What do you know about W.E.B. DuBois and his connection to Philadelphia? Here's a primer for a 'Year of DuBois'

On Saturday mornings in a church in North Philadelphia, about two dozen people come together each week to read and study the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, the prolific sociologist, historian, and essayist most known for his classic work, The Souls of Black Folk.

Gathered around a table in the basement of the Church of the Advocate last week sat a group almost as sweeping: There was Derek Gantt, 66, an African American retired hospital worker who now paints and writes poetry, and Elias Gonzalez, 23, a black Dominican and Temple grad. There were Asian American doctoral candidates at the University of Pennsylvania, and a gray-haired black woman with braids who had worked with the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

Anthony Monteiro, a DuBois scholar and former Temple University professor, leads the discussions at what is known as the Saturday Free School, and starting this month, the group will kick off the Year of W.E.B. DuBois, a program of public readings and symposiums around the city to celebrate the 150th anniversary of DuBois’s birth on Feb. 23, 1868. A panel discussion at the Barnes Foundation will start the program Friday.

“We want to use these readings to promote action at the grassroots level,” Monteiro said. “We want to galvanize people for action against the problems they face in the city, from failing schools to gentrification to poverty.”

At the Saturday Free School, participants say they arrive about 9:30 a.m. and read and discuss DuBois, sometimes for as long as seven hours.

For Gantt, the impact has been profound. When he attended Olney High School, he asked his English teacher to have the class read more books by black authors. “She said to me, in front of the whole class, ‘OK, next week we’ll read Nigger,” an autobiography by the comedian Dick Gregory,” Gantt said. “I was stunned. I was hurt.”

Roughly 50 years later, Gantt has a thank-you letter of sorts to DuBois expressing his gratitude  — “for speaking to me now, all these years later” — written in the back of one of his books, The Education of Black People.

Meghna Chandra, a doctoral student in social welfare at Penn who was born in India, believes DuBois’ writings on pan-African and pan-Asian unity have lessons that  hold true today.

“When we read DuBois … [we can] stop war, stop poverty, stop discrimination against people, and create a world where all people’s potential can be fulfilled,’ Chandra said.

After Souls was published in 1903 — prophetically declaring, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” — DuBois became one of the most influential African Americans in the country. Today, scholars consider DuBois a successor to abolitionist Frederick Douglass in terms of his advocacy for the civil rights of black people, and the forerunner of James Baldwin, whose works spoke to the activist black movement in the 1960s.

What do you know about this famous scholar and his connection to Philadelphia? To prepare for the Year of DuBois, here’s a primer.

DuBois gained celebrity status with “Souls.”  But he famously clashed with Booker T. Washington — another prominent voice of that era — over ideology and strategies for winning equality for their people.

This was the essence of the DuBois-Washington rivalry: Washington had adopted a philosophy of patience, self-help, and accommodation, urging blacks to ignore segregation and concentrate on improving their lot by learning trades, crafts, and farming skills.  DuBois advocated  agitation and protest. He predicted that progress by a small group of college-educated African Americans, the “Talented Tenth,” would uplift all blacks.

Also in Souls, he reintroduced the concept of “double-consciousness,” a term first used in an article he wrote for the Atlantic to describe the inner conflict that marginalized groups experience living in a society that oppresses them.

DuBois’s sociological study of African Americans in Philadelphia, “The Philadelphia Negro,” published in 1899, was groundbreaking for its scientific examination of the living conditions of black people in the Seventh Ward.

Officials at Penn  had invited DuBois to research the area bordered by Spruce to South Streets and Seventh Street to the Delaware River.

For 15 months, DuBois and his wife, Nina, lived in the heart of this community, DuBois going door to door to visit 2,500 homes and interviewing about 5,000 people.

It was “a landmark in sociological research,” wrote Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of sociology at Harvard, in his introduction to The Philadelphia Negro. “It documents in systematic and meticulous detail the living circumstances … of the largest black population outside the South. He was openly critical of the sweeping generalizations and the sort of grand theorizing then common in the emerging field of sociology.”

DuBois, who studied at Fisk University, later earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees at Harvard, and studied sociology for two years at the University of Berlin. He worked at Penn starting in 1896 for 15 months.

When Penn hired him, the New York Times took note in an announcement published Sept. 30, 1896.

“First Colored ‘Fellow’ Appointed,” read the headline.“Dr. W.E. Dubois, colored, who was graduated from Harvard … and who studied in the German universities, has been appointed to a Fellowship in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is the first one of his race to hold such a position in this university. …  Dr. Dubois will not be considered a member of the Faculty and will not lecture at college. His work will be among the colored  population of Philadelphia.”

Due to political differences, DuBois left the NAACP on two occasions over the years.

In 1951, DuBois, then chair of the Peace Information Center, a national antiwar and antinuclear organization, was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent because he had circulated petitions against nuclear weapons. He was 83.

In the anti-communist fervor of the McCarthy era, the Justice Department considered it communist propaganda to encourage pacifism at a time of a Soviet threat. A federal judge acquitted DuBois and four others, saying the government had failed to produce any evidence against them.

Camera icon Jean Jacques Levy
British politician Konni Zilliacus (right) greeted W.E.B. DuBois at the World Peace Conference in Paris on April 21, 1949.

“The government waged a decades-long ideological campaign against him,” Monteiro said. “His  books were taken out of libraries, they weren’t being taught in schools.”

Bitter about the federal charges, DuBois later joined the Communist Party. And in 1961, with his second wife, he moved to Accra, Ghana, to live until his death Aug. 27, 1963, the day before the March on Washington.