Earlier this month, the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania bestowed an Honorary Emeritus Professorship of Sociology and Africana Studies on a scholar who worked for Penn in 1896-1897.

 

That scholar was a black man, W. E. B. Du Bois. He had come to Philadelphia at the invitation of white reformers to conduct a study of the black population of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. “The Philadelphia Negro” became the basis for Du Bois’ “Souls of Black Folk,” a landmark work in the then-new field of sociology.

 

Du Bois was paid by Penn as an instructor, which was unusual at a time. His welcome wasn’t completely warm — he was never given an office on campus, for instance.

 

The honorary professorship was part of a daylong conference at Penn celebrating Du Bois. “This conference is to celebrate the opportunity that the university seized upon to use that genius, but also to go back and say we can now do more than we did,” said Tukufu Zuberi, professor of sociology and the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations. “We understand that the times were different then. The consideration of an African-American as being a full human being is relatively new in the context of the university.”