In response to an application from our team, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program created a mural in 2008 to honor Du Bois’ work in Philadelphia. Learn about the process behind creating it, the people shown on the mural, and the dedication event.
Our original hope was to have a mural honoring W.E.B. Du Bois on Penn’s campus, specifically on the side of the fraternity house next to the McNeil Building which is home to Penn’s Sociology Department—the department that should have offered Du Bois a faculty position back in 1897 but didn’t because he was black. It became clear quickly that the University of Pennsylvania was not ready for a mural of any kind, much less of Du Bois, so we tabled our efforts and focused on having a Du Bois mural somewhere off campus.
We applied to the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, suggesting that a mural of Du Bois be painted on a small row house at 6th and Rodman Streets, near where the College Settlement House was located where Du Bois and his wife lived when they came to Philadelphia. Our proposal was accepted (letter of acceptance) but the Mural Arts staff proposed that we use the large wall of Engine Company no. 11 along South Street, instead. We met with Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and learned about the growing interest in a mural honoring the segregated black fire company that served the same area Du Bois surveyed. It was clear that our separate agendas were complimentary so we agreed to have one mural honoring Du Bois and the firefighters.
The Mural Arts Program identified a talented artist—Willis Humphrey—and organized two community information meetings for residents to share their ideas about the content of the mural. We also shared some historical photographs and a scan of Du Bois’ original map of social class. Willis presented the sketch below at the first meeting.
Two important changes were made before the second meeting. Students from Masterman High School complained that the original depiction of Du Bois was too aloof. He did, after all, walk the streets of the Seventh Ward, so it would be better to show him alongside residents. Willis proposed what we now refer to as the “Masterman compromise”—Du Bois would appear both at his desk, looking a bit aloof, and among the residents. The second change involved the faces of the residents. Resident Jimmy Calnan recommended including Veronica James, the woman who was born in his house in the 1910s and whose story was the centerpiece of our documentary, “Legacy of Courage.” Willis prepared the following second image:
The Mural Arts Program hosted a community paint day in May 2008 in which everyone from invited guests, firefighters, residents, students and passersby, were invited to help pain the first coat of the mural using a paint-by-number scheme.