W. E. B. Du Bois’ Profound Cultural Influence

During his lifetime, W. E. B. Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, author, public intellectual, and civil rights activist. Today, Du Bois is widely considered one of the most important scholars of his generation, who still influences researchers, according to Tukufu Zuberi, professor of sociology and the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Du Bois’ considerable contributions to several fields of study 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 and wrote his second major monogram, “The Philadelphia Negro,” a social scientific study of the black community in the city.

“The Philadelphia Negro” helped to cement Du Bois’ reputation as an important young scholar, according to Zuberi.

“W. E. B. Du Bois had the courage to be scientific in a world that wasn’t necessarily prepared for scientific explanations of human relationships,” says Zuberi. “He did that by applying the science of sociology, which was new at the beginning of the 20th Century ... to the study of the African-American population in Philadelphia.”

Most people familiar with Du Bois’ writing may recognize his seminal work, “The Souls of Black Folk”—a work with themes that Zuberi says Du Bois touched upon in “The Philadelphia Negro.”

“‘The Philadelphia Negro’ is both a classic and a trailblazing text simply because he did a scientific study of a group that was not studied scientifically by most other scholars in the United States,” says Zuberi. After Du Bois left Penn for Atlanta University, his more than 15 volumes of social scientific work that followed were modeled on “The Philadelphia Negro.”

“[Du Bois’] work is profound because of the breadth of it, because of his use of scientific methodology, and because of his ability to overcome some of his own biases and the biases of his day,” Zuberi adds.

Text by Heather A. Davis
Video by Kurtis Sensenig