The History of W.E.B. Du Bois College House

*This was reprinted from Volume 8, Number 1 (Fall 1997) edition of The Vision.

Du Bois College House, like many other programs recognizing African-Americans at Penn, was initiated by Black undergraduates. At the end of the 1960's and as a result of the enormous political pressures exerted during the Civil Rights Movement, the University of Pennsylvania admitted more Black students than ever before. The number of Black Students often doubled yearly. Unfortunately, these largely unwelcomed students were left abandoned in a hostile environment.

Adjusting to Penn was an undertaking that was met with adversity. Black students were frequently stopped by Philadelphia Police, harassed by their white peers, and ignored by their professors. With nowhere else to turn for support, they turned to each other. In 1967, the Society of Afro-American Students was founded, as well as the House of the Family, which was located where the Penn Police mini-station is now located.

Though these support programs were appearing at a feverish pace the Black attrition rate was high, and rising. A pioneering student, Cathy Barlow, was a sophomore when she planned a campus wide sit-in and take-over of College Hall in 1968. The protest was also planned by three other white male students who showed resistance to the University's encroachment on the community and American involvement in the Vietnam War. The administration responded to the effective sit-in (which practically shut down the University) and agreed to negotiate with the dynamic students.

This began a dialogue which resulted in the Afro-American Studies Program and the creation of the Du Bois College House. Both landmarks were implemented in 1972 and Cathy Barlow had a large part in it. As part of her research to investigate solutions to low black retention at Penn, she analyzed conditions in other schools.

Barlow discovered that most black students dropped out in or before their second semester of senior year. She discovered that many were not adequately trained to compete in the schools or were ostracized by fellow students and faculty. Unable to find assistance from the university at large, new structures from within their community were critical for their success. Other so-called "Black Houses" had already been created. And Barlow visited them.

She noticed that the "Black Houses" were not stable enough to support the proper transition Black students needed. A consequence of the times, they often became the social gatherings, and platforms for radical stances by the students rather than foundations of retention. She concluded that these previous models lacked the integral academic focus that was necessary to insure Black permanence at these predominately white schools.

Barlow's vision of the house included a host of culturally sensitive counselors able to teach and relate with the Black residents. This vision was far from a reality.

There was widespread resistance to the Du Bois Residential Program, as it was called. Students and administrators voiced disapproval of what they felt was "reverse discrimination" and "separatism". The original plan, which only included Black students, was even attacked by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The plan was altered to become a "Living-Learning" experimental program which was offered to all Penn students. This plan was attacked by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who threatened to sue the University if the University approved it. The Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare of the Federal Government also objected to the early structure of the Du Bois Residential Program. The students were outraged by this opposition and fought even harder for the House's existence.

Finally, in 1972, after a long paper trail of legal considerations and student endorsements, the Du Bois Residential Program was placed on the first two floors of Low Rise North. Cathy Barlow, who had graduated the previous year, was the first director of the program. Quickly the House became the hub of Black activity at the University. Programs such as the Du Bois Scholars, and Du Bois House Council were created to promote Black excellence and permanence within the Du Bois program. But these successes came at a price.

First, Cathy Barlow spent a great deal of her time and energy fighting for the program, and experienced criticism from members of the Black community who questioned a woman's leadership role. She also postponed her entrance into law school to see the project through. White students and administrators perpetually misunderstood the purpose often assuming that it was only available for Black students. From its inception, the Du Bois program never rejected students on the basis of race. Early prejudices resulted in such horrors as bomb threats and threatening calls, in addition to the subtler forms of racism that many Black students faced daily.

The House has also fostered the exploration of the Black Aesthetic which manifests in the art, literature, and music that had been ignored by Penn for centuries. In the true spirit of W.E.B. Du Bois, the House continues to be a center for Black intellectuals searching diligently for an African identity and perspective within a historically White institution of higher learning.