After emerging from Philadelphia’s Black 7th Ward at the turn of the century with groundbreaking sociological research disproving the prevailing thought of the day that Blacks were inherently inferior to Whites, and even after writing two major books, including the Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, W.E.B. DuBois still couldn’t get a job teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1890s.
That changed Friday when the university’s board of trustees unanimously voted to posthumously appoint DuBois Honorary Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies. Arthur McFarlane, great-grandson of DuBois, received the resolution that granted his great-grandfather a professorship.
More than a century ago, the University of Pennsylvania gave the promising Black sociologist a stipend to study the plight of the Philadelphia Negro and the title associate lecturer, but, like other White institutions then, it wasn’t willing to risk its academic reputation by allowing a Black man to teach Whites. During the nearly year and a half that DuBois canvassed the city’s 7th Ward, the university also denied him an office.
The culmination of DuBois’ research, The Philadelphia Negro, became the first scientific sociological study of race. In the book, Dubois laid bare the social problems plaguing Philadelphia’s Black community, most of which stemmed from racial marginalization. Education was key among the author’s recommendations for social reform.
But despite the “absurd limitations” DuBois experienced in the academy, said a jubilant Tukufu Zuberi, professor and chairman of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, “he rose above them, giving sociology its first scientific text, The Philadelphia Negro, void of the racism that plagued the intellectual atmosphere at that time.” Zuberi led the campaign for DuBois’ unprecedented posthumous faculty appointment.
“Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois achieved the highest levels of sociological science, while presenting a case for equality and justice that was accessible to everyone,” Zuberi said. “He dreamed of a world where equality and justice ruled the day. With this appointment, Penn honors his vision at a time when it attempts to address his concerns.”
The board’s official Friday vote coincided with the kick-off of a daylong scholarly conference, which was free and open to the public. Zuberi said he wanted to bring together scholars and researchers from a variety of disciplines who are “wrestling with the intellectual genius of DuBois and those who can talk about the impact of his life and research on their work.”
Dr. Aldon Morris, a professor at Northwestern University, was one of the more than 20 conference presenters invited to showcase research and writing during three panel discussions, “Who Was W.E.B. DuBois?,” “W.E.B. DuBois and Social Science” and “W.E.B. DuBois and Africana Studies.”
The occasion, Morris said, is as much about scholarship as it is about celebrating Dubois’ life. “It’s taken 100 years for scholars to understand his role in developing sociology and social science,” said Morris, a leading expert on DuBois. Morris’ upcoming book argues that Dubois’ work has been marginalized by the sociology profession. It also explores DuBois’ role in the founding of American sociology.
More than a century after DuBois was barred from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Zuberi, who is Black, says he is mindful that he not only has a campus office, something that DuBois was denied, but also heads the sociology department. “That’s why I couldn’t emerge from this place with my head held high if I hadn’t done something real and symbolic to recognize DuBois. At the end of the day, the symbolic outlives the real.”