Haverford College and UPenn Collaborate on the Du Bois Project

UPenn professor Amy Hillier works with Haverford College students to resuscitate a seminal study of race relations: W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro.

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Walk through the Seventh Ward today, and there’s little, if any, evidence of the rich culture that, one century ago, stretched from the Schuylkill River to Seventh Street and from Spruce to South Street. A vibrant business district, it was home to the only black firehouse of its era.

Now, what used to be the city section with the most black residents has become white and gentrified. The exodus began in the early 1970s. “You don’t go to South Street and think, ‘I’m in the heart of what was once black Philadelphia,” says Hillier.

Veronica Hodges, the documentary’s narrator, would frequently walk Camac Street, imagining life there in 1913, back when her grandmother, Veronica James Berry, was born. Her great-grandmother, Nellie Braxton, was a former slave and died in the home.

Hodges was always afraid to knock on the door in the now-ritzy block. One day, though, she stopped. Owner Jimmy Calnan invited her inside. They became friends.

Hodges’ grandmother hadn’t been in the house since she was 9. For her 90th birthday in May 2003, Calnan hosted a “welcome home” birthday block party. He later made sure Hodges—who died in June 2005—was incorporated into the 2008 mural at Sixth and South streets, which also depicts Du Bois, other former residents and black firemen. Part of the Mural Arts Program, the work is at the site of the former firehouse. “She’s up there in all her beauty,” says Calnan. “At the dedication, I was privileged to introduce Du Bois’ great-grandson to Ms. Veronica’s great-grandson.”

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