Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Philadelphia Negro (The)

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In 1899, the University of Pennsylvania published The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, the first scholarly race study of an urban place in what became a growing trend of Progressive-era social surveys. The massive report about Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward became a distinctive (and still relevant) landmark in the annals of sociological study and social advocacy.

Title: W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois, 1868-1963

William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois. (Library of Congress)

Four years earlier, the publication of Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895)—a pioneering local study of immigrant, labor, and living conditions in and about the Chicago settlement run by Jane Addams—signaled opportunity in the minds of Philadelphia progressives. In spring 1896, at the suggestion of leading citizen Susan P. Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia’s own College Settlement sent for the rising African American scholar William E. Burghardt Du Bois  (1868-1963), then a professor at Ohio’s Wilberforce University, to conduct a study of the city’s black community, which many critics held responsible for a post-depression (1893-96) rise in crime and disorder. Accepting the invitation, even at the lowly title of “Assistant Instructor,” Du Bois began in August 1896 to “ascertain something of the geographical distribution of this race, their occupations and daily life, their homes, their organizations and, above all, their relation to their million white fellow-citizens.” The massive report that followed went far beyond the Hull-House model, and far beyond what its patrons anticipated or perhaps desired.

Despite its title, The Philadelphia Negro’s subject was both larger and smaller than the term “Philadelphia” connotes. It is really a neighborhood study, focusing on the central Seventh Ward running north-south from Spruce to South Street and east-west from Seventh Street to the Schuylkill River. Site of the city’s oldest African-American community, dating to the colonial era, the Seventh Ward by the 1890s was home to nearly a quarter (roughly 9,700) of Philadelphia’s 40,000 blacks (the largest such population in any northern city). Incredibly diverse, the ward mingled affluent whites (including Wharton) on its western fringe, one of the nation’s densest concentrations of black elites at its center, along Lombard Street (west of 9th), and multitudes of the poor of both races on the ward’s eastern front, where lay the city’s most notorious black ghetto.

Du Bois Lived in Seventh Ward

For more than a year (1896-97) Du Bois and his wife resided within the poorer quarters surrounding College Settlement on Saint Mary Street. To many Seventh Ward blacks, the Harvard- and Heidelberg-educated Du Bois looked the part of his genteel sponsors, who hoped to use his analysis to justify sweeping reforms in the black community. Du Bois, meanwhile, preferred to demonstrate that blacks possessed their own internal class structure and should not be judged solely by the lowest rung (the “submerged tenth”). Likewise, the imagined “Negro problem,” he argued, was “not one problem, but rather a plexus of social problems” having less to do with a monolithic black “social pathology” than with whites’ enforcement of racial discrimination and provision of unequal opportunity. 

Philadelphia Seventh Ward

W.E.B. Du Bois created this map of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward during his research for The Philadelphia Negro.(University of Pennsylvania Archives)

Pioneering sociological methods, Du Bois and his lone appointed assistant (College Settlement’s Isabel Eaton, who herself published a trail-blazing study of domestic labor as an appendix to the larger work) employed archival research, descriptive statistics, and questionnaires compassing occupations, health, and education as well as religious, social, and family life. Most crucially, they conducted a door-to-door canvass of the ward, amassing over 5,000 personal interviews. The findings revealed a heterogeneous and accomplished community, a portion of which affirmed the reality of poverty, crime, and illiteracy. Addressing this imbalance, Du Bois emphasized socioeconomic and historical causes, notably the exclusion of blacks from the city’s premier industrial jobs and single-family homes and the formidable legacy of slavery and checkered race relations.

In stressing circumstance and contingency, Du Bois demonstrated structural inequities of which many whites were largely unaware, in the process leveling a powerful rejoinder to then prevalent arguments that used race theory, evolutionary science, and scriptural interpretation to justify discrimination. Du Bois hoped this work would be supplemented by similar studies of other cities, yet what began as a local study came, by default, to stand for all of urban Black America. Most of Du Bois’s methods lay dormant, re-emerging only in the 1920s—in Chicago again, with the rise of the Chicago School of Sociology. A fair hearing for his forthright and formidable conclusions, meanwhile, waited longer still. Du Bois’s study has enjoyed a renaissance in contemporary scholars’ investigations of poverty, race, and political economy, and The Philadelphia Negro continues to inform readers with its poignant representation of one of the great forgotten communities in modern American history, whose  vitality, diversity, and challenges still linger in its pages. 

Steven McGrail, Ph.D. Candidate in U.S. History, Rutgers University – New Brunswick, specialty: cultural history and national identity; advisors: Jackson Lears, David Foglesong, Ann Fabian. 


Copyright 2013, Rutgers University.

Related Reading

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Rev. Ed. Intro., Elijah Anderson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

_____. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Intro., E. Digby Baltzell. New York: Schocken, 1967. (Available online at The Internet Archive’s Universal Library)

Gross, Kali N. Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Hillier, Amy. “Mapping the Du Bois Philadelphia Negro.”

Katz, Michael B. and Thomas J. Sugrue, eds. W.E.B. Du Bois, Race, and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and Its Legacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Lane, Roger. Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia, 1860-1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. 

_____. William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. 

O’Connor, Alice. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 

Williams, Robert W., ed. “W.E.B. DuBois.org.

Collections

Cox-Parrish-Wharton Papers 0154, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Settlements Collection, 1883-1972, MS 430Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Society Small Collection 22B, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999 (Bulk: 1877-1963) MS 312, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 154 Hicks Way, Amherst, Mass.

Places to Visit

W.E.B. Du Bois Historical Marker, Sixth and Rodman Streets, Philadelphia.

Mapping Courage: Honoring W.E.B. Du Bois and Engine #11, Carl Willis Humphrey, Mural Arts Program, Sixth and South Streets, Philadelphia.

2 Comments Comments

  1. The amount of data that Du Bois and Eaton logged and analyzed by hand is astounding. I live in the heart of the old Seventh Ward and walk by the wonderful mural honoring them on the fire station on South and Sixth Streets every day. I never fail to look up and reflect on Du Bois’ monumental achievement.

    Bob Skiba Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:31 am
  2. A possible model for the DuBois study is The Present State and Condition of the Free People of Color of the City of Philadelphia (1838) produced by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society from the detailed research and surveys of a committee headed by Dr. Joseph Parrish, then President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

    The committee surveyed every African-American household in Philadelphia, noting about fifty pieces of data including name, occupation, educational status, pay, house ownership or rental, size of living place for a picture of the population which was far more detailed than census records of the time.

    One of Joseph Parrish’s daughters was Susanna Dillwyn Parrish, later married to Rodman Parrish. One of her daughters was Susan Parrish Wharton, the person most responsible for bringing W.E. B. DuBois to Philadelphia. Susan Parrish Wharton was therefore the granddaughter of Joseph Parrish, head of the 1837-1838 study. She was also the sister of Dillwyn Parrish, who was a long-time president (as his father had been) of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and sister of Edward Parrish, an Abolition Society member and the first President of Swarthmore College. All Quakers.

    Both Susanna Dillwyn Parrish (1827-1915) and Susan Parrish Wharton (1845-1921?) were founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

    Christopher Densmore, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College

    Christopher Densmore Posted April 7, 2013 at 9:02 am

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