W.E.B. Du Bois’ study ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ is still relevant 125 years later – Elijah Anderson e

Over a century ago, white Philadelphia elites believed the city was going to the dogs – and they blamed poor Black inner-city residents instead of the racism that kept this group disenfranchised.

By Elijah Anderson Published on Feb 28, 2024.
A mural dedicated to Du Bois and the Old Seventh Ward is painted on the corner of 6th and South streets in Philadelphia. Paul Marotta/Getty Images

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.

Family portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois, his wife Nina, and their baby son Burghardt in 1898.
Family portrait of W.E.B Du Bois, his wife, Nina, and their baby son Burghardt in 1898. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

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.

Book cover of 'The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study' by W.E.B. Du Bois
Elijah Anderson wrote the introduction to the 1995 and 2023 editions of ‘The Philadelphia Negro.’ University of Pennsylvania Press

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.

Halfway through the study, Du Bois pours out a soliloquy of disappointment. He declares that there is, in fact, no benevolent captain of industry, because if such a person existed, he wouldn’t let these Black boys and girls fester in poverty and crime.

He writes:

“If now a benevolent despot had seen the development, he would immediately have sought to remedy the real weakness of the Negro’s position, i.e., his lack of training; and he would have swept away any discrimination that compelled men to support as criminals those who might support themselves as workmen.

"He would have made special effort to train Negro boys for industrial life and given them a chance to compete on equal terms with the best white workmen; arguing that in the long run this would be best for all concerned, since by raising the skill and standard of living of the Negroes he would make them effective workmen and competitors who would maintain a decent level of wages. He would have sternly suppressed organized or covert opposition to Negro workmen.

"There was, however, no benevolent despot, no philanthropist, no far-seeing captain of industry to prevent the Negro from losing even the skill he had learned or to inspire him by opportunities to learn more.”

This is also where Du Bois began to see and clarify the situation as a problem of racism. He doesn’t use the word “racism” – that word did not exist at the time – but he speaks in terms of racial preferences and discrimination.

How are his findings relevant to Philadelphians today?

“The Philadelphia Negro” remains a powerful work. It depicts the social organization of the Black community, and especially the Black class structure of Du Bois’ day. It also utilizes the technique we know today as “cohort analysis” – the idea that social conditions affecting a group are also impactful to the individual, and that what happens to the group is a function of historic moments of society.

Du Bois’ descriptions of Black people living in isolated communities after the end of slavery and migrating to these cities – that’s important, and presages the inner-city communities of today, many of which are still largely Black.

Additionally, the role of European immigration in Du Bois’ day played a critical role in undermining the position of Black people in society. In the context of “white over Black,” each successive wave of immigration from Europe since the end of the Civil War typically worked to undermine the position of the emerging Black middle class.

Du Bois pointed this out back in 1899. He observed that employers preferred white immigrants from Europe over Black people. The benevolent despot Du Bois hoped to reach ignored his work, with implications for Philadelphia race relations to this day.

W.E.B. Du Bois seated at desk in office at Atlanta University in 1909
W.E.B. Du Bois seated in his office at Atlanta University in 1909. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

How did it inform your own work as a sociologist?

When I was a sociology grad student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, “The Philadelphia Negro” was not required reading. But later, I taught a summer course at Northwestern University about Du Bois and, like so many young Black scholars of my generation, I was deeply inspired by his work.

Afterwards, when I was recruited by Swarthmore College – located 11 miles outside Philadelphia – I felt honored to reside in the city where Du Bois had conducted his work. I often traveled to Philadelphia to walk through the neighborhoods where he’d worked. Ultimately, the University of Pennsylvania – the very place that had originally recruited Du Bois to conduct his study – offered me a position. I moved to the city and began conducting ethnographic studies. In some sense, I followed in the footsteps of Du Bois.

In fact, my entire body of ethnographic work grows out of some of the questions Du Bois raises, and the unresolved problems he uncovers. “Streetwise” focuses on the sociology of gentrification and its implications for both white and Black people living in gentrifying neighborhoods. “Code of the Street” addresses the violence that occurs in inner-city neighborhoods, as well as the issue of policing and the abdication of police. After that, I began to deal with some of the issues that brought different races together. “The Cosmopolitan Canopy” is an ethnographic study of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square and the Reading Terminal Market and Center City. Most recently, in 2021, I published “Black in White Space,” which argues that when a Black person enters or navigates white space, they’re burdened with a negative presumption that they must disprove. To the extent they do, they’re allowed in those spaces. But disproving the negative presumption is no easy task.

All these books, based on studies that were all conducted in Philadelphia, stem from the inspiration of reading Du Bois as a graduate student.

View of empty street in Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia
Philadelphia has more residents living in poverty than any other big city in the U.S. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Why should Philadelphians read this book?

The book is a seminal work, and while it has influenced many Black sociologists, it has not yet received the attention it deserves. However, an increasing numbers of scholars, both Black and white, are beginning to grapple with Du Bois’ work.

Philadelphians should read this book to become enlightened about the city’s history and how it relates to the dire circumstances of the city’s impoverished population of today.

The Philadelphia economy is undergoing a period of profound transition, from an economy based on manufacturing to one based increasingly on service and high technology, including robotics, computers and social media. Jobs and financial opportunities are sent away from Philadelphia to non-metropolitan America and to underdeveloped nations around the world. As a result, many residents of the city have become dislocated economically; 22% of the city’s population is impoverished, and a majority of them are Black. Hence, the condition of the disenfranchised underclass whom Du Bois regarded as the “submerged tenth” has become remarkably more complicated and dire.

This complex mix of factors creates a good deal of crime and alienation, which feeds into the dominant narrative that our cities are falling apart – and that it’s the fault of this disenfranchised underclass, this “submerged tenth.” This is blatantly incorrect. The problems facing today’s poor inner-city residents stem from systemic racism and the structure of capital, not the individuals trapped inside that structure.

Strikingly, despite being written over a century ago, “The Philadelphia Negro” anticipates not only the condition of today’s poor inner-city Blacks, but also the unwillingness or the inability of today’s “benevolent despots” to rectify or even address the situation. We see Du Bois’ “submerged tenth” in today’s drug dealers, drug addicts and persistently poor single teenage mothers. And we see his not-so-benevolent despots in politicians who would rather blame the victims than take any steps to improve their lot.

Elijah Anderson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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