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W.E.B. Du Bois’ study ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ at 125 still explains roots of the urban Black experience – sociologist Elijah Anderson tells why it should be on more reading lists

Elijah Anderson, Yale University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

W.E.B. Du Bois is widely known for his civil rights activism, but many sociologists argue that he has yet to receive due recognition as the founding father of American sociology. His groundbreaking study, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study,” was published in 1899 and exhaustively detailed the poor social conditions of thousands of Black Philadelphians in the city’s historic Seventh Ward neighborhood.

We spoke with Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University, about the importance of Du Bois’ seminal study and why it’s still relevant for Philadelphians 125 years later.

How did the ‘Philadelphia Negro’ study come about?

Much of Philadelphia’s elite of the day believed that the city was going to the dogs, and that the reason was the huge influx of Black people from the South. Susan Wharton, the wife of Joseph Wharton – after whom the Wharton School is named and then-provost at the University of Pennsylvania – invited Du Bois to come to Philadelphia to study Philadelphia’s Black population and try to find answers to this problem.

Du Bois accepted their offer, which came with a small stipend, and came to Philadelphia along with his new bride, Nina Gomer. They settled in the Old Seventh Ward in a local settlement house, located at Sixth and Waverly streets, down the street from a famous Black church, Mother Bethel AME. Du Bois then set about studying the Seventh Ward, known for its concentration of the Black population. These people lived in the alleys and streets adjacent to the wealthy white people for whom they worked as servants.

Due to Du Bois’ upbringing and Harvard education, his bearing was that of the elite. While conducting his field work, he at times dressed in spats and a suit and tie.

 

Du Bois approached his subjects as an objective social scientist. He wanted to understand the condition of Philadelphia’s Black population and then provide his report to a white elite whom he believed would use his data to improve the condition of Black people, both within Philadelphia and beyond.

Can you explain his idea of the benevolent despot?

This term is based on Du Bois’ original premise: that the inequality between the living conditions of Blacks and whites could be rectified by the wealthy people who controlled the city. He regarded these leaders as despots due to the power they wielded, but also believed them to be benevolent as well as rational. Du Bois observed the Irish and Scottish immigrants who were employed in certain industries. He wondered why these companies would fail to employ Black people, as well, and concluded that they must simply be ignorant. After all, in his mind, these were benevolent people as well as rich and powerful – and most importantly, they were rational. So why would they employ the Irish and Scots, but not the Black people? This was a critical question for Du Bois, and one he was determined to answer through his study.

However, as the study progressed, Du Bois began to realize that the problem was much more complicated than he’d originally assumed. He realized that the so-called benevolent despots may not be so benevolent after all, focusing on their own financial interests. These included pitting Irish and Scottish workers against Black people to keep wages low, but also a simple preference of white workers over Black workers.

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