The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

The Philadelphia NegroW.E.B. Du Bois ([1899], 1995) The Philadeplphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press

Du Bois is unquestionably the father of modern Sociology, the more of this I read, the angrier I became that this is not universally recognized. This book is extraordinary. It doesn’t escape all of the faults of its time (this was published in 1899!), but the level of rigorous scholarship and its depth of insight floored me just a bit. What also floored me was how very little things have changed, and that was heartbreaking. But the key to why Du Bois is not a larger figure in Sociology as a whole, rather than Black studies is here: the incredibly insulting terms under which he was given the work of producing this volume at all:

At the University of Pennsylvania I ignored the pitiful stipend. It made no difference to me that I was put down as an “assistant instructor” and even at that, that my name never actually got into the catalogue; it goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slums (xvi, quoting Dusk of Dawn, pp 58-59)

His understanding of race as not being monolithic, and his humor:

I shall throughout this study use the term “Negro,” to designate all persons of Negro descent, although the appellation is to some extent illogical. I shall, moreover, capitalize the word, because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter (footnote 1, p 1).

His understanding of the connections between slavery and oppression of all workers:

Very early in the history of the colony the presence of unpaid slaves for life greatly disturbed the economic condition of free laborers (14).

There is a lovely history of African Americans in Philly, what most caught my attentions was the early organizing of the Free African Society in 1787 by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, which resulted after a split in Allen forming the African Methodist Episcopal Church of America, or A.M.E., first African-American Church in America and such a pivotal part of every African-American community across the country.

Du Bois covers the hope inspired by the Haitian Revolution, the rise of multiple white mobs leading to an actual decrease of African Americans in the city between 1840 and 1850. The rise of the highly paid chefs and caterers, who catered to the very cream of Philadelphian Society and earned good wages until the fashion shifted towards European cuisine, exiling African Americans from the field all together. His detailed maps and house-by-house questionnaires cataloguing occupant details, personal observations, interviews as he knocked on each and every single door in the 7th ward. The maps were particularly interesting as they are based upon the Booth maps, detailing poverty in London in the mid-1800s and using the same moral categories, with the bottom being the vicious and criminal poor.

Having just read William Julius Wilson, it was fascinating to encounter similar findings 80 years apart – and much the same moralizing tone – in noting the high number of women widowed, separated ‘indicating economic stress, a high death rate and lax morality’ (70), and a tendency to late marriages. Like Wilson, Du Bois would find that improved employment opportunities would solve almost all ills. He presents an extensive and detailed study of work, with the methodological note:

There was in the first place little room for deception, since the occupations of Negroes are so limited that a false or indefinite answer was easily revealed by a little judicious probing; moreover there was little disposition to deceive, for the Negroes are very anxious to have their limited opportunities for employment known… (Footnote 1, p 97)

Under male occupations there were some interesting things on the list: huckster listed under entrepreneur, and what is a kalsominer? Paper Hanger, Oyster Opener. Under the occupations for the ladies, he has “politicians” in quotes (2), Root Doctors (2) and a Prize fighter! But only one. Prostitutes are also hidden away in a much bigger table for the whole city, but no pimps—although he describes their existence. Maybe they fall under hucksters? What is most clear is how African Americans were systematically shut out of manufacturing and better paid higher status jobs. Du Bois is smart enough to note not just the losses of income here, but the impossibility of accumulating wealth. The ways that wages are driven down:

To appreciate the cause of low wages, we have only to see the few occupations to which the Negroes are practically limited, and imagine the competition that must ensue. This is true among the men, and especially true among the women, where the limitation is greatest… their chances of marriage are decreased by the low wages of the men… (110)

He doesn’t explore this, but mentions the possibility that such occupational segregation is as much caused by racism as it then in turn causes it to deepen.

The peculiar distribution of employments among whites and Negroes makes the great middle class of white people seldom, if ever, brought into contact with Negroes—may not this be a cause as well as an effect if prejudice? (111)

He notes the existence of ‘the curious prejudice of whites’, their dislike, for example, of being buried near Negroes. He gives the story of the funeral procession of caterer Henry Jones being turned back from the cemetery gates (121). But above all, he sees it as economic:

It is often said simply: the foreigners and trade unions have crowded Negroes out on account of race prejudice and left employers and philanthropists helpless in the matter. This is not strictly true. What the trade unions have done is to seize an economic advantage plainly offered them… white workmen were strong enough to go a step further than this and practically prohibit Negroes from entering trades under any circumstances (126) …They immediately combined against Negroes primarily to raise wages; the standard of living of the Negroes lets them accept low wages, and, conversely, long necessity of accepting the meagre wages offered have made a low standard of living. Thus partially by taking advantage of race prejudice, partially by greater economic efficiency and partially by the endeavour to maintain and raise wages, white workmen have not only monopolized the new industrial opportunities of an age which has transformed Philadelphia from a colonial town to a world-city, but have also been enabled to take from the Negro workman the opportunities he already enjoyed in certain lines of work (127)

Unions – ‘white’ sometimes actually inserted as one of the qualifications, but more generally informally maintained. To come to grips with the problems of the 7th ward, however, is above all providing employment:

…the one central question of the Seventh Ward, not imperative social betterments, raising of the standard of home life, taking advantage of the civilizing institutions of the great city—on the contrary, it makes it a sheer question of bread and butter and the maintenance of a standard of living above that of the Virginia plantation (140).

There is a chapter on health, noting high incidence of disease and sufferance, high death rates, particularly in comparison to other groups. He rarely loses his sustained sarcasm:

Particularly with regard to consumption it must be remembered that Negroes are not the first people who have been claimed as its peculiar victims; the Irish were once thought to be doomed by that disease—but that was when Irishmen were unpopular (160).

There is this startling pronouncement on the social nature of crime and on crime as rebellion that precedes and frames a chapter which in other ways sometimes seems to fall back on a more moral reading more palatable to his employers:

Crime is a phenomenon of organized social life, and is the open rebellion of an individual against his social environment (235).

The chapter on crime is sandwiched between this identification of employment as the primary issue and then telling lists of severe economic hardship house by house, room by room. This is followed by lists of individual’s efforts to educate themselves and failing, to find jobs and failing.

The real foundation of the difference is the widespread feeling all over the land, in Philadelphia as well as in Boston and New Orleans, that the Negro is something less than an American and ought not to be much more than what he is (284)

He notes that African Americans ‘are in the economic world purveyors to the rich’ (296), which forces them to live close, in central areas of the city where rents are higher, and there he pays more for house-rent than any other group. For those venturing outside of certain areas:

The Negro who ventures away from the mass of his people and their organised life, finds himself alone, shunned and taunted, stared at and made uncomfortable; he can make few new friends, for his neighbors however well-disposed would shrink to add a Negro to their list of acquaintances…Consequently emigration from the ward has gone in groups and centred itself about some church… (297)

While within African American areas:

agents and owners will not usually repair the houses of the blacks willingly or improve them. In addition to this agents and owners in many sections utterly refuse to rent to Negroes on any terms…public opinion in the city is such that the presence of even a respectable colored family in a block will affect its value for renting or sale… (348)

He states his optimism that this is changing. Sadness.

He notes the social distinctions between those born in Philly and those arrived from the South, with many migrants trying to hide their origins. Unlike many other coming after him who idealized the original ghetto with its mixture of classes, he also describes the distance between the better classes and the rest despite physical proximity:

…they are not the leaders or the ideal-makers of their own group in thought, work, of morals. They teach the masses to a very small extent, mingle with them but little, do not largely hire their labor. Instead then of social classes held together by strong ties of mutual interest we have in the case of the Negroes, classes who have much to keep them apart… (317)

He also describes the ways in which class intersects with a racial hierarchy that puts Anglo-Saxon on the top, this white privilege is extended with some ‘reluctance’ to the Slav and Celt. ‘We half deny it to the yellow races of Asia, admit the brown Indian to an ante-room…with the Negroes of Africa we come to a full stop’ (387). And within the Negroes, there are distinctions as well, of the ‘better’ classes he writes:

They are largely Philadelphia born, and being descended from the house-servant class, contain many mulattoes (318).

So much contained in that one sentence: the remnants of slavery, the higher social class/caste belonging to lighter skin, the history of rape.

There is a brilliant section on voter fraud. Du Bois has some strange ideas about capitalists, the wealthy, the employers being of a better, more intelligent class more suited to improve society. He flirts with the idea of a benevolent dictatorship to solve some of these problems. Part of me thinks he is playing his white funders just a little here, but he might not be. He certainly became more and more radical over time. But here, he seems to be advocating limiting the right to vote to the ‘worthy’ due to the corruption of machine politics. There is a great transcript of a trial quoted at length, my favourite part:

Philip Brown, a McKinley-Citizen watcher, said that the election was a fraud. He saw Mr. Roberts with a pile of money, going around shouting, “That’s the stuff that wins!” (377)

At the same time, I think Du Bois has a somewhat realistic and practical view of why his people might be in favour of machine politics, noting that they do offer some positions allowing African Americans to advance. These are better than none. The challenge is certainly to the reformers, who he fairly outrightly labels as racists, to prove their reforms will be of benefit. In his conclusions he writes:

If in the hey-day of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, debauch them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth—if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the twentieth century, then our civilization is vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce (388).

And this is what I think he believed could lie ahead. The report ends on an optimistic note, but given its nature as a study leading to policy recommendations to help solve ‘the Negro problem’ (and I love how this entire book reframes it as a white problem) it does end on a hopeful note.

Also included is another study: ‘Special Report on Negro Domestic Service in the 7th Ward’ by Isabel Eaton. It made me think of Angela Davis’s work on this solidarity sometimes shared between abolitionist figures and early feminists and suffragettes who came together on the margins. Unlike DuBois’s work it doesn’t really get down to much of the lived experience of domestic workers, but is an invaluable data source on a subject too much ignored…the work of Black women.


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