W.E.B. DuBois in Philadelphia

By Rebecca Cooper


        W.E.B. Dubois’ life spanned nearly a century. This would be remarkable for any man, but it is particularly an accomplishment for an outspoken African- American who promoted the welfare and equality of Black Americans a generation after the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement in the nineteen sixties. DuBois experienced and fought against Jim Crow policies, the KKK, and post World War Two McCarthyism. The success of DuBois can be attributed to many people and circumstances, but largely credit must be given to Dubois himself, who though raised by a single mother (and extended family) persevered by ambition and education to elevate himself into an influential spoke person for civil rights. The University of Pennsylvania offered the first opportunity for DuBois to make use of his academic research abilities by offering him a stipend to study the plight of the Philadelphia Negro. His thorough canvassing of the Seventh Ward has come to be known as the first in depth social study of African Americans. The goal was to diagnose the unique dilemma confronting the population of the Seventh Ward and to offer possible resolutions. The avenue that DuBois followed to acquire the abilities to articulate the grievances and solutions of the Negro’s social plight was education. It was this avenue that Dubois would recommend for all African Americans with the mental abilities to do so..

        On February 23, 1868, Mary Silvina DuBois gave birth to William Edward Burghardt DuBois in the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This small town nestled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts had been home to the free African-American family descended from Tom Burghardt since the American Revolution. According to David Levering Lewis, "…Conrad Burghardt came into the possession of a slave boy named Tom, born in West Africa, probably in the early 1730s, and sold by Dutch slavers in New York. During four days in October 1780, Tom served as a private in John Spoor’s company whose regimental commander was Colonel John Ashley."(1)  This was DuBois’ great-great maternal grandfather and demonstrates the unique heritage of DuBois compared to that of his fellow southern Black who were one generation removed from slavery.

        According to Lewis, the father of DuBois, Alfred, originally came from Haiti and married his mother knowing he already had a wife named Hannah. He left DuBois and his mother when DuBois was not yet two years of age. Though he was raised fatherless, his mother and extended family worked hard to instill in young Willie a sense of responsibility and pride in education. The town itself seemed to support the academic efforts of DuBois.

        One person who aided DuBois in his education was Great Barrington High School’s principal Frank Alvin Hosmer. He encouraged DuBois to take college prep courses and found him a job tutoring a kind wealthy woman’s son so he could afford his books. Dubois befriended the young man, which pleased his mother.(2) DuBois excelled at high school and dreamed of attending Harvard University. But lack of funds in addition the high admission standards of Harvard prevented him from attending. Hosmer rallied the aid of four Congregational churches, each of whom offered to pay twenty-five dollars per annum to help pay for Dubois tuition at Fisk University in Nashville.(3)

        In Tennessee, DuBois had his first encounter with southern people of his race and reflected on his own identity as a Black man. He wrote ,

So I came to a region where the world was split into white and black halves, and where the darker half was held back by a race prejudice and legal bonds, as well as by deep ignorance and poverty. But facing this was not a lost group, but at Fisk a microcosm of a world and a civilization in potentiality. Into this world I leapt with enthusiasm. A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: henceforth I was a Negro.(4)

        DuBois’ pride and criticism of ignorance would become a hallmark of his sociological work later in life. All but one of his professors at Fisk was white and had been educated in New England or the Mid-West.(5) During the summer months, DuBois went in to the country staying with different poor rural families while he taught summer school in a windowless cabin. His students ranged in age from young children to illiterate twenty-year adults. Dubois had the opportunity to experience the land of the former slaves one generation later. Most of the people in the country were poor the parents had been slaves who knew few skills to enhance their standard of living. But DuBois also found here the rich art of the Negro spiritual song, "the soft melody and mighty cadence of Negro song fluttered and thundered," unlike anything he had heard in his church back home in New England.(6) DuBois acquainted himself with the culture of a people, his people. His sense of obligation to lift them out of their ignorance via education coupled with an admiration for their spirit contributed to his opinion on advocating social equilibrium among the races. DuBois’ teaching experience in the rural south gave him insight into the social problems that he would later tackle in Philadelphia.

        After three years DuBois graduated from Fisk with a BA (He entered as a sophomore directly from high school thanks to New England’s advanced education.) In 1888 DuBois entered Harvard as a junior. DuBois had learned at Fisk the reality of racial segregation. He wrote in his Autobiography that had he gone directly from Great Barrington High School to Harvard he might have tried to establish friendships with fellow white students as he had done in high school. But Nashville had taught him that crossing the color line was impossible. However, DuBois forming his ideas on a separate Black culture in America and wrote that he did not object to his lack of white friends. "I was exceptional among Negroes in my ideas on voluntary race segregation…I was firm in my criticism of White folk and in my dream of a Negro self-sufficient culture even in America."(7)   But even in white Harvard DuBois managed to distinguish himself by graduating cum laude in 1890. He was also chosen to give his commencement speech, "Jefferson Davis: Representative of Civilization" which attracted the attention of the nation. DuBois continued his education at Harvard and received an MA. He was awarded a Slater Fund Fellowship for graduate study in Germany and spent the years from 1892-1894 in Berlin and traveling in Europe. It was here that DuBois was exposed to the ideas of Hegel and Karl Marx. In Germany DuBois lived among people who accepted him as an intelligent student and did not judge him for his dark skin. While DuBois did not gain a doctorate from this fellowship, as funds ran out before he could complete his education, he nevertheless gained considerable knowledge by viewing the social attitudes of America from outside its borders. Returning to ‘nigger hating’ America was not easy for DuBois, but he had no choice. From 1894-1896 DuBois found employment as a professor at Wilberforce University in Ohio. It was at this small church college that he completed his thesis and was awarded his Ph.D. from Harvard. He met his wife Nina, at Wiberforce and married her. However he soon became dissatisfied with the parochial flavor of Wilberforce and searched for new employment opportunities.(8)

        When in 1896 the University of Pennsylvania offered DuBois a job as "Assistant Instructor" to study the Negroes of Philadelphia, he took the job. As DuBois recalled in his Autobiography :

Philadelphia, then and still one of the worst governed of America’s badly governed cities, was having one of its periodic spasms of reform. A thorough study of causes was called for. Not but what the underlying cause was evident to most white Philadelphians: the corrupt, semi-criminal vote of the Negro Seventh Ward.(9)

His job was to be a study of the Seventh Ward in Philadelphia, Pa. This section of the city had Spruce Street as its northern border and South Street as its southern one. Seventh Street defined its eastern boundary and the Schukill River marked its perimeter to the west.

        Philadelphia had a large population of Blacks, and a large concentration of the population lived in the Seventh Ward. The project was the brainstorm of Susan Wharton a wealthy Quaker who lived at 910 Clinton Street in the Seventh Ward. Wharton wanted to study the increasing problems of the crime in her section of the city. She approached her friend Dr. Charles Custis Harrison provost of the University of Pennsylvania, with a proposal that a study be done on the Seventh Ward in collaboration with the College Settlement Association. Katherine Bement Davis ran this settlement house until 1897.(10) Wharton’s friend, Isabel Eaton, worked with DuBois on the project living at the Lombard Street address.

        The Progressive movement of the social sciences of the late 1800’s included the Settlement houses the most famous one was Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago. These homes aided the welfare of the poor and uneducated and were run by the young women graduates who had rebelled from the traditional occupations offered in their day.(11) The settlement house in Philadelphia was located on 700 Lombard Street and it was here that DuBois and his wife witnessed first hand, the conditions of the Seventh Ward.

With my bride of three months, I settled in one in the city over a cafeteria run by a College Settlement, in the worst part of the Seventh Ward. We lived there a year, in the midst of an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime. Murder sat at our doorsteps, police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.(12)

        While living in Philadelphia, Nina DuBois became pregnant and moved to Great Barrington until their son was born. DuBois described the corner of Seventh and Lombard Street in terms of filth and poverty. Prostitutes walked the streets and drunks littered the sidewalks. DuBois walked from door to door surveying the residents. He documented age, sex, employment, education and place of birth. One discovery that he recorded was the fact that 54.3 per cent of the Blacks living in the Seventh Ward were born in the South.(3) They had migrated up during reconstruction hoping for jobs. Unfortunately the people were illiterate and unskilled. In addition to education, employers preferred workers whose skin was white. New immigrants from Germany and Ireland eager to work for low wages, were hired over Blacks as racial tensions set in. Further, as DuBois discovered, even educated skilled Blacks could not find work. DuBois further documented that those born between 1855 and 1866 had twice as many literate persons as those born from 1866 until 1897.(14) This descent in education for the freed Negroes was just one statistic that reflected the trend of downward mobility for Blacks rather than an improvement following the Civil War.

        DuBois felt that the middleclass Blacks had a duty to help the underprivileged of the colored race. He also recorded the testimonies of Blacks who lost their jobs because of the color of their skin. Most were not hired to begin with. Because DuBois enjoyed a respectable reputation for being an intelligent academic person, his study on the Seventh Ward had an impact on the social and political world. His study was published by the University of Pennsylvania and was titled, The Philadelphia Negro.

        This was not the final time that DuBois would write on Philadelphia and the Negro. In 1905 DuBois wrote a critical article published in the journal, Charities. In this journal, DuBois documented voter fraud in the Seventh Ward under the political machine of ‘Boss Durham’: "A colored man, headwaiter at a large hotel, went down to the polls to vote. Pretty soon he came back, ‘Did you vote?’ he was asked. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I find that I had already voted-I’d like to know which way!"(15)   The empirical knowledge gained by his research in Philadelphia Negro gave DuBois insight into future racial problems, and reinforced his interest into the plight of African-Americans everywhere.

        The illustrious career of W.E.B. DuBois continued well into the twentieth century. Following his study in Philadelphia, DuBois was named professor at Atlanta University until 1910. He was one of the first founders of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He wrote extensively to promote the cause of the Black Americans. DuBois became a political protagonist for the cause of racial justice in America, working for candidates that he believed would further this cause.(16) His interest in the social governments of China and Russia led him to travel extensively in these countries. Near the end of his life, he came to the conclusion that democracy as he experienced it in America, had become a vehicle for the rich to remain wealthy and the poor to remain impoverished. He gave up his American Citizenship and moved to Ghana. At the close of his Autobiography he wrote:

We tax ourselves into poverty and crime so as to make the rich richer and the poor poorer and more evil. We know the cause of this: it is to permit our rich business interests to stop socialism and to prevent the ideals of communism from ever triumphing on earth. The aim is impossible. Socialism progresses and will progress.(17)

W.E.B. DuBois died August 27, 1963, a citizen of Ghana and a Communist. He was ninety-five years old.

Philadelphia Tour of W.E.B DuBois 1896-1898.

African Methodist Episcopal: Mother Bethel.

        The present church is the building located a block from where the DuBoises stayed while in Philadelphia. (Eighth and Lombard Streets.)The sanctuary, with its exquisite stained glass windows and mahogany woodwork is well worth the visit and the people who work at Mother Bethel offer a warm reception. It is hard to imagine today the disorder that surrounded the Church at the time of DuBois’ study. Presently it is in the posh community of Society hill. DuBois wrote, " It (Mother Bethel) does considerable charitable work among its aged members, and supports a large sick and benefit society. Its property is worth at least $25,000."(18)  In his study of the Seventh Ward, DuBois extensively documented the importance of churches to Blacks. It was a social center, a center to aid suffering and offered religious education as well as a place where Blacks could learn news about their own community, city and country.

        Mother Bethel is so named because it is the first A.M.E. church established in anywhere. Located at Sixth and Lombard Streets one block from the former Seventh Ward of Philadelphia, Mother Bethel was established by the famous Richard Allen of Revolutionary times. Richard Allen, born in 1760 as a slave to a Philadelphia Quaker lawyer and then sold with his family to a benevolent Mr. Stokely in Delaware, was permitted to attend Methodist church services and in 1784 was permitted to preach. By this time he had worked to buy his freedom and put money aside to help other Slave purchase their freedom as well. By 1783 Allen returned to Philadelphia and joined St. George’s Methodist Church. When the body of colored folk who worshiped grew too large, the congregation asked the Blacks to move upstairs to the balcony. In 1787, the Blacks, led by Richard Allen and Absalom left the Church services in the white St.George’s forever.

        On the site of the present church, Richard Allen bought a parcel of land. This property is the oldest piece of land owned continuously by an African American. Richard Allen and his followers gained a Charter for their church in 1796 and broke with the Mother church of St. George. The first place of worship was an old framed black smith’s shop that Allen had moved to the site. There is a museum in the present church, which was completed in 1889, that houses the first pulpit built and used by Richard Allen. It houses the tomb of Richard and Sarah Allen and many artifacts from its historical past. Mother Bethel was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the stormy time preceding the Civil War.(19)

Starr Garden

        The one room apartment that the DuBoises resided in during their stay in Philadelphia was demolished in 1908, when the present City Park was developed to replace the run down buildings. Today there is a marker on Eighth Street, between Lombard and South Street, commemorating W.E.B.Dubois. Not all of DuBois memories of his first home with his bride, Nina were dismal.

Tuesday we both went down to South Street to the Second Street market, and bought two wreaths, a cross, and a 15-cent Christmas tree. Wife was somewhat alarmed at first at the prospect of a Christmas Tree in our snug little room, but when it was safely ensconced in a corner on the (sewing) machine, with tinsel, fruit, and cotton snow, she was quite delighted.

From the marker commemorating the home of DuBois one can see Mother Bethel. Today there is little trace of the crime that was so visible on the doorsteps of the cafeteria, above which DuBois called home.(20)

Seventh and Lombard Streets

        Walking west on Lombard Street, then north on Seventh Street, it is difficult to imagine the crime documented by DuBois. Today these prestigious ‘trinity’ houses, dating from the eighteenth century, offer the tourist a bucolic scene of historical Philadelphia. It is probably because this portion of real estate was not sought after in the nineteenth century that remains preserved for us today. Wealthier families preferred the larger properties that the western part of Philadelphia offered and left the small homes for the poorer people. These homes, called trinities because of the three-storied one roomed floor plan, were built contrary to the imagination of William Penn. Penn envisioned large country properties lining his grid planned city streets. But as more colonists demanded housing, preferably closer to the Delaware where the trade and merchandise activities were taking place, landowners divided their lots to accommodate many more homes than Penn had intended. During the colonial era, merchants and artisans owned these homes.(21) During the end of the nineteenth century, however, this block was so undesirable that they were not worthy of repairs or rebuilding. DuBois records the block as follows:

Starting at Seventh Street and walking along Lombard, let us glance at the general character of the ward. Pausing a moment at the corner of Seventh and Lombard, we can at a glance view the worst Negro slums of the city. The houses are mostly brick, some wood, not very old, and in general uncared for rather than dilapidated.(22)

The contrast with what is before the tourist presently, compared with the slovenly character of the block a mere one hundred years ago is hard to imagine.

David Lewis’ description is even more pictoresque:

Life was hard, noisy, and deadlyfor too many of the black people there. On Saturday nights the smoky, Loud music honky tonks in Carver and Minister alleys and the miserable shotgun row houses squeezed together near the south end of Seventh up to South Street always disgorged maimed and murdered clients and dwellers before morning. Pennsylvania Hospital two blocks away on Pine Street was practically swamped by the grisly medical problems of black males in the grip of social pathologies.(23)

Lewis’ imagery is graphic but accurate.

Pennsylvania Hospital

        Continue walking north on Seventh Street until you reach Pine Street, then walk left until you arrive at the oldest hospital in America at Eighth and Pine Streets. The architect was Samuel Rhodes, who was a member of the Carpenter’s Company.(24) (Their active historic building is located on the east block adjacent to Independence Mall.) Benjamin Franklin helped to raise the money to erect this hospital. Pennsylvania Hospital was the first hospital to house the mentally ill and it was here that Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote his Observations, a treatise on yellow fever which had broken out in Philadelphia in the 1790’s.

For the Seventh Ward in the 1890’s, Pennsylvania Hospital’s proximity to the slums of Lombard and Seventh Streets provided the closest emergency care for the poor. It was also a kind of boundary between the poor and the well to do. According to the map that DuBois provided in Philadelphia Negro, the city blocks adjacent to the hospital were the homes of whites.(25) In fact, Susan Wharton, member of the College Settlement Association lived on Clinton Street, which is on the block west of the hospital.

910 Clinton Street

        The ancestral home of Susan Wharton is a fine example of a trinity row home from the colonial and federal period. This tree- lined block was close enough to the crime riddled neighborhoods of the Seventh Ward to cause alarm to the whites who resided there. According to Lewis, the better government ladies tried to muster votes to elect a school board that would implement reform for the Seventh Ward school district. They enlisted the help of Fanny J. Coppin, an African American leader in education.(26) Unfortunately the Blacks resented the fact that these refined ladies only sought their vote when they had their own agenda, and basically ignored their needs at other times.(27) Lewis continued to say that it was the Susan Wharton who suggested to her neighbor, Dr. Charles Custis Harrison acting provost for University of Pennsylvania, that a University study be done to diagnose and remedy the afflictions of the Seventh Ward.(28)

University Of Pennsylvania

3451 Walnut Street

        University of Pennsylvania was founded in1740 as a charity institution for Philadelphia Children. It was founded by Benjamin Franklin and is America’s first University.(29) Located at the western end of Walnut Street, this Ivy League University enjoys a prestigious reputation. DuBois, however resented that when they hired him to research the Seventh Ward, they did not even offer him a position as associate professor, but instead asked him to be ‘Associate Instructor.’ The University did not offer him employment when his research project was completed.

In this appointment there was one fly which I have never mentioned; it would have been a fine thing if after this difficult, successful piece of work, the University of Pennsylvania had at least offered me a temporary instructorship in the college or Wharton School. Harvard had never dreamed of such a thing: a half a century later one of Harvard’s professors said of a gifted Negro student: ‘We’d give him a position if he were not a Negro!’…But then as now, I know an insult when I see it.(30)

He did add that he respected the head of the project, Samuel McCune Lindsay, who respected DuBois and gave him full leadership in this research project.(31) University of Pennsylvania’s treatment of DuBois was not out of character for the Academic field in the late 1890’s. Regardless of this, DuBois always hoped for social reforms in his own academic realm, and was disappointed that it would not be fully achieved in America in his lifetime.



David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Dubois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919, (New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1993), 13.

2 Ibid.,43-46

3 W.E.B. Dubois, The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois, (New York: International Publishers. 1997),96.

4 W.E.B. Dubois, 108.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid,119-120.

7Ibid, 136.

8 W.E.B. DuBois, 192.

9 Ibid,194.

10 Lewis, 191.

11 Faragher, John Mack, Mari Jo Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan H. Armitage. Out of Many,2nd ed. New Jersey, Prentiss Hall.1997.654.

12 DuBois,195.

13 W.E.B. DuBois,Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. (Philadelphia: Universtiy Press 1899,1996) 74.

14 Ibid, 92.

15 W.E.B. DuBois, "The Black Vote of Philadelphia", found in Charities, Oct.5, 1905. Miriam Ershkowitz & Joseph Zikmund II ed. Black Politics in Philadelphia.(New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1973).36.

16 DuBois, Autobiography. 438, 439.

17 DuBois, Autobiography,421.

18. Ibid, 213.

19 Richard Miller, "Federal City’. In Russell F. Weigley,ed., Philadelphia:A 300-Year History (New York: W.W.Norton & Co.,1982),187.

20 From Museum Curator at Mother Bethel.

21 "Elfreth’s Alley & Mantua Maker’s Museum House," <http://www.ushistory.org/tour/-elfreth.html>

22 Dubois, Philadelphia Negro,58.

23 Lewis,186.

24 "Pennsylvania hospital," <http://www.ushistory.org/tour/-hosp.htm>

25 DuBois, 60.

26 Lewis,187.

27 Ibid., 187.

28 Ibid., 187.

29 "About Penn,"<http://www.upenn.edu/about-penn/>

30 DuBois, Autobiography, 199.

31 Ibid., 197.


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