The Philadelphia Negro

In 1896, white aristocrat and reformer Susan P. Wharton, in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania and the College Settlement Association, commissioned William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois to undertake a study on Negroes in Philadelphia. Since Philadelphia contained the largest black population north of the Mason-Dixon Line (of all U.S. cities, only New Orleans, Washington, D. C., and Baltimore had larger populations), African Americans residing in the City of Brotherly Love became a logical group for examination. The genesis of the study originated in late 19th-century reform movements, comprising New Social Science, Social Gospel, and College Settlement House Associations, which were designed to investigate the debased condition of downtrodden urbanites and offer problem-solving suggestions to ameliorate life for the urban poor.
Those who instituted the study held more than altruistic thoughts toward the black community, however, as their ulterior motive for the investigation was self-serving and pertained to politics. Elite reformers became disgruntled by the behavior of the corrupt political machine that derived support from the black electorate. They therefore sought to document the moral and social condition of local blacks. Du Bois, who had studied in Berlin and recently graduated with his doctorate from Harvard, became the ideal researcher for the project. Du Bois's extensive study on research methodology, which he had learned in Germany, and publication of his Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the first monograph published in the Harvard Historical Studies, demonstrated he possessed the acumen and preparation for the task at hand. Thus Du Bois easily complied with the stated goals of the benefactors of the research project, who sought to understand the “Negro problem” by focusing on the Seventh Ward, the largest and most diverse black ward in the city.

Du Bois's Field Research for the Study

Du Bois's extensive field research and writing conducted on black Philadelphians was completed within the short time span of 15 months and achieved a series of firsts. Indeed, when Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro was published in 1967, it became the first book of modern sociology. As members of a fledgling academic discipline, sociologists traditionally read books, reflected on the information presented, and offered ideas without conducting investigative research. Therefore, the interviews Du Bois conducted with Seventh Ward residents broke new ground in scientific inquiry. A second novel contribution inherent in Du Bois's work pertained to the original analysis that evolved from the format and methodology of his work. After conducting house-to-house interviews with all the black families in the Seventh Ward, Du Bois acquired can did information from 9,675 subjects. Through these investigations, Du Bois gained insight on the condition, aspirations, trials, and tribulations of the black community.
The Philadelphia Negro contained information about African Americans never previously presented to interested readers. Conscious of the need to make his work comprehensible to readers, Du Bois divided his study into four parts. The first part describes the history of the black people in the city, their present condition as individuals, their behavior as a social group, and the physical and social confines of their community. The second part is devoted to “the general condition of Negroes” and contains information on age, gender, education, and means of earning a living. The third part focuses on the group life of the black community, including the number of blacks in Philadelphia and their family situations and secular and religious organizations. Here, Du Bois also presents information on social maladjustment and individual deprivation characterized by crime, pauperism, and alcoholism. Finally, Du Bois assesses the physical and social environment, references and analyzes interracial relationships, and offers advice and suggestions for social reform.
Throughout the study, maps, statistical tables, charts, and graphs provide convincing testimony to the accuracy of the work. The ecological map detailing the distribution of the black population by socioeconomic class garnered special interest. Du Bois divided the black population into four categories: (1) the “middle classes” and those above, (2) the working people—fair to comfortable, (3) the poor, and (4) the vicious and criminal classes. Du Bois's study made it clear that African Americans can best be studied and understood within the context of class, consequently, ever since publication of The Philadelphia Negro, serious students of black communities have devoted attention to social stratification.
Du Bois intended to do far more than present evidence about the black situation. Prior to any previous scholar, Du Bois presented an assessment and expectations of the black elite. He excoriated the black aristocracy for drawing a line between themselves and the masses, and he chided the elite for being unprepared to lead their race. While the Harvard-trained Du Bois displayed aloofness and aristocratic tendencies himself, he nevertheless believed unequivocally that the better classes should recognize their duty to the masses.

Du Bois's Emergence as a Major Social Scientist

Unwittingly, those who contracted Du Bois to perform research on black Philadelphians created an intellectual activist who never forgot the racism he experienced. Although the University of Pennsylvania listed Du Bois as an assistant professor in the sociology department, it never considered offering him a teaching position. Du Bois never forgot the slight. He later complained that the university never placed his name in the catalogue, and he believed the university's invitation had not been cordial. For most of his life, Du Bois would serve his race by galvanizing and encouraging blacks of higher station to fight relentlessly against racial discrimination. Du Bois and others with talent and ambition bristled at the “color line” that prevented them from acquiring the social and occupational positions worthy of their station.
The scholarly brilliance Du Bois displayed in The Philadelphia Negro was immediately recognized as a credit to American scholarship. Reviewers praised Du Bois's objectivity and willingly accepted his conclusions. And yet, few could have predicted that this seminal work on black Philadelphians would have far-reaching consequences that continued throughout the 20th century. The genesis of Du Bois's most important contributions to the black community appeared in The Philadelphia Negro—his demands for leadership emanating from the black elite, his condemnation of intraracial dissension caused by class differences, and his persistent expectations that those he termed the “talented tenth” (the 10% of blacks capable of leading the rest) receive proper respect from their white peers and the black masses. Throughout his career, Du Bois engaged in research and writing with a clear focus in mind: He sought freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all African Americans. One may argue that the research skills he honed and shaped as he worked on The Philadelphia Negro served as motivating tools that culminated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.



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Further Reading

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. (1967). The Philadelphia Negro. New York: Schocken Books. Du Bois's report on his study of the black condition in Philadelphia is one of the first urban studies.
  • Lewis, David Levering. (1993). W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1968–1919. New York: Henry Holt. This remains one of the most comprehensive portraits of W. E. B. Du Bois.