Historical Markers
W.E.B. Du Bois Historical Marker
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W.E.B. Du Bois

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
6th and Rodman Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
October 29, 1995

Behind the Marker

Black and white photograph, head and shoulders of a balding man, with a mustache and short beard.
William Edward Burghardt DuBois, 1904.
In 1896, W.E.B. Du Bois, having completed his Ph.D. at Harvard and spent two years at Wilberforce University in Ohio, accepted a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of Philadelphia's predominantly black Seventh Ward, from South to Spruce streets and from the Schuylkill River to Seventh Street. Du Bois lived with his wife at the College Settlement Association, 617 Carver (now Rodman) Street, in "the midst of an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime."

"Murder," he wrote in his Autobiography, "sat at our doorsteps, the police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice." Three years later he published The Philadelphia Negro, a pathbreaking work of sociology that documented the historical development and composition of Philadelphia's largest and oldest African-American community.

A street with row houses. Children and women sit on the steps or stand in the street
"Negro Quarters," in the City of Philadelphia, circa 1900.
Contradicting accepted wisdom, Du Bois concluded that black poverty and crime did not result from racial inferiority, but from the unwillingness of white employers and city officials to employ blacks. More than half the Seventh Ward's population had emigrated from the South following the Civil War, and lacked the political and personal connections to land jobs that businessmen and machine politicians were doling out in the city's other immigrant wards. More than 61 percent of the men and 88 percent of the women in ward who held jobs did so in "personal service," as maids, cooks, stable hands, and the like.

Realizing that an appeal to moral sensibility would do little good, Du Bois told white Philadelphians, and by extension all white Americans, that it was for their own advantage to give blacks the opportunity to better themselves. "The centre and kernel of the Negro problem so far as white people are concerned is the narrow opportunities afforded Negroes for earning a decent living. Such discrimination is morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly. …The cost of crime and pauperism, the growth of slums, and the pernicious influences of idleness and lewdness, cost the public far more than would the hurt to the feelings of a carpenter to work beside a black man, or a shop girl to stand beside a darker mate."

A clown, with Political Boss across the front of his costume, smoking a cigar, holds dummies in his hand. The Season of Flase Faces and False Promises and Plenty of Jobs We Never Get is the focus message
“Plenty of Jobs We Never Get,” Philadelphia Tribune, October 23,...
Du Bois noted that most schools in Philadelphia remained segregated, despite the Pennsylvania law of 1881 forbidding this practice. He did not, however, blame his race's plight on poor education, and pointed out that immigrant groups, even less well educated on average than African Americans, still did better economically.

Du Bois devoted Chapter 17 of the Philadelphia Negro to the "Negro Suffrage." Here, five years before Lincoln Steffens published his scathing exposé of Philadelphia machine politics titled "Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented," in McClure's magazine, Du Bois accused Philadelphia of being "unparalleled in the history of republican marker government for brazen dishonesty." and documented how the city's Republican political party doled out offices and bribes to blacks, who because of their small numbers–4 percent of the city's registered voters–and poverty, received few of the benefits of political participation. The token appointments, however, made African-American voters generally immune to reformers, as they were "proud of their marker councilmen and policemen" and feared to lose them.

Robert N. C. Nix taking his oath as Congressman, sworn in by House Speaker Pro Tem John W. McCormack (D-Mass) second from left. Also participating in the ceremony were Philadelphia Congressman William J. Green Jr., (left) and Congressman Francis E. Walter of Easton, PA (right), who was head of the Pennsylvania Democratic Delegation.  January, 1959
Philadelphia attorney Robert N. C. Nix taking his oath of office as a United...
Between the 1870s and the 1920s, the story of African-American political participation in Pennsylvania was by and large the story of black voters in Philadelphia. Here the bosses of the Republican city machine used black voters like a joker in a political deck of cards, to tip the scale in close elections. At the dawn of the twentieth century Philadelphia had the largest African-American population north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Black Philadelphians had an illustrious history dating back to the American Revolution. They had built successful businesses and churches, and contributed in many ways to the city's growth and culture. Before the Civil War they played a prominent role in the antislavery movement and the Underground Railroad.

After 1900, the city's black population experienced tremendous growth, especially after the outbreak of World War I had unleashed the Great Migration, a mass movement of southern blacks to northern cities. Between 1910 and 1930, Philadelphia's black population exploded from 84,000 to almost 220,000 people. As African-American numbers grew, so too did the struggle for political representation.
Paul Robeson, American singer, is shown (left) as he was congratulated by Dr. William E.B. Dubois, American editor and Author, after Robeson addressed the red-sponsored world "Peace" conference in Paris.
W. E. B. Dubois congratulating Paul Robeson after his address to the world

There were small victories. In 1911, Philadelphia's Harry Bass became the first African American elected to Pennsylvania legislature. In 1921, black voters elected saloonkeeper Amos Scott the city's first African-American magistrate.

A campaign for a new state equal-rights bill, however, introduced by African-American state representatives John Asbury and Andrew Stevens Jr., was killed at the last minute by Republican state boss Boise Penrose. Still, black Pennsylvanians remained loyal servants of the Republican Party until the arrival of the Great Depression set off the political revolution in which black Pennsylvania's shifted their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

To this day, The Philadelphia Negro remains one of the earliest, and most powerful, social scientific refutations of the racial rankings that dominated both popular and high culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the nation's leading statesmen and intellectuals–even Theodore Roosevelt, who welcomed Booker T. Washington to the White House–regarded African Americans as innately inferior to whites.

After leaving Philadelphia, Du Bois went on to become one of the twentieth century's most powerful and articulate spokesmen in the struggle for racial equality in the United States and abroad. Born in 1868, Du Bois died in Ghana at the age of ninety-five, on August 27, 1963, just one day before markerMartin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington.
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