Philadelphia Negro (The)

Essay

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.

Gallery

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

Library of Congress

William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was born in Great Barrington Massachusetts February 23, 1868. His adolescence and early adulthood were spent as a peer to white students in the pursuit of higher education. Du Bois first encountered Jim Crow segregation during his time at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee where he immersed himself in the study of law, philosophy and history. Du Bois transferred from Fisk to Harvard University in 1888 as an undergraduate junior and in 1895 became the first African American man to receive a Ph. D from Harvard. A year later Du Bois moved with his young wife, Nina Gormer, to Philadelphia and began work on The Philadelphia Negro. This seminal work of sociology took four years to complete and is an early example of the principles Du Bois employed in his quest for civil rights.

After completing his projects in Philadelphia Du Bois moved to Georgia to teach at Atlanta University. There he and his family came face to face with the realities of southern black plight, which inspired Du Bois to move toward a more aggressive persuit of equal rights. In 1905 Du Bois founded and became the general secretary of the Niagara Movement, a protest group of educated African American professionals. Advocacy of civil rights became increasingly important to Du Bois and led him to help found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. From the NAACP Du Bois edited Crisis, a monthly magazine that criticized the treatment of African Americans in the United States and served as a source of information for the African American community. Du Bois took a decade long break from the NAACP in 1934 to pursue his own strategies for African American nationalism he returned to the NAACP again in 1944 as director of research.

With the approach of World War II, Du Bois saw opportunity to advance the equality of Africans all over the world. Du Bois served as a United Nations (UN) consultant in 1945 and wrote “An Appeal to the World,” in which he implored the world to recognize racism as a weapon far more dangerous than the atom bomb. After his time with the UN, Du Bois, a socialist since 1910, found visits to Russia, China, and Ghana. Politically inspiring However, deep in the Cold War, the United States found Du Bois’ political tendencies threatening and in 1950-51 Du Bois was tried and acquitted of charges of operating as an agent of foreign power. In 1961 Du Bois made his permanent residence in Ghana. His death August 27, 1963, was honored with a Ghana state funeral and remarks from President of the Republic of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Back in the United States just one day after his death, hundreds of thousands of marchers descended on Washington D.C. for a civil rights march where speaker Roy Wilkins asked for a moment of silence. Du Bois is honored in the United States for his long career and tireless support of equal rights.

Philadelphia Seventh Ward

University of Pennsylvania Archives

W.E.B. Du Bois began in August 1896 to discover how race, occupation, daily life, home, and organizations were distributed across Philadelphia’s oldest African American neighborhood, the Seventh Ward. The map produced by Du Bois’s seminal study, The Philadelphia Negro, is shown left.

What Du Bois compiled is really a neighborhood study, focusing on the boundaries of the Seventh Ward, which ran north-south from Spruce to South Street and east-west from Seventh Street to the Schuylkill River. 1890s was home to nearly a quarter (roughly 9,700) of Philadelphia’s blacks and site of the city’s oldest African American community. This massive report that followed went far beyond what anyone had anticipated or perhaps desired to become a distinctive, still relevant landmark in the history of sociological study and social advocacy.

Related Topics

Themes

Time Periods

Locations

Essays

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.

Related 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.

Related Places

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.

Links

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy