Playing the game of life as Du Bois found it in Philadelphia of 1896

The work and legacy of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois have been incorporated into a new board game and learning tool for Philadelphia high schools students.

In 1896, the University of Pennsylvania invited Harvard-trained Du Bois to Philadelphia to study the so-called “Negro problem” in the city’s Seventh Ward, Too many blacks there were living with violence, poverty and poor health.

Du Bois spent 18 months conducting a door-to-door survey of the area between Spruce and South streets, said Penn assistant professor Amy Hillier.

“He reframed the issue from ‘the Negro problem’ to the problems that African Americans were facing — systematic discrimination and often living in a really hostile environment,” she said.

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Du Bois produced a color-coded map of the Seventh Ward, classified the African American residents and eventually published that work in his book “The Philadelphia Negro.”

His research was a springboard for social change, Hillier says, and a pioneering study of health disparities. Her team borrowed from that work to develop the board game.

Trying it out

Players, including Penn students, tested the “The Ward: Race and Class in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward” game this week. Picking up a game card, one student read, “Congratulations, you successfully completed your secondary education and will be trained as a nurse at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School.”

Another player, freshman Shayna Capers, rolled the dice and caught a bad break.

“Unfortunately, your father’s life was taken by yellow fever,” she read from her card. “You and your neighbors are attending his funeral at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. Proceed to the church.”

As players advance in the game they encounter Philadelphia facts and Seventh Ward institutions.

They also assume the personas of real people of the time.

A player, for instance, could be Nathan Mossell, a member of the upper middle class and the first black man to earn a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Graduate student Sydney Zimelis played the game as Ms. Tabbs, part of the “vicious and criminal class” who cut up her lover.

Zimelis, who is studying city planning, wanted to try out the game to learn more about the history of race and class in Philadelphia.

“It seems like there should almost be a ‘take one step back space’ on the board, only targeted at the lower class. Some component that set you back further,” Zimelis said.

Zimelis, who is from Illinois, said she did learn a little about Philadelphia. She said she thinks the game could do more to illustrate the societal conditions that kept some blacks from advancing.

Students at Masterman High School will be the next to test the curriculum and board game. The Penn researchers also produced a short-documentary about the old Seventh Ward.

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