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Volume 7, Number 1
Spring 2009

W.E.B. Du Bois and the Sociology of the African American Family


Mindy M. Saari

North Carolina Central University

    The family is one of society's core institutions.  Sociologists have studied the family by addressing various aspects of the family unit like its structure and members' roles.  Study of the African American family is complex with debates raging as to what structure a family should resemble, the specific roles of a family's members, and the social functions of the family for its members and the larger society. 

    During his early sociological period (1897-1914), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote extensively about African American quality of life and specifically addressed issues impacting the African American family. Du Bois ([1899] 1996; 1909) took an empirical, scientific approach in his attempt to document African American family life at the turn of the twentieth century, and he consistently argued that inequality was grounded in social structures that could be changed. As a social scientist, he worked to promote change by empirically documenting the "Negro Problems" and addressing the African American community's continued limited access to accepted social norms regarding family life. However, it appears that Du Bois let his impatience with the African American population's inability to quickly emerge from their history of social degradation to infuse his writings. There is a subtle bias towards the upper-class throughout his writings which may have prevented Du Bois from being able to fully appreciate the values and survival tactics of the larger community he was studying. 

    While the sociological community has largely overlooked the significance of his work (Wortham, 2005; Wright, 2005), Du Bois implemented the most scientific, in-depth studies on the African American community and the African American family at the time.  Du Bois' methodological approach utilized in-depth ethnographic studies and empirical research. In his work, Du Bois attempted to bring awareness of the "Negro Problems" to the public with facts.  This allowed him to promote structural reforms which would enable families of all races to be able to fulfill their respective roles and functions successfully within the larger society.

The Sociological Study of the African American Family

    In 1896, Du Bois embarked on a sixteen month study of the everyday life of African Americans residing in Philadelphia's Seventh Ward.  His findings were published in 1899 as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.  This extensive study covered population and migration patterns, housing conditions, social life, health care issues, crime, religion, and family life.  Here Du Bois combined a quantitative and qualitative methodological approach to document African American quality of life within the Seventh Ward. Later, at Atlanta University, Du Bois would host and edit many of the reports of the annual Atlanta University Conferences.  Each year the conference would focus on a different aspect of African American life. The Negro American Family (1909) is of particular interest here as Du Bois addressed such topics as family structure and functions, the home, economics and the daily life of African Americans.  During this same time period, Du Bois was also researching and publishing rural and urban small area social studies that included discussions of family life.  These studies include The Black North in 1901: A Social Study ([1901] 1969); "The Negroes of Dougherty County, Georgia" ([1901-1902] 1978 ); and "The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study" ([1898] 1978). 

    Du Bois took issue with the highly theoretical approaches to the study of social phenomena that were popular at the time.  He specifically reacted to Herbert Spencer and his synthetic philosophy, calling it "verbal jugglery" which Du Bois argued led to an abstract, descriptive sociology that could not be verified empirically (Du Bois, [1903-1904] 2000)).  These "car-window" or "armchair sociologists" tried to study and understand the African American social situation from a distance without directly observing African American life.  He accused his contemporaries of trying to comprehend the "Negro Problems" from the office as he criticized the work of sociologists like Franklin Giddings and Herbert Spencer (Green and Driver, 1978). Du Bois argued that social scientists were focusing more on theory and scientific laws rather than empirically addressing relevant social issues. Du Bois argued for the need to move toward more measurement and less abstract theorizing. A more scientific approach would allow the social scientist to study the members of a family as human beings living in concrete reality rather than as abstractions (Du Bois, [1903-1904] 2000).

    Social norms and values help maintain balance and social standards within a society.  If an acceptable standard is no longer held by the majority of the population, that society could experience disorganization.  Du Bois ([1904] 1978) perceived the "Negro Problems" as linked to the fact that American society no longer had an accepted standard of norms and values for all of its members. White America's norms and values of family life had been held out as an ideal for African Americans.  During the period of slavery African Americans were taught to accept these norms, but they were prevented from practicing them.  Thus, in the decades following Emancipation society was witnessing the emergence of the African American family from decades of structured social degradation.  In researching the "Negro Problems," Du Bois sought to prove that inequality was grounded in structures that could be changed, thus enabling him to be able to propose change and reform. 

    Attempting to provide a balanced approach to his study of the "Negro Problems," Du Bois would often begin each work with a look at life in Africa before slavery was utilized as a means of deculturation and social control.  This approach served as a tool for comparing life before and after slavery in order to document progress.  Du Bois concluded many of his studies with a "final word" section. This section often included a call to action and served as a reminder of the duty of African Americans and of whites to ensure that their communities addressed the issues at hand.  Du Bois urged African Americans to take ownership of their current situation and to improve their communities.  Special emphasis was placed on the roles of families and removing any hindrances that prevented family members from functioning successfully within American society.  This approach is demonstrated in both The Philadelphia Negro ([1899] 1996) and The Negro American Family (1909).  By employing a triangular methodology that integrated ethnography, survey research and the analysis of available census data, Du Bois sought to empirically document his findings. Doing so, Du Bois was attempting to promote public awareness of the "Negro Problems," and his hope was that this would lead to social reform (Du Bois, [1899] 1996).  If this were to take place, the family would be able to fulfill its respective roles and functions successfully within that society (Du Bois, 1909).

Family Structure

    When studying the family, one must decide which structures will be included in the analysis.  Du Bois was confronted with this dilemma.  In conducting his work for The Philadelphia Negro ([1899], 1996), he encountered many different groups of relations living together.  In The Negro American Family, Du Bois (1909: 127) remarked that "Few modern groups show a greater internal differentiation of social conditions than the Negro American, and the failure to realize this is the cause of much confusion." 

    Du Bois began his studies of African American family life in Philadelphia by looking at family size.  Average household size for African American families residing in the Seventh Ward in 1896 was 5.08 persons according to the census definition of family.  However, Du Bois maintained that actual family size was really only 3.18 persons.  The census family measured all those individuals living within a household, including lodgers or renters; whereas, the actual family consisted of husband and wife, children and/or other blood relatives.  Du Bois ([1899] 1996: 165) preferred the latter measure and described the African American residents of Philadelphia's Seventh Ward as "a ward of lodgers and sojourners; newly married couples settle[d] down here until they are compelled, by the appearance of children, to move into homes of their own."

    In the Farmville, Virginia study, the rural counterpart to the Philadelphia study, Du Bois ([1898] 1978) encountered many of the same issues regarding family structure.  Du Bois maintained that ([1898] 1978: 181) "The question of the size of Negro families is important, but difficult to determine, on account of the varying meanings of the word 'family'".  Only one generation from slavery, Du Bois ([1898] 1978: 181) described what he termed "gradations" of family structures, namely: "(1) possible family, i.e., the parents and all children ever born to them living; (2) The real family, i.e., the parents and all children living at present; (3) The economic family, i.e., all persons related and unrelated, living in one home under conditions of family life."  Apparently, Du Bois decided that the "actual family," or the traditional, nuclear family was the preferred family structure as this family structure remained his "ideal" for the African American family.  When addressing white families Du Bois focused on the "economic family," or "census family."  Here Du Bois addressed the difficulties faced by "actual families" and how they become "economic families" in order to survive financially.  However, Du Bois does not explain why he utilizes one family measure for African Americans and another for whites. 

    At the time Du Bois was writing, economic circumstances greatly influenced the size and structure of families.  Both mothers and fathers had to work outside of the home leaving the children largely unattended in urban and rural settings.  In the cities bigger families meant an increased need for necessities such as space, clothing and food.  Due to lack of good-paying jobs and limited employment options in the city and rural communities, fathers often had to relocate in order to live closer to their place of employment.  Consequently, these fathers were only able to join their families once or twice a week.  Mothers who went to work to help bring in financial resources often relied on extended family members living with them (e.g. a grandmother) to help raise the children.  This living arrangement impacted household size, the socialization of children and family dynamics (Du Bois, [1899] 1996).  By being the center for education, social life and intense moral training, Du Bois felt that the family should have had a tremendous impact on African American life.  However, with dual earners in the household, Du Bois ([1899] 1996; 1909) was concerned that children were not receiving appropriate adult supervision and nurturing.  He also believed that the breakdown of the African American family was as a result of slavery and its continuing legacy.  However, Du Bois failed to appreciate the resiliency of the African American family as extended family members continued to assist in meeting the emotional and economic needs of various family units.

    References to economics and morality are made throughout Du Bois' writings on the family, and are pointed to as primary reasons for the development of single-parent families (Du Bois, [1898], 1980; [1899], 1996; 1909).  While Du Bois has been criticized for being "prudish and conservative" and of laying the foundation for the legacy of the pathology of the black family (Hunter, 1998; Jones, 1998; and McDaniel, 1998), it is necessary to look again at his writings in order to specify the structural and cultural factors Du Bois believed had the greatest impact on the African American family.  Economic discrimination made it difficult for African Americans to earn enough to be able to marry and support a family on a single income. Du Bois ([1899] 1996; 1909) was amassing data to document how the dominant society was preventing African Americans from being able to establish a family unit that would be acceptable to wider society. For Du Bois the breakdown of the African American family remained part of the enduring legacy of slavery. 

Family Demographics

    Du Bois' research on families also addressed such topics as: the appearance and quality of the house, access to the basic necessities needed to maintain a home, subletting practices, sources of family income, family member employment status, and family budgets.  While these important factors tend to primarily address economic issues, these issues also impacted the African American family's ability to fulfill such basic functions as socialization, education and the moral training of its members. 

    African American families were distinguished by social class.  In The Philadelphia Negro ([1899], 1996) Du Bois identified four family-based classes.  They were: Grade 1, which included families of undoubted respectability; Grade 2, which included the respectable working class; Grade 3, comprising the poor; and finally, Grade 4, which included criminals and prostitutes. 

    Grade 1, the respectable class, included the most affluent and the higher educated families.  The wife did not work outside of the home, and children were enrolled in school.  Homes were well-kept, and there was adequate space.  Homes often included 6-7 rooms, and the necessary amenities as well as some luxuries were present.   These families generally did not take in lodgers (Du Bois [1899], 1996).

    The "working-class" families, Grade 2, lived in comfortable circumstances.  They were hard-working and maintained steady work.  The younger children were enrolled in school. Du Bois ([1899] 1996: 315, emphasis added) referred to this class as being "honest and faithful, fair and improving morals, and beginning to accumulate property." This class would be more equivalent to the contemporary middle class. 

    Grade 3 included the poor and the unfortunate. Families in this grade were not earning enough to meet life's basic necessities (i.e., sanitation, clothing, shelter and food).  Families comprising this class were characterized as "honest" and "thrifty" but not necessarily "energetic" (Du Bois, [1899] 1996).  On the other hand, Grade 4, the lowest class, also known as the "submerged tenth" included criminals, prostitutes, and loafers.  Housing for families in Grade 4 was most wanting.  Crowding was an issue as most families resided in 1-2 room tenements, and sometimes there were as many as 10 persons to one room (Du Bois, [1899], 1996).

    In many parts of Philadelphia's Seventh Ward, the alleyway was the main traffic route, leaving the home open to strangers and predators and creating a complete lack of family privacy. Crowded apartments were characterized by poor ventilation and inadequate or no plumbing.  These unsanitary conditions ultimately lead to healthcare issues.  35.2% of families in the Seventh Ward lived in one-room tenements and only 13.7% of families had access to a bathroom (Du Bois, [1899], 1996). 

    Rural families also experienced over-crowding and potentially even worse living conditions (Du Bois, [1898], 1978; [1900-1902], 1978).  One-room houses were common, and poor ventilation was an ever present issue.  However, when the weather was favorable, persons had the option of going outside.  This helped alleviate some of the ventilation and sanitary issues. Du Bois ([1898] 1978) also maintained that the rural areas were characterized by four family-based social classes.  They were the "submerged tenth," laborers, wage laborers, and those families beginning to experience a modest degree of prosperity.  In Dougherty County, Georgia, the "submerged tenth" was comprised of croppers and the charity recipients (Du Bois, [1900-1902] 1978).  In Farmville, Virginia, the "submerged tenth" included persons employed in day-service and persons who were unemployed.  Families in this class were earning less than $100 per year, and housing was often furnished by others, rent-free (Du Bois, [1898] 1978). 

    Employment was of definite significance to rural African Americans.  Du Bois ([1900-1902] 1978) estimated that 96% of African Americans aged 10 and over in Dougherty County Georgia were employed.  Du Bois ([1900-1902] 1978: 157) also maintained that "There is no one left to really make homes. There is no time left for any afternoon of life—everybody is working but I do not mean that they are all working hard."  Here again one sees Du Bois' concern over the morality of the people especially when it came to "making a home."  Where would the socialization and education of the children take place? Since most children were not in school, how were they being educated? 

    Even though 51.1% of families were living in two-room residences in Farmville, Virginia, there was still overcrowding and one-room cabins still dotted the rural landscape (Du Bois, [1898], 1978).  These one-room cabins were sparsely furnished and some members slept on the floor or outside, weather permitting.  The only ventilation was provided by one or two windows (i.e., holes in the wall) and the front door (Du Bois, [1900-1902] 1978).  Summarizing housing conditions in rural Dougherty County, Georgia and the Black Belt, Du Bois argued that:

It is not simply in the tenement abominations of cities like New York that the world's flesh is crowded and jammed together, sometimes twenty-two persons to every ten rooms; here in Dougherty County there are over twenty-five persons to every ten rooms of house accommodation…Why should there be such wretched tenements in the Black Belt? Timber is rotting in the forest, land is running waste and labor is literally cheaper than dirt….  Why? First, because long custom born in slavery days, has assigned this sort of house to Negroes…. The Negroes themselves, as a mass, do not demand better homes; those who do, buy land and build their own homes, roomy and neat. But the rest can scarcely demand what they have seldom thought of. As their fathers lived so they live, and the standard of the slave still lowers the standard of the quasi-freeman (Du Bois, 1909: 128-129).
    Addressing African American living conditions, Du Bois ([1899] 1996) maintained that African Americans needed to take more responsibility for their economic conditions.  Home ownership was understood as part of the American Dream, and one that was accepted and respected by the larger, white society.  Du Bois ([1899], 1996) drew attention to "misplaced spending" and issues of necessity versus luxury.  Money that could have been allocated to buying a home was diverted to building churches, expensive clothing and entertainment.  Du Bois believed these wasteful spending habits were preventing African American families from improving their economic standing.

    In his studies regarding the African American family, Du Bois (1909: 9-10) sought to examine "its formation, its economic organization and its daily life."  He studied African American families in the North and the South and in rural and urban settings.  Families were distinguished by social class, and the more affluent class of families was treated as a reference group.  Du Bois ([1899] 1996: 316) defended his position by maintaining that "In many respects it is right and proper to judge a people by its best classes rather than by its worst classes or middle ranks.  The highest class of any group represents its possibilities rather than its exceptions, as is so often assumed by the Negro."


    Throughout his early sociological work, Du Bois argued that inequality was grounded in social structures that could be changed.  If one could empirically measure and portray inequality, one could provide a basis for change and reform.  As a social scientist, W. E. B. Du Bois was seeking to document why the social fabric of American society was out of balance.  Without equal access to the social norms and quality of life valued by the dominant society, African Americans were prevented from advancing their family life into mainstream culture.  For generations, the African American population was denied the right to a stable, traditional family unit that was free from the social upheavals of separation and the emotional abuse imposed by the system of slavery. Du Bois collected data and amassed empirical facts to document this institutionalized inequality involving economic and emotional resources.  However, Du Bois may have failed to recognize the resiliency of the African American family being reflected in single parent and extended family structures. 

    Du Bois' ethnographic and quantitative approach to studying the African American family was ground-breaking.  He consistently sought to demonstrate that society is comprised of social structures that can be changed.  In many respects Du Bois' pioneering sociological work on the African American family laid the foundation for subsequent sociological study of the African American family by such sociologists as E. Franklin Frazier (1939). 


Du Bois, W.E.B. [1898] 1978.  "The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia." In On Sociology and the Black Community, edited with an introduction by Dan S. Green and Edwin D. Driver, 165-195. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

____. [1899] 1996. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, introduction by Elijah Anderson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

____. [1900-1902] 1978. "The Negroes of Dougherty County, Georgia." In On Sociology and the Black Community, edited with an introduction by Dan S. Green and Edwin D. Driver, 154-164.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

____. [1901] 1969. The Black North in 1901: A Social Study. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times.

____. [1903] 2003. The Negro Church, introduction by Phil Zuckerman, Sandra L. Barnes, and Daniel Cady. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

____. [1903-1904] 2000. "Sociology Hesitant." boundary 2 27.3: 37-44.

____. [1904] 1978. "The Atlanta Conferences." In On Sociology and the Black Community, edited with an introduction by Dan S. Green and Edwin D. Driver, 53-60. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

____. 1909. The Negro American Family. Atlanta: The Atlanta University Press.

____. 1968. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International Publishers Co., Inc.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1939. The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Green, Dan S. and Edwin D. Driver. 1978. "Introduction." In On Sociology and the Black Community, edited with an introduction by Dan S. Green and Edwin D. Driver, 1-48. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hunter, Tera. 1998. "'The Brotherly Love' for Which This City Is Proverbial Should Extend to All: The Everyday Lives of Working-Class Women in Philadelphia and Atlanta in the 1890s." In W.E.B. Du Bois, Race, and the City, edited by Michael Katz and Thomas Sugrue, 126-151. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Jones, Jacqueline. 1998. "'Lifework' and Its Limits: The Problem of Labor in The Philadelphia Negro." In W.E.B. Du Bois, Race, and the City, edited by Michael Katz and Thomas Sugrue, 102-125. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

McDaniel, Antonio. 1998. "The Philadelphia Negro Then and Now: Implications for Empirical Research." In W.E.B. Du Bois, Race, and the City, edited by Michael Katz and Thomas Sugrue, 154-193. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wortham, Robert A. 2005. "Introduction to the Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois." Sociation Today 3 (1).

Wright II, Earl. 2005. "W.E.B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory." Sociation Today 3 (1).

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