Bringing History to Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward


Children playing the Du Bois inspired board game, depicting life in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward in the late 1800s.


Hi all! My name is Alexandra Wolkoff, and I am a rising senior (yikes!) here at Haverford. With the support of the Philadelphia Partners Internships program sponsored by the John B. Hurford Humanities Center, I am spending this summer working with Dr. Amy Hillier on her project, “The Ward: Race and Class in Du Bois’ Seventh Ward.” ‘The Ward’ is a research, teaching, and public history project that seeks to continue Du Bois’ work of promoting the full humanity of all people. It works to promote social justice by engaging in conversations about the continuing effects of race and racial inequality today. She runs the project through the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design.

The project is based on W.E.B. Du Bois’ study and book, The Philadelphia Negro. In 1896, The University of Pennsylvania commissioned Du Bois to come and study the city’s Seventh Ward, the heart of black Philadelphia at the time. (The Seventh Ward stretches from 7th Street to the Schuylkill River and from Spruce to South Streets). Du Bois went door to door interviewing residents and collecting information about all areas of their lives. His work is now regarded as the country’s first quantitative sociological study and revealed the diversity of the then overlooked yet thriving black community.

‘The Ward’ project began with Dr. Hillier using GIS technology to bring Du Bois’ work to life again. She first created an interactive map of the then Seventh Ward, using both Du Bois’ study and census data to show how residents were distributed spatially by race, class, and national origin. Now, the project has many components, including a city walking tour of the original ward, a board game, a community-painted mural, and a documentary.

My main work for the summer is to design a curriculum that we can use in the city’s public high schools to open discussion around race and inequality today. The project already has a 5 day curriculum, and the first 4 days deal with the historical aspects – teaching about Du Bois’ life and the importance of his work; skills for interpreting primary historical documents; understanding Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. I am focusing on the last day of this curriculum, in which we want to connect this historical knowledge with modern times and peoples’ present experiences in Philadelphia. During my first week, I went to the Urban Archives at Temple University to see the work of artist, Samuel Joyner. Joyner, a Philadelphia native, is one of the few African-American cartoonists in the country to achieve popular recognition and regularly contributed his work to the country’s newspapers, mainly The Philadelphia Tribune.  His work stems from his own experiences with discrimination and deals with all manners of social injustice, including poverty, racial stereotyping, and voting rights.  Now, I am working to incorporate his political cartoons in to my curriculum design.

‘The Ward’ also includes an oral history component, in which the project team interviews older members of the city’s historic black churches, such as Tindley Temple. Next week, I will be able to actually help conduct some of the new interviews, myself! (Joyner’s story is also part of this oral history component).

**Here is a link to the project’s website, please check it out! **            

More updates to come, keep checking back!

Thanks for reading, alexandra.


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