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W.E.B. Du Bois and the Seventh Ward

February 6, 2013

The Seventh Ward was an area of Philadelphia largely inhabited by African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the subject of W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking work, The Philadelphia Negro.  The area was bounded by Spruce Street to the north and South Street to the south. It stretched from Seventh Street to its east and the Schuylkill River to its west. The name, Seventh Ward, derives from the ward system that divided Philadelphia for elections, allowing for unprecedented levels of political corruption.  Oftentimes ward captains would bribe citizens for their votes using money or patronage, allowing for a Black block vote in the area.

DuBois was appointed “assistant instructor” in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, but was not allowed to lead in the classroom as there was opposition to a Black man teaching White students. Instead of instructing while at Penn, Du Bois was contracted to conduct extensive research on the Seventh Ward, one of the first sociological studies of African-Americans. Du Bois also lived in the Seventh Ward during his time in the city, allowing for unprecedented research of the area. As part of his research he interviewed over 5000 Black Philadelphians.  While documenting the poverty in the area, Du Bois began to articulate an argument for wealthier Blacks to help those in need, a precursor to his widely known Talented Tenth idea to lead and aid Blacks. His conviction that Blacks could improve their situation in life was unwavering, as he argued “there does not stand today upon God’s earth a race more capable in muscle, intellect, in morals, than the American Negro, if he will bend his energies in the right direction.”  Du Bois, however, also noted the destitution in the area, which he accounted to a lack of resources, high unemployment, and significant racial prejudice.

Today, Du Bois’ work is commemorated in a mural on South Street. He is featured along with Engine 11, which was the firehouse for the Seventh Ward and the de facto firehouse for Blacks in Philadelphia.

Check out the Mapping the DuBois Philadelphia Negro project to see some of DuBois’ research on the area:

Lauren Alcena, CAS ‘13

Source: Lange, Werner J. “W.E.B. DuBois and the First Scientific Study of Afro-America.” Phylon, 44,2, 1983.


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