W.E.B. Du Bois Historic Marker

W.E.B. Du Bois at Paris Exposition, 1900. Image provided by W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

6th and Rodman Sts.

From 1896 through 1897, Du Bois lived in the 617 Carver Street (now Rodman Street) branch of College Settlement House while researching his classic 1899 study, The Philadelphia Negro. In the 19th century, this neighborhood in the heart of the 7th Ward was a notorious "slum," populated by a mix of Jewish and Italian immigrants and blacks. It was known for its taverns, brothels, loud music, and crime. Du Bois wrote of the 7th Ward: "We lived there a year, in the midst of an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty and crime. Murder sat at our doorsteps, police were our government and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice." But he added, "On its face this slum is noisy and dissipated, but not brutal . . . the stranger can usually walk about here day and night with little fear of being molested, if he be not too inquisitive."

Du Bois, a Harvard-educated African American, was invited by the College Settlement to conduct a survey of blacks in the 7th Ward, a narrow tract between Spruce and South Streets which stretched from 7th Street to the Schuylkill River, encompassing present-day Society Hill, Washington Square West, and Rittenhouse Square. At the turn of the 19th century, more African Americans of all classes and occupations lived in the 7th ward than anywhere else in the city.

Looking somewhat out of place dressed in his top hat and coattails, Du Bois went door-to-door in the neighborhood and interviewed black residents about their education, employment, health, family life, and household arrangements, collecting information that white census takers could or would not. He categorized the households and created color-coded maps to display his various classifications, which included "poor," "working people," "middle class," and the "vicious and criminal class." Despite Du Bois's somewhat judgmental, Victorian attitudes toward morality, the resulting study, The Philadelphia Negro, was groundbreaking in both its methodology and its findings. Du Bois's book created a rich and nuanced portrait of 19th-century Philadelphia's African American community that is still read and studied today.

Du Bois's pioneering study is being revisited in the 21st century by a team of scholars and students at the University of Pennsylvania with the Mapping Du Bois Philadelphia Negro project. Since Du Bois's original notes and survey data have been lost, the Mapping Du Bois project is re-mapping the 7th Ward circa 1900 using historical census data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping technology to tell the lost stories of 7th Warders.

Du Bois's work is also honored by a mural on the historically African American Engine 11 fire house at Sixth and South streets. Dedicated in 2008, the mural depicts Du Bois, unscrolling his colorful survey, among the 7th ward residents who brought The Philadelphia Negro to life.

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