Standing on Their Shoulders:

Legacy of African American Social Welfare Leaders


By: Iris Carlton-LaNey, Ph.D, Professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work (December 2006/ January 2007)

As private social welfare services were developing in the US to serve Whites who were ill, poor, disabled, and dependent young and old during the Progressive Era, a parallel social welfare system was also developing for African Americans. The pioneers who were instrumental in developing programs and services in the African American community are not well known and are often excluded from the historical legacy of the social work profession. This essay will briefly highlight some of those African Americans whose legacies have been relegated to a footnote in social welfare history, but whose work stands as a foundation of social work/welfare development. Several areas will be discussed including the women’s club movement, early social work education among African Americans, social settlement houses, institutions for wayward girls and community development initiatives.

Women’s Club Movement

The women’s club movement, inspired by the activism of the Progressive Era, provided opportunities for African American women and girls to grow and develop and hone their service development and delivery skills. The women’s club movement embraced both teaching and social service efforts. These clubs were engaged in a variety of reforms. Membership in them was desirable and conferred a certain level of social standing in the community (Lerner, 1974). Sometimes criticized for being elitist, these women, nonetheless, saw themselves as helping to model appropriate behavior and to provide the impetus for accessing and utilizing societal resources. The women’s clubs included organizations such as the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn established in 1892, the Women’s Era Club of Boston, and in Chicago, the Ida B. Wells Club established in 1893, and the Phillis Wheatley Club, founded in 1896. The motto of the national organization of women’s clubs was “Lifting as We Climb” (Hine, 1993; Bent-Goodley, 2001).

Lower class women were also active in clubs and formed organizations in an effort to serve themselves and the needy in their communities. For example, the Grand United Order of Tents established an Old Folks Home in Hampton in 1897. The home was to care for both orphaned children and disabled sisters of the Tents (Carlton-LaNey, 1989).

Early Social Work Education

African American reformers were not content to provide just local services, but engaged in an array of efforts. Educating and training professional social workers was seen as a way to reach a larger portion of those in need as well as a way to ensure that the highest quality of services was being provided. The National Urban League (NUL) under Dr. George Edmund Haynes’ directorship stands as a pioneer in social work education among African Americans. In 1911, the NUL established a social work certificate program and a fellowship training program. Essentially, securing and training African American social workers to work with their people was seen as an imperative by the national organization. Through courses in economics, sociology, African American history, playground and recreation and statistics and methods of social research, the program trained young college men and women for the social work profession. The fellowship program, which developed parallel to the training program, secured potential students via rigorous training and observation and followed up with financial support as they enrolled in prominent social work programs across the country. E. Kinckle Jones, the League’s second executive director, vigorously supported the training program. He believed that professionally trained African American social workers would raise the intelligence and add physical vigor to the community (Carlton-LaNey, 1999).

Other training programs included the Bishop Tuttle School in Raleigh, NC, which provided a two-year course of study in social work classroom preparation and a 12-week field experience during the second year (Gary & Gary, 1994). Training social workers also took the form of institutes. For example, Lugenia Burns Hope established a training institute in Atlanta in 1919 that formed the basis for the Atlanta School of Social Work which opened the next year. In 1926, Lawrence Oxley established the North Carolina Public Welfare Institutes for Negroes. It was designed to supplement training and provide staff development for African American workers in the state (Burwell, 1994).

Settlement Houses

In addition to training and educating social workers, African American women were instrumental in starting settlement houses in many communities. Some of the most prominent houses include Hampton, Virginia’s Locust Street Settlement, started by Janie Porter Barrett. Sarah Collins Fernandis established the Colored Social Settlement in Washington, DC in 1902. The settlement was opened in an area in Washington called “Bloodfield,” so named because of its reputation for violence. Birdye Henrietta Haynes, a professionally trained social worker and the first African American to graduate from the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, served as settlement house matron in two prominent settlements, Chicago’s Wendell Phillips Settlement and the Lincoln House in New York.

Community Development

In addition to settlement houses as a mechanism to strengthen communities, African American social welfare pioneers also engaged in community development. Marcus Garvey was a pioneer in this respect. Through his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey engaged in community building that Martin and Martin (1995) contended used “social work-type community organization and group work and social action techniques to recruit a huge following” (p. 148). To Garvey’s credit, the UNIA was a mechanism for improving the goodness-of-fit between needs and resources in the African American community and among African people throughout the Diaspora (Carlton-LaNey, 2001).

Lugenia Burns Hope, through her Atlanta Neighborhood Union, which she founded and led for twenty-five years, provided an international model of community building and race/gender activism. Operating under the aegis and motto of “Thy Neighbor as Thyself,” the Atlanta Neighborhood Union provided an array of services and programs that met some of the immediate survival needs of the community and helped citizens to understand the importance of being organized to address social problems (Rouse, 1989).

Hope was an activist extraordinaire who developed citizenship schools that consisted of six-week classes on voting, democracy, and the Constitution. Taught by professors at Atlanta University, the classes in the citizenship schools were so effective as to become part of the preparation for many for the civil rights activists in the South through the Highlander School/Center in Monteagle, Tennessee (Rouse, 1989).

Hope, Garvey and others sought to develop the African American community while simultaneously developing individuals within the community. A number of efforts that invested in human capital included orphanages, schools, old folks’ homes, and training schools. The Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, established in 1916, was an example of a program that invested in human capital. Through the Virginia School, Janie Porter Barrett, its founder, established a model for serving wayward girls who had often been abandoned by their communities and left to languish in the correctional system of adult offenders.

The Virginia School was established to help these girls to develop self-control, learn job skills and learn home-life skills so they could live independently as contributing citizens. The Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls became a model for North Carolina’s Efland Home, which was a training school for wayward girls established through private efforts in 1926. Efland Home gave the inmates a better social environment, industrial training and character building activities. The club women who founded the school, under Charlotte Hawkins Brown’s leadership, sought to give the inmates industrial training that would prepare them to make a living to care for themselves and their families. Furthermore, they wanted to model appropriate behavior for the girls (Brice, 2005).

As noted previously, the influence of the African American club women can not be underestimated. These women were vigilant and tenacious in their work to improve their communities and the lives of individuals who inhabited them. Furthermore, the reformers of the early 1900s, both male and female, initiated racially sensitive programs while modeling behavior that was deemed appropriate for upward mobility. They taught suitable and sustainable life skills, while simultaneously advising people to seek wholesome recreation, to join benevolent societies, to value education and to work and be thrifty.

Guided by a sense of race pride, adherence to the tradition of mutual aid and faithfulness to the deep-rooted meaning of social debt, these pioneers established services and programs that provide a legacy for contemporary social workers to emulate.


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