The Old Seventh Ward still boasts many of the important institutions that Du Bois described, including churches, schools, and hospitals. Our self-guided walking tour will lead you through the main streets and back alleys and teach you about the people and places that made the Seventh Ward unique.
Welcome to Philadelphia’s Old Seventh Ward
At the end of the 19th Century, this area was the heart of Philadelphia’s growing black and immigrant communities. The Ward, bounded by Spruce and South streets and extending from 7th Street to the Schuylkill River, had the largest number of blacks in the city. Furthermore, Philadelphia had a larger black population than any other city in the North, allowing for a rich African American heritage to flourish here. During the second half of the 19th Century, Philadelphia was a booming industrial port city and point of immigration. Because of Philadelphia’s promising job opportunities for unskilled laborers, many immigrants and blacks settled in the city. However, this quickly resulted in overcrowding as backyards were transformed into tenements to accommodate the newcomers. Parts of the Ward became associated with poverty, filth and crime which were commonly attributed to the large numbers of blacks who called it home. Much to the disappointment of local reformers, African Americans generally supported Republican political candidates for office. As a result, Susan Wharton, a wealthy Quaker who lived in the Ward and served on the board of the College Settlement Association, began talking with local leaders, including her neighbor and University of Pennsylvania provost Charles C. Harrison, about a study of this “Negro problem.” In 1896,Harrison sent a telegram toW.E.B. Du Bois inviting him to conduct a study of blacks in the Seventh Ward.
Du Bois and his wife Nina lived in the College Settlement House at 7th and Lombard Streets while he collected data for his study. Du Bois went door-to-door to gather information on all the black households in the Ward. In 1899, in the University of Pennsylvania published his groundbreaking book, The Philadelphia Negro. In this quotation from the book, Du Bois describes the blocks between Eighth, Sixth, Pine and South Streets as the historic heart of the black population. “Here the riots of the thirties took place, and here once was a depth of poverty and degradation almost unbelievable. Even to-day there are many evidences of degradation, although the signs of idleness, shiftlessness, dissoluteness and crime are more conspicuous than those of poverty” (page 58).
Today, the Seventh Ward no longer carries that name, nor is it associated with filth and poverty. Instead, this area has become the neighborhoods of Washington Square West, Rittenhouse Square and Fitler Square. The former tenement homes and businesses of immigrants and black residents have been converted into trendy boutiques, chic restaurants, old row homes, and expensive new condominiums. The area has undergone a dramatic racial and economic transformation. In 1900, 30 percent of the residents of the Ward were black; today, only 7 percent of the residents are black as blacks migrated to West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia in the mid-1900s.
Many buildings of important institutions and homes of famous residents that Du Bois would have seen and visited still exist today. As you walk around the Ward, see how its history is—or is not– being preserved. Do you still see aspects of the Ward Du Bois described? How are the issues that Du Bois raised in his book, about discrimination in education, employment, and housing, still relevant today? How does knowing that the Seventh Ward was once the heart of black Philadelphia change how you feel as you stroll along South Street, visit the playgrounds, and admire the homes?
We hope that this tour leaves you feeling more connected to the city’s history and raises some new questions for you about how we remember and how our lives become part of the fabric of places like the Old Seventh Ward.