On October 29, 1914, W. E. B. Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) wrote a letter to his teenage daughter, Yolande, soon-to-be a new student at Bedales school in England. (The mixed-sex school was founded by J H Badley (1865-1967) in 1893 to be “a humane alternative to the authoritarian regimes typical of late-Victorian public schools”.) Du Bois, who had in 1895 become the first African American to earn a Ph.D at Harvard; and who in 1909 helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote from the head and the heart.
It is a wonderful letter.
New York, October 29, 1914
Dear Little Daughter:
I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.
Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.
Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.
Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin—the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.
I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.
Du Bois had secured his daughter a place by using the then young Labour MP Ramsay MacDonald (12 October 1866 – 9 November 1937) as a reference. The pair had met when Du Bois was on a trip to England in 1911. MacDonald, who had two boys at Bedales, would become Britain’s first Labour prime minister.
On March 19 1927,W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to Bedales founder J. H. Badley. Yolande wanted to visit and show a friend around the place where she had learned to swim, walk, loathe cricket and make the most of every moment.