Correction's Katharine Bement Davis:
New York City's Suffragist Commissioner

-- Heads Philadelphia Settlement, Helps W. E. B. DuBois --

W.E.B. DuBois detail

W.E.B. DuBois detail from Black History Month poster by Correction Officer Carolyn Tann-Starr.


The Settlement House operation in Philadelphia was part of a multi-city program begun the year Davis entered Vassar (1890) by it and three other women's colleges in the Northeast -- Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Wellsley, where Chicago U. Dean Palmer had been president. Within a few years, this College Settlement Association included Harvard's Radcliffe, Brooklyn's Packer Institute, Columbia's Barnard, Pennsylvania Friends-founded Swarthmore, Cornell's Sage College, and upstate New York's Wells and Elmira colleges. Students from the colleges would become residents at the settlement houses in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere for postgraduate training in social work.

The College Settlement on Philadelphia's St. Mary's Street (later renamed Rodman St.), serving a district of poor blacks and Russian immigrants, developed out of a free library project started there in 1884 by Quaker reformer Susan Parrish Wharton. She was kin to Joseph Wharton, the Philadelphia industrialist and philanthropist who three years earlier had established the now world-famous University of Pennsylvania School of Finance and Commerce that bears his name.

Settlement Spin-off

Miss Wharton and her cousin Hannah Fox were very active in the Settlement's activities during Davis' head residency. Fox and another cousin, Helen Longstreth Parrish, served as incorporation officers for a settlement spin-off organization, the Octavia Hill Association "to improve working class housing conditions" through the purchase, renovation and management of multi-dwellings rented at reduced rates to "deserving tenants."

Davis was at the center of this housing effort, having direct hand in acquisition and remodeling of at least four tenements. Responding to an inquiring letterwriter, she explained: "As yet there have been no 'model tenements' [newly] built in Phila. though some old ones have been put into sanitary condition, some fairly good smaller ones have been built and an organization has been effected to build others . . . If you are not already familiar with them, you would be interested in the Homes of the London Poor and Essays by Octavia Hill . . . the principles involved in Miss Hill's work seem to us to apply to all times & places."

But Davis added a wrinkle or two not likely to be found in Octavia's essays. Serving as a kind of general contractor for the Settlement, renovating tenements and developing model housing, she dealt dramatically but effectively with city agency failure to raze a dangerous and dilapidated slum dwelling that had been condemned and long due for demolition. Davis went through the vacant boarding house herself and smashed every window in the place! Embarrassed officials quickly had the windowless-structure torn down.

An in-your-face challenge of a different kind was mounted by the Settlement and a women's civic club when they combined forces to take on the local political machine and fielded two female candidates for election to the school board. Davis and her Municipal League running mate had the satisfaction of knowing they garnered more votes than any previous independent candidates had, helping to deny a majority count to the winners by plurality. But the losers considered the campaign itself a victory because of the heightened community interest engendered in the issues and in the work of the Settlement.

Davis and W. E. B. DuBois

As head worker, Davis helped Susan Parrish Wharton arrange, through Pennsylvania University and the Wharton School, a landmark study of blacks in urban America. Katharine wrote in the Settlement's annual report that "the investigation into the condition of the colored people of . . . the seventh ward which contains about 10,000 Negroes, nearly one fourth the entire number in the city" would be carried out "by means of house-to-house canvass."

Then Katharine gave the researchers, a young Ph. D. from Harvard, W. E. B. DuBois, and Settlement worker Isabel Eaton, the full support of the St. Mary's Street center in carrying out the joint Settlement-Wharton School project. Records indicate DuBois stayed as a guest at the Davis settlement house on at least one occasion. The likelihood is that DuBois and Eaton used the facilities as needed to carry on their work in the neighborhood.

Davis' report continued with a bluntness that was remarkable for its time: "A promising outgrowth of the acquaintances made . . . in the course of [the] investigation is a League of Colored Mechanics, formed in the spring to promote the interests of colored men employed in the various trades and excluded on account of race prejudices from the Trades Unions. The League meets weekly in the Settlement House."

A few years later, while at Chicago University pursuing her own Ph. D., she wrote a scholarly journal review of DuBois' The Philadelphia Negro, praising it, and denouncing "the prejudice of whites" and their denial of job and housing opportunities to blacks.

Davis Returns to Chicago

To supplement her $800 annual salary as Settlement director, Katharine taught domestic science and food chemistry courses at the Philadelphia Seminary for girls. While the St. Mary Street post paid little in cash relative to the major responsibilities involved, but it provided opportunity (in 1990s' terminology) "to network" with leading social reformers and philanthropists of the 1890s. Those "contacts" yielded a lifetime of career dividends.

When Davis left the Settlement in the summer of 1897 for graduate studies, the CSA board wrote, "The loss of Miss Davis from Philadelphia is diminished by the fact that she left us to pursue sociological study and fit herself for further Settlement work." She had applied for, and was granted, admission as a doctoral student to Chicago University (CU). There a Department of Sociology had been launched, the first in America.

*Copyright 1997 by Thomas C. McCarthy and the New York City Department of Correction. All rights reserved.