Civil rights pioneer William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois was appointed a temporary “Assistant in Sociology” at the Wharton School in 1896 to conduct a detailed study of “the social condition of the Colored People of the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia.”
Samuel McCune Lindsay, an assistant sociology professor at Penn, hired Du Bois for the project, with money raised by Provost Charles C. Harrison. In their book “W.E.B. DuBois, Race, and the City,” Penn history professors Thomas J. Sugrue and Michael B. Katz report that Harrison requested the study to bring attention to the social problems in the Seventh Ward and apply proper remedies.
Du Bois interviewed nearly 5,000 people for his study, visiting churches, businesses, social and political gatherings, schools and homes. His findings were published in 1899 as “The Philadelphia Negro.” Du Bois found that the chief problem of the Philadelphia Negro was not that of “sheer ignorance,” but a lack of education. Black family life, he said at the time, “needs strengthening at every point.”
One of the most serious problems among Philadelphia blacks was housing. Du Bois found that African Americans were paying “abnormally high rents for the poorest accommodations, and race-prejudice accentuates this difficulty, out of which many evils grow.”
In Philadelphia, Du Bois reported that the class of blacks that the prejudices of the city had encouraged was that of the criminal, the lazy and the shiftless.
“For them there is succor and sympathy,” he said, “For them Philadelphians are thinking and planning; but for the educated and industrious young colored man who wants work and not platitudes, wages and no alms, just rewards and not sermons, for such colored men Philadelphia apparently has no use.”
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on July 2, 2009