremacist. To the 3,000 to 5,000 people in attendance, this event was decisively won by Du Bois who argued that there is no scientific evidence of Nordic superiority and that denying a race equal citizenship is illogical and hypocritical.

“Because of my experience with public declamation and public speaking, Ms. Freeman thought it would be best to coordinate this with me and hand me this opportunity. I was really glad that she brought attention to that debate,” says Shiferaw.

In addition to Shiferaw, speakers Nitz-fa Dimanche (I), Graciela Berman Reinhardt (I), Gian Martinez (I), Jack Trapanick (II) and Elizabeth Choi (III) helped facilitate the debate. Shiferaw selected each participant for their public speaking and presenting skills, ensuring that the panel of speakers would be diverse and culturally representative of the school community.

Martinez says, “I decided to do it because this actually wasn’t my first encounter with Du Bois, as I had learned about him in [African-American] Studies and we even declaimed one of his debates, so I was understandably excited to be able to reenact one of his debates.”

Broadcasted over Zoom and streamed on YouTube, the speakers provided the audience insight of Du Bois through an introductory presentation given by Ms. Freeman. Throughout the presentation, the audience had opportunities to reflect and ask questions on Du Bois’s work through interacting with the speakers on a Padlet.

Due to the offensive and factually incorrect nature of Stoddard’s speech, the presenters decided not to present the exact words Stoddard said in the debate. Instead, his thoughts and arguments were summarized, with annotations on the slides that highlighted his inaccuracies.

Participant Leah Prizant (II) is glad that the BLS community is celebrating Du Bois’s words. “Du Bois isn’t a very well known person, at least from my experience. It is my first time hearing about him. I think it’s important to uplift activists of all ages. Not only the ones that are standing up for equal rights now, but also the ones who we owe a lot of the change that has happened,” comments Prizant.