Du Bois on the Black Church
More than 100 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois went door-to-door interviewing Black households. He sat in the parlors, kitchens or living rooms of 2,500 families, listening to their stories about life in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct the study, he moved to the Seventh Ward and completed the research captured in the classic 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro. He offered this description of the role of the Black church:
The Negro church is the peculiar and characteristic product of the transplanted African, and deserves especial study. As a social group the Negro church may be said to have antedated the Negro family on American soil; as such it has preserved, on the one hand, many functions of tribal organization, and on the other hand, many of the family functions. Its tribal functions are shown in its religious activity, its social authority and general guiding and co-ordinating work; its family functions are shown by the fact that the church is a centre of social life and intercourse; acts as newspaper and intelligence bureau, is the centre of amusements — indeed, is the world in which the Negro moves and acts. So far-reaching are these functions of the church that its organization is almost political. (page 201)
Despite the pockets of violence and depravity witnessed by Du Bois, the Seventh Ward was a thriving multiracial, multiethnic and economically diverse community, where Blacks comprised 30 percent of the population in 1900. In recent years, the community has been transformed by both urban renewal and gentrification. It now has predominantly white and upper-income residents with a Black population of just 7 percent.
W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that the story for Blacks in America has been shaped by the enduring color line. In this project we will explore such themes of race, as well as of urban change, religion, and the pursuit of “a more perfect union” through residents living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward.
- What would Du Bois discover if he walked the streets of the Seventh Ward today or spoke with residents about employment, housing, health care, crime, immigration, the recent recession, family life or the first Black president?
- In what way does race or racism influence the lives of 21st-century residents in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward (and in similar communities)?
- How do the Philadelphians participating in this project think about themselves, their communities, their congregations and their faith through the lens of race and class?