“One of the most beautifully written social-science books ever”

A new edition of The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, by W.E.B. Du Bois

5 minute read
The book cover. Author and title appear at top in slender letters on a white field, below 8 vintage sociology graphics.

In 1896, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) came to Philadelphia to study his race from the outside in. His meticulous documentation of Black life laid the scientific foundation for the social sciences and became The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), which has just been reissued by its original publisher, University of Pennsylvania Press.

“The idea of sociology as a discipline largely does not exist without The Philadelphia Negro. It is that important,” said Walter Biggins, Penn Press editor-in-chief, in a virtual discussion with Tukufu Zuberi, UPenn professor of sociology and Africana studies. A key aspect of Du Bois’s approach was combining granular interviews with broad statistical analysis. According to Biggins, “The Philadelphia Negro was truly the first study of the social life of Black people in American cities in an empirical manner.” Yet it was long overlooked as an essential text.

Though published in the 19th century and steeped in academic rigor, The Philadelphia Negro remains relevant and readable, thanks to Du Bois’s clear text and innovative maps, graphs, and tables. “It is one of the most beautifully written social-science books ever,” Zuberi said. “It should be foundational reading in sociology, economics, history … and for all those engaged in the human sciences. You should know what it is to be human. That’s Du Bois’s project!”

White supremacist assumptions

The project was prompted by upper-class concern that Philadelphia’s Black population, almost 40,000 (3.8 percent) in 1890, was not thriving and contributing to society. Du Bois, 28, was commissioned by socialite Susan P. Wharton and appointed an assistant in sociology by UPenn. At the time, he held a doctorate from Harvard, was teaching at Wilberforce College, and was widely published. In August 1896, Du Bois and his wife Shirley moved to the seventh ward, Washington Square West, then largely a slum.

Though the project grew from the biased suspicion that Black people’s difficulties were caused by genetic and/or moral deficiencies, Du Bois labored under no such hypothesis. “Du Bois’s argument was that the problems of Black Philadelphians stemmed largely from their past condition of servitude … White supremacy was strong and … European immigrants tended to be more able because of their experience of freedom,” Elijah Anderson of Yale University writes in the book’s introduction. “He hoped that presenting the situation plainly … would persuade capitalists to support the forces that encouraged economic participation by Black Americans and thus to make life better for all Americans.”

That hope would be dashed. Du Bois later wrote in his autobiography that “Philadelphia at the time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and veniality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely centered in the slum at the lower end of the seventh ward. Philadelphia wanted to prove this by figures and I was the man to do it. Of this theory … I neither knew nor cared. I saw only here a chance to study an historical group of black folk and to show exactly what their place was in the community.”

The people behind the statistics

Over 16 months, Du Bois encountered maids, waiters, laundresses, porters, and janitors, along with the unemployed and criminals who resided in the ward, which ran from Spruce Street down to South, and from 6th over to 23rd. He went door-to-door, questioning everyone except small children about their origins, education, income, health, expenses, social life, and other circumstances.

Du Bois reported being welcomed into most homes: “Usually the answers were prompt and candid … In some cases there was evident falsification or evasion. In such cases the visitor made free use of his best judgement.” Most men were laborers and servants, while women were domestic servants or housewives and day laborers. (Another groundbreaking document, Negro Domestic Service in the Seventh Ward by Isabel Eaton, is included at the end of The Philadelphia Negro, as it was in the original edition.)

He noted many households headed by women, due to death, divorce, abandonment, or other reasons, and its impact on poverty and instability in the community. Du Bois credited economic bias—Black men could not afford to marry—and the legacy of enslavement: “It must be remembered that the Negro home and stable marriage state is for the mass of the colored people of the country, and for a large per cent of those of Philadelphia, a new social institution. The strictly guarded savage home life of Africa, [which] with all its shortcomings protected womanhood, was broken up completely by the slave ship.”

Seeing his subjects, and himself

Almost a quarter of Philadelphia’s Black citizens lived in the seventh ward, and more than half had migrated from rural Virginia and Maryland. In addition to racism, migrants experienced culture shock, trying to compete for work and living space in a radically different environment for which they lacked marketable skills—including, for about a fifth of the ward, literacy. Consequently, Du Bois wrote, “…he never knows … how far this failure to survive is due to the deficiencies of the individual, and how far to the accidents or injustice of his environment.”

Du Bois’s experience of race was fundamentally different from his subjects. Though abandoned by his father, he and his mother were accepted and assisted by benefactors in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where they lived. His understanding of racism was mediated by environment and an exceptional intellect. It wasn’t until he attended Fisk University that Du Bois encountered a Black community and learned, as Anderson writes, “what it truly meant to be black in America.”

Du Bois experienced racism in his academic career: for example, he initially was not hired by any white college, and was an “assistant” at UPenn—a slight the university corrected in 2012, Zuberi commented, by awarding a posthumous professorship. Yet these experiences did not rise to what faced the people he studied, and the researcher had to reconcile the differences. According to Anderson, “This tension may account for the seemingly ambivalent assessment of the Philadelphia Negro’s situation with which he ends the book.”

It undoubtedly accounts for Du Bois’s eventual turn from academia to activism. “Indeed,” Anderson writes, “the sobering consequences of America’s refusal to address the race problem honestly, which Du Bois predicted more than a hundred years ago, now haunt all Americans with a renewed intensity.”

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain once observed, “but it does rhyme.”

Above: (Image courtesy of Penn Press.)

What, When, Where

The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. By W.E.B. Du Bois. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023. 568 pages, softcover; $32.95. Get it from Penn Press.

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