Legendary sociologist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois notably worked at Penn over a century ago, and his legacy is celebrated at the University with the dorm that bears his name. But the experience of one of America's foremost Black thinkers at Penn is fraught with more discrimination than is often recognized.
Du Bois came to Penn in 1896, the same year that the Supreme Court ruled segregation was constitutional in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1879, William Adger, James Brister, and Nathan Mossell became the first Black students ever to enroll in the University. Penn would not hire a fully-affiliated Black professor until 1936, when William Fontaine became an assistant professor of Philosophy.
Leading scholars suggest that Du Bois was treated poorly by the University and other professors during his short stint as an "assistant instructor" from the summer of 1896 to the following year. Du Bois did not have an office at Penn. He did not teach any students at Penn, but conducted research in the Sociology Department on Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, which resulted in his groundbreaking book, "The Philadelphia Negro," which is often cited as the first-ever scientific study about race.
Du Bois, a writer, activist, and scholar, was known for being one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which continues to promote equal rights today. He also led the Niagara Movement, a group of Black social and political reformers, and edited the group's journal, "Crisis."
Du Bois grew up in a predominately white, but mostly integrated, town in Massachusetts, where he graduated as the valedictorian and the only Black student in the school. He attended Harvard University in 1888, only 25 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and became the first Black American to earn a doctorate from the university.
New York University professor David Lewis, who won two Pulitzer prizes for his two biographies of Du Bois, said the University hired Du Bois to advance the University's political agenda, not for his academic prowess or with the intent to keep him on as a permanent professor.
Lewis said Susan Wharton, a wealthy local philanthropist of the family from which Penn's business school gets its name, wanted to garner government support for social and political reform in Philadelphia through a scientific study of the Black community. The Republican party controlled Philadelphia City Hall at the time, and Lewis said the officials in charge were largely corrupt and not receptive to the reforms.
"It was thought that, if there were a study of the problem of 'the Negro in Philadelphia,' that information empirically-based [and] tabulated quite carefully, could be used to advance reforms," Lewis said.
Samuel McCune Lindsay, an assistant sociology professor at the time Du Bois worked at Penn, believed the study would be considered more significant if it were conducted by a Black person, so he recommended the University hire Du Bois due to his previous achievements at Harvard, according to Lewis.
“Du Bois was quite aware what the agenda was, and the hope was that he [would write] something that would be a bombshell exposing the great need for reform of the African American community,” Lewis said. “And a document that would generally elicit great support for reform, based on the horrible conditions of the African Americans and the terrible manipulation of families by the corrupted Republican party administration.”
During Du Bois’ time at Penn, he was not provided with many basic resources to perform his role in the University, sociology professor Aldon Morris said.
“[Du Bois] really didn't have an office and he was not allowed to teach,” Morris said. “So he said that his role [at the University] was not fulfilling.”
Morris said Du Bois hoped Penn would offer him a faculty position once he published his study, but that did not happen.
Like many other predominantly white universities in the country, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and University of Chicago, Penn did not want to hire Black people as permanent teaching faculty, Morris said.
“They were racist, and they didn't hire Black people, no matter how brilliant their work. And so Du Bois could not stay on there,” Morris added.
It became clear to Du Bois that the University would not offer him the position that he hoped for, so he accepted a faculty position at Atlanta University, a historically Black university, in 1897.
Morris said the University's decision not to hire Du Bois as a full-time professor in 1897 was a “great missed opportunity."
“He could have built a great considerable research at Penn and and could have done some important work there had [Penn] allowed him the opportunity to do so," Morris said.
Du Bois was not given the recognition he deserved for his study, which was published two years after he left the University, or the impact that he made in the field of sociology, according to Lewis.
“'The Philadelphia Negro' stands out as an extraordinary sociological accomplishment,” he said. “[Du Bois] was perhaps the premier American sociologist of his time, under-appreciated as he was."
One example of Penn neglecting Du Bois' contributions was his erasure from one of the University's Catalogues.
Lewis said Du Bois mentioned on several occasions that he was not recognized for his time at Penn, as his name was not in the University Catalogue.
According to the University Catalogue in Penn’s Archives and and Records Center, Du Bois was included in the 1897-1898 Catalogue, but not in the 1896-97 Catalogue, the year he was first hired.
“Du Bois thought that the acknowledgement [in the catalogue] had come only after his scholarship had been a prize,” Lewis said.
Acting University Archivist Jim Duffin wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that Du Bois' name was not in the Catalouge in 1896 because the secretary of the University at the time, Jesse Burk, was unsure of the University Trustee’s final decision on Du Bois' appointment.
“As there was no action of the Trustees creating a position, or afterwards filling it in the usual manner, the appointment of Dr. Du Bois was not considered one of those which placed him on the staff, and was therefore not reported to the editor of the Catalogue,” Burk wrote in a letter to Lindsay, who had previously inquired about Du Bois' exclusion from the 1896-97 Catalogue.
In February 2012, Du Bois was nominated and recognized as an Honorary Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies in the University.
College junior and sociology major Audrey McQuietor said the honorary degree from the University is “very symbolic” to the Penn community.
"He is both one of the most well-respected people to come out of Penn, but at the same time, when he was here, that wasn't necessarily the case," McQuietor said.
McQuietor added that Du Bois’ legacy at Penn is very important to the communities on campus, especially within Black student groups.
“[It's] up to Black students and people who want to actually continue [Du Bois’] legacy to uphold it,” McQuietor said. “It’s not necessarily something that Penn as an institution has done an incredible job of, even when he was here.”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.