W.E.B. Du Bois at Penn
Susan Wharton, a wealthy philanthropist from the family that gave the Wharton School its name, set in motion the chain of events that brought historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois to Penn.
Wharton lived at 910 Clinton St., near what was then the heart of Philadelphia’s black community in the Seventh Ward, which extended from South Seventh Street to the Schuylkill River, and from Spruce to South streets.
One of her associates was Charles Custis Harrison, Penn’s provost, the highest administrative position at the University at the time. Wharton asked Harrison for Penn’s cooperation in a plan to get a better understanding of the plight of African Americans in the impoverished Seventh Ward, and Harrison agreed. The University committed to locating a “trained observer” to conduct a full house-to-house investigation of the ward. On the recommendation of Samuel McCune Lindsay, a professor of sociology at Penn, the University hired Du Bois as the “trained observer.” Du Bois accepted a temporary appointment for one year as an assistant instructor.
Du Bois and his wife, Nina, moved into an apartment in the Seventh Ward, and he went right to work on what would become his groundbreaking book, “The Philadelphia Negro.”
On Aug. 1, 1896, Du Bois began his investigation. Over the course of his study, he visited and spoke with at least 5,000 people.
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 faculty, aside from regular consultations with Lindsay.
Published in 1899 by Penn Press, the completed tome, “The Philadelphia Negro,” is exhaustive, empirical, and meticulous, and is credited as being the first scientific study of race in the world.
Du Bois was not offered a professorship at Penn after his position expired. He was hired as a professor at Atlanta University—now Clark Atlanta University—where he founded the field of modern sociology. In 1903, he published his masterful “The Souls of Black Folk,” and became one of the most famous African Americans in the country. In 1909, he was among the founders of the NAACP. He lived to be 95 before passing away in Ghana in 1963, where he had come at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, a Penn alumnus.
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 of the most recent edition of the book.
Now an associate professor of city and regional planning 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.
Hillier, who is also a faculty co‐director of the Cartographic Modeling Lab at the Perelman School of Medicine, 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.
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 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 first 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. 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, read all of Du Bois' books by the time he graduated from college and has an original copy of “The Philadelphia Negro,” and all of Du Bois’ books.
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 Zuberi was chair of the department in 2012, he led an effort to have Du Bois receive a posthumous honorary emeritus professorship from Penn.
“It was an idea whose time had come,” Zuberi says.