For Michael Franklin, it was a dream project. The English major was instantly drawn to the subject matter: W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro, and how it sparked a discussion of race within the city and across the nation.
“What interested me most was the way it combined research components with creative elements,” says Franklin, now a Haverford College senior. “It allowed me to be analytical, while also allowing me to make the subject more accessible to a larger population.”
As it turns out, that’s always been the goal of Mapping the Du Bois Philadelphia Negro, a project that combines technology and archival data to recreate the survey he conducted of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward for his seminal book. In it, the NAACP’s eventual founder offered what proved to be a historic sociological analysis of black urban life.
Of late, there’s been a convergence of efforts to recognize black America’s influence in the city. Of particular note is the President’s House and its unique story of slavery, and the push for a City Hall statue of Octavius Catto, whose 1871 murder made him a martyr to racism. The Du Bois project is the work of the University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Hillier and local students. Every summer for the past five years, the assistant professor at the PennDesign Department of City & Regional Planning has had help from students at the high school, college and graduate levels—bright interns like Haverford’s Franklin, who took his turn last summer. To date, the team has built an interactive mapping website that allows visitors to see who lived in Seventh Ward houses when Du Bois conducted his study. There’s also “The Ward: Race and Class in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward,” a creative board game and five-day high school curriculum Hillier expects to pilot in 10 city schools starting in February, Black History Month.
Last year, Hillier also began screening A Legacy of Courage: W.E.B. Du Bois and The Philadelphia Negro, the project’s 20-minute documentary. The film stars Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; Tukufu Zuberi, Penn’s sociology department chair and the star of PBS’ History Detectives; and Elijah Anderson, a former Penn professor and now sociology professor at Yale University. The experts document how important Du Bois and his research were. The film also features the story of a black woman whose grandmother was born at 418 Camac St. Purely by chance, she meets the white man who now lives there.
The documentary includes songs from Ghana and black spirituals sung by the Haverford Chamber Singers. Alfred Goodrich, of Silverstone Studios in Ardmore, helped with the soundtrack. Haverford’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities funds the college’s involvement in the Du Bois project. “[Hillier] always provides both the training and the freedom for students to learn and do significant work,” says Emily Cronin, the center’s director. “Our students have benefited in so many ways.”
Much of the material for the project has been culled from newspaper reports, census records, archival material and data from all over the city. Interns have conducted historical and ethnographic research, scouring archives at churches, businesses and cultural organizations. They’ve dabbled in filmmaking, editing, website design and more. They’ve also navigated their way through various parts of urban Philadelphia. “It’s a project that raises issues about urban planning and race, and the history of place and neighborhood,” says Cronin.
Walk through the Seventh Ward today, and there’s little, if any, evidence of the rich culture that, one century ago, stretched from the Schuylkill River to Seventh Street and from Spruce to South Street. A vibrant business district, it was home to the only black firehouse of its era.
Now, what used to be the city section with the most black residents has become white and gentrified. The exodus began in the early 1970s. “You don’t go to South Street and think, ‘I’m in the heart of what was once black Philadelphia,” says Hillier.
Veronica Hodges, the documentary’s narrator, would frequently walk Camac Street, imagining life there in 1913, back when her grandmother, Veronica James Berry, was born. Her great-grandmother, Nellie Braxton, was a former slave and died in the home.
Hodges was always afraid to knock on the door in the now-ritzy block. One day, though, she stopped. Owner Jimmy Calnan invited her inside. They became friends.
Hodges’ grandmother hadn’t been in the house since she was 9. For her 90th birthday in May 2003, Calnan hosted a “welcome home” birthday block party. He later made sure Hodges—who died in June 2005—was incorporated into the 2008 mural at Sixth and South streets, which also depicts Du Bois, other former residents and black firemen. Part of the Mural Arts Program, the work is at the site of the former firehouse. “She’s up there in all her beauty,” says Calnan. “At the dedication, I was privileged to introduce Du Bois’ great-grandson to Ms. Veronica’s great-grandson.”
At Penn, there’s some retribution due, of sorts. “This isn’t penance, but the university didn’t do [Du Bois] right the first time,” Hillier says.
Penn sponsored Du Bois’ project and paid him—but not much. He wasn’t offered an office or a faculty position. “He was the first black Ph.D. recipient at Harvard,” Hillier says.
Du Bois was here from the summer of 1896 through December 1897. He didn’t arrive in Philadelphia to study “the Negro problem.” He thought society had the problem. The documentary includes his voice from his later years.
Hillier read The Philadelphia Negro for the first time in 1998 as a doctoral student in social welfare at Penn. A researcher with expertise in mapping—or cartography—she figured the landmark book could be made more remarkable if she recreated a map of the ward using technology.
A grant from the National Endowment for Humanities helped. The $350,000 project has also been funded by the city’s Samuel S. Fels Fund and others. It dates back to 2005, the year the Philadelphia school district began requiring a sophomore-year class in black studies.
“We don’t expect PBS to pick up [the documentary], but we’re proud of its quality,” says Hillier.
With continued help from Haverford students, Hillier’s team will develop a national training program for teachers, who would travel to Philadelphia and walk the Seventh Ward. After that, she plans to develop an online training course.
“It’s been six years now, and we have no intent of stopping,” says Hillier.
To learn more, visit mappingdubois.org.