Revisiting the Ward: Pa. Professor Works to Re-Create W.E.B. Du Bois' Account of the Seventh Ward

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

Revisiting the Ward: Pa. Professor Works to Re-Create W.E.B. Du Bois' Account of the Seventh Ward


Hawkins, B. Denise, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


In the 1890s, the City of Brotherly Love bustled with growth and the sound of steel mills. Life for Blacks there both flourished and floundered in a conspicuous separate world where they numbered about 45,000. But wealthy Whites considered their Black neighbors to be inferior among the million who called Philadelphia home.

In the summer of 1896, the University of Pennsylvania hired Dr. William E.B. Du Bois as an "assistant in sociology," paying him $90 a month to study and write about "the social condition of the colored people in Philadelphia, particularly in the Seventh Ward," where one in five Blacks in the city lived. At 28 years old, Du Bois moved in among the masses of Blacks he interviewed and observed, making his home with his wife above a settlement house on Lombard Street in what he called "the worst part of the Seventh Ward."

Du Bois described the life he saw and experienced: "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:' He concluded that being a Negro wasn't the problem; instead, Black Philadelphia's problem was namely systematic racial discrimination. Those findings became his classic 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro.

That once-vibrant and complex Black community where Du Bois saw humanity, not just problems, died out over time. In an introduction to reissue of The Philadelphia Negro, released by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1996, Dr. Elijah Anderson, then a distinguished sociologist at the university, wrote that Blacks who once dwelled in the old Seventh Ward "moved completely," and today, most Blacks seen in the neighborhood "are usually passing through."

The Seventh Ward Du Bois found at the turn of the century may no longer be the epicenter of Black life in Philadelphia, but Dr. Stephanie C. Boddie, a sociologist and professor affiliated with both the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh, is re-creating Du Bois' survey for The Ward: Race and Class in Du Bois' Seventh Ward, a year-old University of Pennsylvania research, education and outreach project that is using new technology and archival records, including census data.

For her research, Boddie has turned to some of the Ward's Black churches to gather oral histories from the elders who can bear witness to a time and place that has taken flight. The churches remain as vestiges of that era and were strong towers that buffeted the Black community from the day's social forces. She started with the historic Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, formerly known as Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church when Du Bois visited.

For Boddie, who directs The Ward's oral history collection, the opportunity to listen in on the past while following in the footsteps of Du Bois, a fellow researcher, has been a highlight of her work on The Ward, she says.

"The way that I'm exploring these oral histories is the way that I think Du Bois may have explored them," says Boddie. "They are really nested in a set of methods" that include linking archival church research with the narrators. She adds that she ultimately wants to use those individual stories to help construct a historical view of race and Black life in America.

Interviewed at 100 years old, Tindley Temple member Louis Tucker is among those elders who considered the nation's progress on race parity in areas like education and housing to be "a mixed bag," Boddie says. In his oral history, Tucker revealed some dismal pages from Black life in the Philadelphia he once knew. "Before World War II, the paper, in the want ads, would tell what race a person they want to hire. They would tell you whether it was White or Black or light colored. …

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