University of Pennsylvania

The Philadelphia Negro cover

Offered the position of assistant in sociology in 1896, Du Bois jumped at the opportunity to leave Wilberforce, despite the low salary, $900 for a one-year contract, and the unusual offer—the position came with no office and no teaching duties. Commencing work in August 1896, Du Bois was instructed to investigate the African-American residents of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. By the 1890s the city was home to the largest African-American community in the North, with the Seventh Ward home to a quarter of that population. The conditions in the Seventh Ward were deplorable, marked by poverty and crime. Dr. Charles Custis Harrison, acting provost of the University of Pennsylvania, articulated the goals of the study: “We want to know precisely how this class of people live; what occupations they follow; from what occupations they are excluded; how many of their children go to school; and to ascertain every fact which will throw light on this social problem.”

Du Bois was well positioned to undertake the study, not just because of his education and training, but because he and his wife Nina moved into an apartment in the Seventh Ward upon relocating to Philadelphia, and together they witnessed first-hand the miserable living conditions of the slum. While Nina kept house for her new husband during the day, Du Bois got to know his new neighbors by interviewing more than 2,500 households at the start of his project collecting information on the size of families, income and expenses, education and occupations, health, and crime. The resulting report was published as The Philadelphia Negro by the University of Pennsylvania in 1899.

By the end of 1897 as his contract with the University expired, Du Bois moved his family, now including his first-born, Burghardt Gomer Du Bois, to Georgia where he accepted a position as professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. Despite the success of study, Du Bois remained uneasy about his treatment by the University for the remainder of his life. Writing sixty years later in his autobiography he reflected on the discrimination he was subjected to there: “It would have been a fine thing if after this difficult, successful piece of work, the University of Pennsylvania had at least offered me a temporary instructorship in the college or in the Wharton School…I did not mention the rebuff. I did not let myself think of it. But then, as now, I know an insult when I see it.”


  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1968). The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: International Publishers.
  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1899). The Philadelphia Negro. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Lewis, David Levering (1993). W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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