The times and life of W.E.B. Du Bois at Penn

In 1896, Du Bois was appointed an assistant instructor at Penn and began his investigation of the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia—research that he would turn into his groundbreaking work, “The Philadelphia Negro.”

W.E.B. Du Bois sits at his desk in his office.
Photo courtesy: W.E.B Du Bois Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries

Ever since Africans were stolen from their homeland and forced to come to America as slaves, the United States has had what it used to call the “Negro Problem.

During their enslavement, the foremost problem for African Americans, or “Negroes” as they were called at the time, was the inhumane institution of slavery itself: a legalized system of kidnapping, assault, mutilation, child abuse, rape, and murder.

Following emancipation in 1865, the “Negro Problem” manifested as a set of grave social ills affecting African Americans, such as crippling poverty, poor health and living conditions, and a wrath of crime, many a byproduct of generations of bondage, a failed Reconstruction, and continued racial violence and prejudice.

Black people were in Pennsylvania when William Penn, a slave-owner, first landed in 1682. Africans were brought to the region as slaves by the Swedes and Dutch.

In 1700, there were around 1,000 enslaved African Americans in Penn’s colony. By the middle of the century, when slavery in Pennsylvania reached its zenith, it had between 6,000 and 11,000 enslaved blacks. Most worked in factories in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region and entered the colony through the port of Philadelphia. The corner of Front and Market streets was once a thriving slave marketplace. The wealthiest Philadelphians owned two to four slaves.

Pennsylvania passed a law that gradually abolished slavery in 1780. By 1790, the time of the first census, there were 10,274 blacks in the state: 3,737 enslaved and 6,537 free.

Quasi-freedom in the Commonwealth caused a steady stream of free African Americans and fugitive slaves from the South to migrate to Philadelphia. By 1830, there were around 15,600 blacks in the city and county, mostly crowded in narrow backstreets and alleys.

Anti-black riots forced many African Americans to flee the city in the 1830s and ’40s. They returned during the 1850s, and increased following the Civil War, totaling 22,147 in 1870.

Big-city opportunities in the postwar period caused an influx of African Americans; in 1896, Philadelphia was home to around 45,000 blacks, and more than 1 million whites.

The city’s African-American population was the second largest among the 10 largest cities in the country, outnumbering Southern cities like Richmond, Va., Charleston, S.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn.

Widely spread across all wards of the city, a fifth of the city’s blacks congregated by mass in the crowded and dense, thickly populated Seventh Ward, where they formed 42 percent of the population.

Into this isolated and beleaguered, but burgeoning black world came famed author, scholar, sociologist, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, before the accolades, before the fame, to study the “Negro Problems” of Philadelphia.


W.E.B. Du Bois, second row, far left, while a student at Great Barrington High School in 1884.
Great Barrington High School, Class of 1884. (Photo courtesy: W.E.B Du Bois Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries)

Great Barrington is a small town with around 7,000 residents, nestled in the southwest corner of Massachusetts in the dell of the Housatonic River. Incorporated in 1761, in August of 1781 its Old Courthouse was the site of seminal Brom and Bett v. Ashley case.

Mum Bett, also known as Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved black woman, sued her owner for her freedom, citing a declaration in the recently approved Massachusetts Constitution that “All men are born free and equal.” The judge ruled in her favor, a decision that was instrumental in abolishing slavery in Massachusetts.

On Feb. 23, 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington to Mary Burghardt and Alfred Du Bois. His mother’s family was among the oldest inhabitants in the valley. His father, who was born in Haiti, left the family when Du Bois was a small boy.

I realized that some folks, a few, even several, actually considered my brown skin a misfortune. Once or twice I became painfully aware that some human beings even thought it a crime. W.E.B. Du Bois writing in “Dusk of Dawn,” his second autobiography, on growing up in predominately white Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

In “The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois,” the last of his three memoirs, Du Bois traces his maternal roots to a man from West Africa named “Tom,” who was “stolen by Dutch slave traders.” Tom later fought for the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

Then, as now, Great Barrington was predominately white, mostly of English and Dutch descent. In “Dusk of Dawn,” Du Bois’ second autobiography, he recalls, “There were perhaps twenty-five, certainly not more than fifty” African Americans in the town at the time of his birth, out of a population of 5,000.

Blacks and whites lived in peace in Great Barrington. They prayed in the same churches, their children went to the same schools, and color discrimination was nearly nonexistent. In “Dusk of Dawn,” Du Bois describes his early contacts with playmates as “normal and pleasant.”

Bit by bit, he says he found himself “assuming quite placidly” that he was different from other children.

“I realized that some folks, a few, even several, actually considered my brown skin a misfortune,” he writes. “Once or twice I became painfully aware that some human beings even thought it a crime.”

W.E.B. Du Bois while a student at Harvard.
W.E.B. Du Bois received his second bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1890. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. (Photo courtesy: Harvard University Archives)

From the age of 5 or 6 until he graduated high school at age 16, Du Bois—called Willie in his youth—attended one public schoolhouse. The only black pupil at Great Barrington High School, he was a brilliant and popular student, and class valedictorian.

Du Bois at 16 had his heart set on Harvard, but no money to attend. He spent a year working construction to earn money for school before he was awarded a scholarship to attend Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree from Fisk, Du Bois was admitted to Harvard as a junior, studying history and sociology, and graduated cum laude in 1890. He earned his master’s from Harvard in 1891 and spent two years studying in Germany before returning to the university for his Ph.D. In 1895, he became its first black doctorate. He completed his dissertation on “The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.”

Du Bois was a professor of ancient languages at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio, longing for an opportunity to do social science work, when he received a telegram from Penn.



Susan Wharton, from the same family whose name graces the Wharton School, set in motion the chain of events that brought Du Bois to Penn. A wealthy Quaker and philanthropist, she lived at 910 Clinton St. near what was then the heart of black Philadelphia in the Seventh Ward, which extended from South 7th Street to the Schuylkill River, and from Spruce to South streets.

Charles Custis Harrison
Charles Curtis Harrison circa 1900. He served as Penn’s provost from 1894-1910. (Photo courtesy: University Archives and Records Center)

One of her neighbors was Charles Custis Harrison, who was serving as Penn’s provost, the highest administrative position in the University at the time.

Sympathetic and troubled by the plight of African Americans in the Seventh Ward, Wharton, who served on the executive committee of the College Settlement of Philadelphia, a social service agency, convened a conference at her home in early 1895 for persons concerned about the wellbeing of the city’s black residents.

In a May 30, 1895, letter to Harrison, Wharton asked for Penn’s cooperation in a plan to obtain a “body of reliable information as to the obstacles to be encountered by the colored people in their endeavor to be self-supporting.”

Harrison concurred, and sent a fundraising letter to friends of the University explaining how Penn intended to “designate a trained observer” to conduct a full house-to-house investigation of the Seventh Ward to determine the “present actual conditions” of African Americans residing there.

Leaders from the city’s black community and other distinguished guests gathered at the Wharton home in the fall of 1895. Here, Harrison formally announced Penn’s commitment to the investigation, and the work of locating a qualified researcher.

Du Bois was recommended for the “trained observer” position by Samuel McCune Lindsay, a professor of sociology at Penn and a University alumnus.

“If Lindsay had been a smaller man and had been induced to follow the usual pattern of treating Negros, he would have asked me to assist him as his clerk in this study,” Du Bois writes in “Autobiography.” “Probably I would have accepted, having nothing better in sight for work in sociology. But Lindsay regarded me as a scholar in my own right.”

The job offer from Penn was just the sort of opportunity Du Bois was looking for. He had offered to teach social science at Wilberforce, in addition to his regular courses, but was denied. “My vision was becoming clear,” he writes in “Dusk of Dawn.” “The Negro problem was in my mind a matter of systematic investigation and intelligent understanding. The world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity. The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation.”

Du Bois accepted a temporary appointment at Penn for one year as an assistant instructor. His salary was $900.


W.E.B. Du Bois, his son, and his wife.
W.E.B. Du Bois, his wife Nina, and their baby son Burghardt in 1898. (Photo courtesy: W.E.B Du Bois Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries)

Newly married to Nina, his bride of three months, 28-year-old Du Bois and his wife moved in the summer of 1896 into a one-room apartment at 700 Lombard St. in the Seventh Ward, and he went right to work on what would become his groundbreaking book, “The Philadelphia Negro.”

Credentials given to him by Provost Harrison tasked Du Bois with conducting a “thorough” and “exact” study of the ward. He was to find out how African Americans lived, where they worked, what jobs they were excluded from, how many of their children were enrolled in school, and “ascertain every fact which will throw light upon this social problem.”

Du Bois outlined his course of action and prepared six different questionnaires: a family survey asking about family size, marriage, literacy, employment, income, place of birth, and the like; an individual survey with similar enquiries; a home survey noting home ownership, rent, those with running water, et cetera; a street survey to collect data from the various small streets and alleys; a survey for organizations and institutions; and a survey for house servants.

On Aug. 1, 1896, he began his inquiry, canvassing door to door. Debonair in a three-piece suit, top hat, and carrying a cane, Du Bois, who stood around 5’6’’, would visit his neighbors and politely ask to speak with the head of the family.

“I counted my task here as simple and clear cut,” he writes in “Autobiography.” “I proposed to find out what was the matter with this area and why.” Seated in the parlor, kitchen, or living room, he would begin asking his questions. Interviews lasted from 10 minutes to an hour. Over 15 months, Du Bois visited and spoke with at least 5,000 people. Answers were “prompt and candid, and gave no suspicion of previous preparation.”

In “Darkwater,” he recalls African Americans in the Seventh Ward as having “a natural dislike to being studied like a strange species.” However, in “The Philadelphia Negro,” he reports, “The stranger can usually walk about here day and night with little fear” of being harmed.

Leading a one-man research team, Du Bois worked tirelessly to complete his study, maintaining a strict, regimented daily schedule, and even missing the birth of his son, Burghardt, who was born while Nina was in Great Barrington.

Seventh Ward residents were aware that Penn was conducting an investigation, but uncertain of its scope. The University provided Du Bois with little support for the study; he was not given an office on campus, had no contact with students, and almost no interactions with any of the faculty, aside from regular consultations with Lindsay.

Du Bois’ completed tome, “The Philadelphia Negro,” is intense, exhaustive, and meticulous, filled with methodically detailed facts, figures, charts, graphs, lists, diagrams, and maps, including a large, color-coded map—that was pull-out and printed in color in early editions—showing the social condition and distribution of African Americans throughout the Seventh Ward.

He corroborated his work using colonial records, manuscripts, biographies and autobiographies, legal documents, census data, newspaper articles, correspondence, meeting minutes, publications, obituaries, private libraries, annuls, and in-person interviews and observations.

His findings present an insightful and intimate look at, and living testament of, African Americans in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century.



African Americans in the Seventh Ward were a heterogeneous mix, showing the complexity of black life. Du Bois counted 9,675 souls: 4,501 men and 5,174 women.

Of those 15 years of age and older, 52.5 percent of men and 47.1 percent of women were married; 35.2 percent of families lived in a one-room house; the average family size was 3.18.

More than half of the population was born in the South, mainly in Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware; only about one-third were native-born Philadelphians.

Looking at men 21 years of age and older, most were common laborers and servants.

Turning to women of the same age, the largest percentages worked as domestic servants, housewives, and day laborers, such as cooks, maids, and seamstresses.

Nineteen percent of the families lived on $5 and less per week; 48 percent earned between $5 and $10; 8 percent earned more than $15.

The poorest residents lived in the area of 7th and Lombard streets. Up Lombard, beyond 8th were “good-sized and pleasant” residences.

Although impoverished, the Seventh Ward was abuzz with black-owned businesses. There were 23 establishments “for meals and other entertainment,” several bicycle shops, a “flourishing” milk, butter, and egg store, 33 barbershops, three bakeries, a 47-year-old hardware and furniture store on South Street—once a booming black marketplace—13 grocery stores, and four undertaking enterprises, including two run by women.

Thirteen schools in the ward were staffed by 64 teachers. Among black children of the ward who were school-age, 85.8 percent attended.

Three of the city’s black-owned cemeteries had their headquarters in the Seventh Ward.  

“They arose from the curious prejudice of the whites against allowing Negroes to be buried near their dead,” writes Du Bois.



The problem of late-19th century Philadelphia was the problem of the color line. Because of their black skin, African Americans were shut out of the best jobs, the best schools, the best houses, and the best neighborhoods.

Henry Billings Brown, an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court
In 1896, Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, which legalized state-sponsored racial segregation.

Their children were often discriminated against in public schools, in matters of admission and transfers, and prohibited from attending private, music, and high schools. Nor were they allowed to obtain occupational training. Black youth, writes Du Bois, start in life “knowing that on all sides, his advance is made doubly difficult, if not wholly shut off, by his color.”

In employment, African Americans were, on the whole, limited to a small number of low-skilled, low-paying occupations, causing a relentless struggle for the few available positions, and driving down wages. Blacks who were able to find decent work had little to no chance for promotion.

Learned careers, such as lawyers, doctors, or professors, and positions of authority, were, with rare exceptions, closed at the very outset to African Americans because of their skin color.

Black women in the city had but three employment choices: domestic service, sewing, or married life.

The Negro finds it extremely difficult to rear children in such an atmosphere and not have them either cringing or impudent. W.E.B. Du Bois writing in “The Philadelphia Negro” on the difficulties in raising a family among the racist and anti-black economic, employment, education, and societal conditions in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward

Unions, with a “determined prejudice, aided by public opinion,” effectively blackballed African Americans from the city’s trades and industries. The few blacks admitted were forbidden from new and better-paying industries. In 1896, only 1.19 percent of African Americans in the Seventh Ward worked in the principal trades.

African Americans in the Seventh Ward, and Philadelphia altogether, were restricted in where they could live, largely relegated to the worst houses in the most unsafe, unsanitary, and unhealthy neighborhoods. Real estate agents in many sections refused to rent to African Americans under any circumstances, and landlords refused to repair and refit homes, knowing that blacks had nowhere else to go. For their substandard living spaces, African Americans had to pay relatively higher rents.

In order to make ends meet, many families had to sub-rent space to lodgers—transients every so often passing through town. The practice, known as lodging, was popular in the Seventh Ward, including among the 35 percent of families who lived in one room.

As a consequence, Du Bois writes, “38 percent of the homes of the Seventh Ward have unknown strangers admitted freely into their doors.”

Despite paying high rental fees, possibly 30 percent of the black homes in the ward lacked the basic accommodations necessary for health and decency. Only 13.7 percent had access to bathrooms and toilets.

“The Negro finds it extremely difficult to rear children in such an atmosphere and not have them either cringing or impudent,” writes Du Bois.



Slavery is a recurring antagonist in “The Philadelphia Negro,” three decades after it met its defeat. It is a lurking menace, ever-present, and lingering.

Peter or Gordon, an enslaved black man, with whip marks on his back in 1963.
Peter or Gordon, a whipped enslaved black man, photo taken at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863. (Photo: Mathew Brady)

After Pennsylvania abolished the slave trade in 1780, African Americans suffered a delayed and deceitful freedom. The law, when enacted, freed no one, and applied only to African Americans born in the state after the legislation was passed. Black people still had to remain enslaved until they reached age 28. Though Pennsylvanians were barred from importing slaves, they could still buy and sell those who were registered. The state held African Americans in bondage until the 1840s.

More than half of African Americans in the Seventh Ward in 1896 were born in the South—assuredly former slaves, or the children or grandchildren of slaves—and the horrors of the evil institution followed them up North. 

The lasting effects of enslavement were sometimes overt, such as in statistics showing that in 1850, almost half of Philadelphia’s adult black population was illiterate. Du Bois makes no mention of slavery, but slaves caught reading or writing were commonly punished with vicious whippings.

At other times in the book, slavery appears in passing, as when Du Bois writes about the “uneven quality” of black laborers in the Seventh Ward, which he says partly stems from the fact that some were the descendants of “trained house-servants, long in close contact with their masters’ families,” which permitted them to receive better training than the less able “sons of field-hands.”

Poor training among African Americans as a consequence of slavery, and more urgently, the lack of opportunities for job training post-slavery, plagued the city’s black community at the time of Du Bois’ investigation, especially in competition with white native Americans and well-trained immigrants from Europe.

In other aspects of African-American life, slavery was entrenched, especially in the black family.

According to Du Bois, among the masses of African Americans in the country, a stable marriage and home was “a new institution,” not more than two or three generations old. The black family, he writes, was “destroyed by slavery.”

Home life in Africa, not perfect but a protector of women, “was broken up completely by the slave ship” and the “promiscuous herding” encouraged on West Indian plantations.

“From this evolved the Virginia plantation,” writes Du Bois, “where the double row of little slave cabins were but parts of a communistic paternalism centering in the Big House, which was the real center of family life.”



Du Bois mentions prejudice often in his writings about African Americans in the city and Seventh Ward. It is an awesome but evil power, a “far more powerful social force than most Philadelphians realize,” and the enemy of black people. To African Americans, it showed as the injurious, “widespread feeling of dislike for his blood,” and was the “chief cause of their present unfortunate condition.”

Most white Philadelphians, though, were “quite unconscious of any such powerful and vindictive feeling,” and regarded color prejudice as “the easily explicable feeling that intimate social intercourse with a lower race is not only undesirable but impracticable.”

In the antepenultimate chapter, “The Contact of the Races,” Du Bois dissects color prejudice, a “somewhat indefinite term,” and gives it more life.

“Everybody speaks of the matter,” he writes, “everybody knows that it exists, but in just what form it shows itself or how influential it is, few agree.”

The chapter personifies the word, conveying actual cases of discrimination experienced by black residents of the Seventh Ward.

African Americans applying for jobs were very bluntly told, “We don’t employ Negroes.” Very cruelly, it was stated, “We don’t work no n------ here.”

Residents confided to Du Bois instances when white employees refused to work with black employees. Light-skinned African Americans who could pass as white were quickly terminated as soon as their blackness was discovered.

A seamstress “of proven ability” sought employment in a large department store. The supervisors praised her work, but told her they couldn’t hire her because she was black.

A mother tried to get her daughter into kindergarten at a nearby school, but the teachers wanted to send her daughter to a predominately black school farther away. “This journey was dangerous for the child,” reports Du Bois, “but the teachers refused to receive it for months, until the authorities were appealed to.”

A graduate of Penn in mechanical engineering, “well recommended” with an “excellent record,” was hired for a job, worked for a few hours, and then was fired because “he was found to be colored. He is now a waiter at the University Club, where his white fellow graduates dine.”

A dressmaker and milliner was told, “Your work is very good, but if we hire you all of our ladies would leave.”

“Such cases,” writes Du Bois, “could be multiplied indefinitely.”



Penn did not offer Du Bois a professorship after his position expired. He was hired as a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University—now Clark Atlanta University—a historically black college in Georgia, where he began teaching in January of 1898.

Although his term at Penn expired in June of 1897, Du Bois continued working on “The Philadelphia Negro” through the end of the year. He completed his investigation on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1897.

On Nov. 19, 1897, he attended a meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, held in Philadelphia, and gave a lecture on “The Study of the Negro Problems.”

Addressing around 500 of the leading American sociologists and political scientists of the day, he said the “Negro Problem” was not one problem, but a “plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex.”

In his conclusion, he praised Penn for being “the first to recognize her duty” by studying these issues in a single definite locality.

“This work,” he told his colleagues, “needs to be extended.”

Du Bois stayed busy on “The Philadelphia Negro” even as he was teaching in Atlanta. In October of 1898, when the book was in press, he sent a letter to Jacob C. White, Jr., longtime principal of the Philadelphia’s all-black Robert Vaux Consolidated School and a leading black educator, asking him to “note any errors of fact or judgment” in the eighth chapter, “Education and Illiteracy.” The proof-sheets were enclosed with the letter.

“The Philadelphia Negro” was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 1899.

In the introduction to the book, Lindsay wrote of Du Bois, “Both his training and qualifications for the projected work proved to be far greater than our highest expectations.” (Lindsay would continue as a professor at Penn until 1907, when he was hired by Columbia, where he taught until 1939.)

Critics praised the book much for its thoroughness, and used other laudatory words and phrases, such as “brilliant,” a “model,” and “a credit to American scholarship.”

Today, it is considered the first scientific study of race in the world.



Horace Bumstead, a former major in the Union army, where he commanded a regiment of black soldiers, served as the president of Atlanta University from 1888-1907. He heard of Du Bois’ work on “The Philadelphia Negro” and thought his impeccable training and credentials would make him the ideal scholar to establish a sociology department at the college, and take charge of its series of conferences and studies on the social condition of African Americans.

W.E.B. Du Bois in Paris
W. E. B. Du Bois at Paris International Exposition, 1900. (Photo courtesy: W.E.B Du Bois Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries)

The Annual Conference for the Study of Negro Problems, which Du Bois directed from 1898-1914 and calls his “real life work,” was originally conceived to study only the problems of black people in cities, in contrast to the popular conferences on the rural problems of African Americans held at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Du Bois, “rather peremptorily,” he says, moved the focus of the yearly conference toward the comprehensive study of all African-American concerns.

Working with his Atlanta students and colleagues, and students and faculty from Fisk, Tuskegee, Hampton Institute, and other colleges and historically black colleges and universities, Du Bois led research on matters including black mortality, urbanization, the black church, the black family, and African-American college graduates and businessmen.

The influence of “The Philadelphia Negro” is evident when reading through the conference reports. Interviewers, dispersed across the South, were equipped with similar carefully prepared, detailed surveys with simple and direct questions; the text is presented and outlined in almost the exact same way, with more perfected research methods; and the conference reports are exceedingly thorough, sharpened with the finer tools of investigation.

The findings of the Atlanta conferences were widely distributed in libraries around the world, and were used by scholars in many different nations and fields.

This was the beginning of modern American sociology.



A Chicago publishing company approached Du Bois in the early 1900s with a proposal to write a book. He pitched a social study summing up the work of the Atlanta conferences, but the publishers wanted him to compile a list of essays, such as those of his previously published in the Atlantic Monthly. He demurred, he says in “Dusk of Dawn,” because “books of essays almost always fall so flat,” but relented, and pulled together some pieces, then added a chapter on Booker T. Washington.

W.E.B. Du Bois in his later years.
W.E.B. Du Bois in his later years. (Photo courtesy: National Park Service)

The masterful “The Souls of Black Folk” was published in 1903, and made Du Bois one of the most famous African Americans in the country.

Du Bois would lead a long, scholarly, fruitful, and radical life. Spurred by the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, in 1909, he became one of the founders of the NAACP. He served as editor of its Crisis newspaper from 1910-34.

Constantly writing, Du Bois published numerous nonfiction essays, articles, and books, including biographies of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and the pioneering text “Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.” He wrote fiction, too, including plays and “The Quest of the Silver Fleece,” a novel.

He was one of the fathers of modern pan-Africanism, the unity of all black people, and a faithful and just proponent.

Du Bois died on Aug. 27, 1963, in Accra, Ghana, where he had come at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, a Penn alumnus. He was 95 years old. Nkrumah honored him with a state funeral.


As he aged, Du Bois reminisced with pride on “The Philadelphia Negro.”

The Philadelphia Negro

In “Darkwater,” published in 1920, when he was 52, he wrote, “Nobody ever reads that fat volume…but they treat it with respect, and that consoles me.”

In “Dusk of Dawn,” published in 1940, when he was 72, he boasted, “I made a study of the Philadelphia Negro so thorough that it has withstood the criticism of forty years.”

By “Autobiography,” it had “withstood the criticism of sixty years.”

In “Autobiography,” published posthumously in 1968, Du Bois says the “greatest import,” what he found most valuable and self-fulfilling about working on “The Philadelphia Negro,” was the “fact that after years, I had at last learned just what I wanted to do, in this life program of mine, and how to do it.

“First of all, I became painfully aware that merely being in a group does not necessarily make one possessed of complete knowledge concerning it,” he writes. “I had learned far more from Philadelphia Negroes than I had taught them concerning the Negro Problem.”


W.E.B. Du Bois College House
W. E.B. Du Bois College House at 3900 Walnut St. (Photo: Greg Johnson)

Colleges across America were aflame with student fury during the riotous and turbulent 1960s. Rebellious Berkeley students put their bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels, and the levers of a university machine they deemed autocratic; their fellow student activists occupied campus buildings—at Penn it was College Hall—in protest of a war in Vietnam they decried as unjust.

At the same time, empowered Black students around the country were also demanding the establishment of African-American studies programs at predominately white institutions, and housing dedicated to the study of black history and culture.

In 1972, Penn established an Afro-American Studies Program, and opened a residential program for all those interested in the black experience. The program, a center of black life, needed a name, and its founders fittingly chose Du Bois, who placed black people at the center of his own life. The residential program was the forerunner to today’s Du Bois College House, an intellectually stimulating, close-knit community home to a wealth of students of color.

I’m convinced no one can talk about race relations in this country from the late 1800s through the 1960s without mentioning Dr. Du Bois. William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access and faculty director of Du Bois College House, on the impact of W.E.B. Du Bois

William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access in the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life and faculty director of Du Bois College House, says the residence hall maintains the spirit of Du Bois, holding events and programming to honor and celebrate his life, and view issues through the lens of his work and activism.

“I’m convinced no one can talk about race relations in this country from the late 1800s through the 1960s without mentioning Dr. Du Bois,” Gipson says.

The House in the past held an annual day-and-a-half conference titled “Souls of Du Bois.” Residents of the House—students, faculty, and staff—would select a theme and invite Penn faculty members, administrators, and graduate students to serve on panels and speak on the chosen theme.

Personally, Gipson says it has been important for him to give students a more concrete, real-life connection to Du Bois. To this end, students at the House attended a mural dedication to Du Bois in the Seventh Ward, and in 2012, the House presented Du Bois’ great-grandson, Arthur McFarland, with a ceremonial key.

From time to time, the House has thrown a birthday party for Du Bois with students from the Jubilee School, a private K-5 school in West Philadelphia.

For Du Bois’ 147th birthday in 2015, they had food, cake, a film screening, and songs by the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir, and they all sung happy birthday to Du Bois. The children played Pin the Top Hat on Du Bois, and took photos with a cut out of his likeness. To celebrate Du Bois’ 150th birthday in 2018, the House revived the Souls of Du Bois Conference with the theme “Lift Every Voice: Innovation and Education.” 


“The Philadelphia Negro” is still in print, says Eric Halpern, director of Penn Press, and available in e-form. It is the only book from its era that is still published.

A number of editions have been released since 1899, but Halpern says no changes have been made to Du Bois’ text. Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, a Penn alumnus who taught at the University from 1947 until 1986, wrote the introduction to the 1967 edition. The most recent version was released in 1996; a special centennial edition was released in 1999.

“It’s a fundamental text,” Halpern says.



Camille Zubrinsky Charles, the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences in the Department of Sociology and director of the Center for Africana Studies, first read “The Philadelphia Negro” when it was among the recommended texts for her qualifying exam in graduate school.

W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918
W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918. (Photo: Cornelius M. Battey)

At the point of writing her dissertation—“‘I Have Always Wanted To Have a Neighbor Just Like You’: Race and Residential Segregation in the City of Angels”—it was one of the books she had to read for her own training.

Charles, who is also a professor of education and Africana studies, says for decades, the work of Du Bois was ignored by white sociologists, and his name was not mentioned as one of the founders of the academy, an exclusion she says has always struck her. To this day, she says a lot of students trained in sociology are not required to read Du Bois’ work.   

“People had—and continue to have—a hard time with the idea that something so groundbreaking was actually developed and executed by a person of African descent,” she says. “He was a person of color at a time when we weren’t supposed to be so smart and have such strong opinions, and when it was socially acceptable to exclude and ignore their contributions.”

“The Philadelphia Negro,” Charles says, should be in the canon of modern sociology. She says it is a foundational, empirically driven study that combines both ethnographic and survey methods with rigorous analysis and interpretation, and predates the Chicago School, which is usually credited as the founder of modern American sociology.

“It’s a beautiful piece of research,” she says.


W.E.B. Du Bois with classmates at Fisk University.
Fisk University Class of 1888. Du Bois is second from left. (Photo courtesy: W.E.B Du Bois Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries)

As a ninth grader at North Philadelphia’s Olney High School in 1986, Chad Dion Lassiter, president of The Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc., was introduced to Du Bois when one of his mentors gave a lesson on the scholar to students in the Afro-American club.

Hearing about Du Bois’ time at Fisk was one of the main reasons Lassiter decided to attend a historically black college, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where he says his professors were “deeply rooted” in the works of Du Bois. He read “The Philadelphia Negro” and more of Du Bois’ writings, and he and his classmates would argue about the pronunciation of Du Bois’ name, whether it had a French inflection, “Do-bwah.” (Du Bois is said to have insisted on the English pronunciation.)

People had—and continue to have—a hard time with the idea that something so groundbreaking was actually developed and executed by a person of African descent. Camille Charles, the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences in the Department of Sociology and director of the Center for Africana Studies.

While studying at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, where he received his master’s degree in 2001, Lassiter was a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Collective Research Institute, an interdisciplinary center formerly located in the Graduate School of Education.

A scholar and activist in the Du Bois-ian tradition, Lassiter says Du Bois was one of the reasons he went into social work.

“As a social worker, I’m always seeing black humanity from a strength-based perspective,” he says. “As a social worker, I’m always mindful of the very souls of black folk.”

Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, says a lot of the emerging themes in “The Philadelphia Negro”—such as a permanent underclass, the construction of the ghetto, and African Americans being trapped by spatial segregation—are still prevalent today. He says Du Bois can be read on multiple levels, and should be required reading in education, social policy, law, urban studies, art and design, cartography, philosophy, African-American studies, and religion.

“Du Bois was a genius,” Lassiter says.



In the late 1980s, when she was a Ph.D. student at Penn studying social welfare, Amy Hillier was introduced to “The Philadelphia Negro” in an urban ethnography class taught by former University Professor Elijah Anderson, author of the introduction to the most recent edition of the book.

Now an associate professor of social policy and practice at PennDesign, Hillier was then living on the edge of the Seventh Ward, and had to read the book and tour the ward as part of the class.

The Ward Du Bois
A board game that is part of the public history project “The Ward: Race and Class in Du Bois’ Seventh Ward,” developed by PennDesign’s Amy Hillier. (Photo: Rebecca Elias Abboud)

Hillier, who is also an associate professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice, says she was learning how to use geographic information system (GIS) mapping at the same time she was reading the book, and made a note to herself that the book, filled with maps by Du Bois, would serve as a great demonstration of the use of historical GIS.

“It’s such a spatial story,” she says. “It’s such a story about environment impacting health and wellbeing.”

Over the last decade, Hillier has developed “The Ward: Race and Class in Du Bois’ Seventh Ward,” a teaching, research, and public history project honoring Du Bois, bringing his book to life, and promoting honest conversations about racism and race.

Created with help from dozens of high school and college students, “The Ward” includes a curriculum, documentaries, oral histories, a mural, a board game, and a walking tour of the Seventh Ward.

As part of the project, Hillier and staff recreated Du Bois’ large color-coded map of the Seventh Ward using GIS; Hillier says she uses the map in every class she teaches.

The board game, in which players can become a character, such as a doctor, schoolteacher, maid, or barber, and move throughout the ward, features the real names and some actual faces of residents who lived in the ward when Du Bois conducted his study. All questions in the game, whose target audience is high school students, are based on or linked to “The Philadelphia Negro.”

Hillier, who even has a doll of Du Bois in her office, regularly takes people on tours of the Seventh Ward, and has spoken about his work at Penn at guest lectures around the country and overseas.

“Du Bois has been my teacher,” she says.



Tukufu Zuberi, the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations in the Department of Sociology, was introduced to Du Bois in high school, when a teacher gave him a book with biographies of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Du Bois.

W.E.B. Du Bois circa 1911
W. E. B. Du Bois circa 1911. (Photo courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

“When I read that book, I was so shocked that black men would be writing with this confidence,” he says.

That book led Zuberi to discover Du Bois’ books, and he became fascinated with the scholar, writer, and activist.

Zuberi, also a professor of sociology and Africana studies, had read every book ever written by Du Bois by the time he graduated from college, and has original copies of them all, including “The Philadelphia Negro.” He has completed 200 to 300 pages of a biography on Du Bois, and has written  articles on him for various journals.

“I do not remember a moment when I was not writing on W.E.B. Du Bois,” he says.

Du Bois’ work on “The Philadelphia Negro” while at Penn has proven to outlast any other scholar in the history of the department, Zuberi says, and his sociological legacy “has proven to be more important than the entire department itself.”

While he was chair of the department in 2012, Zuberi led an effort to have Du Bois receive a posthumous honorary emeritus professorship from Penn.

“It was an idea whose time had come,” he says.

This article has been updated.