40 years of Du Bois

Du Bois College House

Greg Johnson

Created in response to the needs voiced by African-American students during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Du Bois College House opened in August of 1972.

Ernest Owens and Farrah Alkhaleel, both juniors in the College, have lived in Du Bois College House since their freshman year.

Owens had heard of the House, its history, and its familial atmosphere from Penn graduate Glenn Ellis, a former Du Bois resident, as well as other University alumni. Alkhaleel says she was attracted to the building’s setting, its architecture, and its friendly residents and staff.

“The location was perfect,” Alkhaleel says. “It was a very close-knit community. I also felt like I related with the people more because everybody was really friendly.”

W.E.B. Du Bois College House, named after the renowned African-American sociologist and civil rights activist who taught at Penn in the late 19th century, was established in 1972 as a place to provide academic and psychological support to students of color. This year marks its 40th anniversary.

Du Bois’ historic contributions to the field of sociology were fostered at Penn, when he worked at Wharton as an assistant lecturer from August of 1896 through December of 1897. During that time, Du Bois researched “The Philadelphia Negro,” a landmark social scientific study of the black community in the city that was published in 1899.

In the early 1970s, Cathy Barlow, a Penn student who had previously participated in a takeover of College Hall to protest the Vietnam War, was searching for ways to increase the low retention rate among fellow black students at Penn. She found that many students of color lacked sufficient training to compete at the University, or were ignored by students and faculty. She envisioned the Du Bois Residential Program as a being a solution to those problems. Barlow became the program’s first director.

“Cathy was adamant that the House could not just be a social environment,” says Trish “Miss Trish” Williams, house dean at Du Bois. “She wanted Du Bois to have an academic component to it, and she wanted it to be a place where black culture, black scholarship, and black history could thrive.”

The founding of the residential program was met with resistance from both blacks and whites. The NAACP and ACLU were against the original plan, and students and administrators shouted “reverse discrimination.”

“This House has had bomb threats,” Williams says. “We have an interesting history, but we’ve survived.”

For four decades, Du Bois, the smallest of the 11 College Houses, has been providing a second home for students of color. And not just black students. Students of all colors.

Alkhaleel is Arab American and president of the Du Bois College House Council. Owens, vice president of the Council, is African American, but says this is the first year that he has had a black roommate. A member of Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, Owens says he could live off-campus, but can’t envision living anywhere else but Du Bois.

Du Bois is the only College House with an endowed scholarship (Owens was the 2011 Du Bois College House Endowed Scholar). It is also the only College House with its own library and art gallery, and is the only one to host a biennial conference.

We have an interesting history, but we’ve survived.”

Williams says they expect to mark the 40th anniversary with a celebration that will include special events throughout the academic year. The festivities unofficially kicked off at the start of the school year with a talk by author and journalist Playthell Benjamin, and began more formally with an opening reception during Homecoming Weekend.

“It was really great to see people who graduated last year and also people who graduated in the ‘70s,” Alkhaleel says. “They were telling us how impressed they were with the House and how it has changed.”
In January, the House will hold a 1970s-themed dance party.

“I’ve said to the students that I wanted to wait until January because I want them to go home and raid either their parents’ or grandparents’ closets, come back with the bellbottoms, whatever,” says Rev. William Gipson, faculty master at Du Bois.
As Du Bois House enters its fifth decade, Williams says she hopes it will continue to maintain its mission, while also being flexible enough to change in a global world.

“My hope is that it will always be a supporting environment for students of color, but always remain welcoming to all people.”

Originally published on December 13, 2012