African Americans were deeply involved in social work during the Progressive Era, yet their contributions to the field are often overlooked. In “African American Leadership: An Empowerment Tradition in Social Welfare History,” Iris B. Carlton-LaNey has collected essays that shed light on 14 of these individuals. Although a few have gained widespread recognition, many of these names are likely unfamiliar to you. Some were the children of slaves, and others came from more comfortable backgrounds, but they all had to overcome significant obstacles to accomplish what they did during their careers.
Many of the women included in this exhibit were integral in the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which had the motto “Lifting as we Climb.” That is exactly what these social work pioneers did, despite the racism, prejudice, lack of resources, and in some cases, outright hostility they faced. Their dedication and perseverance deserve to be recognized, as well as the important contributions they made to their communities and to the field of social work.
The information included in this exhibit is based on the essays in Carlton-LaNey’s book, and is intended to highlight certain aspects of the work these individuals did rather than provide a comprehensive overview of their careers.
Click on the tabs below to learn about each of these social welfare pioneers.
Janie Porter Barrett was born in Athens, Georgia in 1865. Her mother worked in the home of a white family, who treated Barrett as one of their own and educated her in mathematics and literature. She attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, where she trained as an elementary school teacher.
Barrett founded the Virginia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and served as its first president, and also established a Child Welfare Department at the Locust Street Settlement, which provided guidance for young mothers and children and worked to remove African American children from jail.
Early welfare organizations and institutions in the South generally excluded African American children who were delinquent or unable to be cared for by their families, and many were therefore put in jail. Barrett saw the need for more specialized services for this population. Through the federation, she helped raise money for the purchase of land on which to start a school, and she also organized an interracial board of men and women to obtain funds from the state. In 1915, the Industrial Home for Colored Girls opened its doors, with Barrett as the superintendent.
The home created a caring and structured environment for delinquent girls who had no other placement options. Residents were given a social assessment at admission and paired with a peer “big sister” to help them learn the school’s expectations, which were strictly enforced. The program’s goals were to improve the girls’ self-control and prepare them for jobs once they were discharged. The curriculum included domestic sciences, household skills, religion, and agriculture, in addition to educational instruction. After an application and a screening process, residents were given supervised employment in a family. When they had completed two years of successful employment, they graduated from the program.
The federation turned over control of the Industrial Home for Colored Girls to the state in 1920, and in the 1970’s it was renamed the Barrett Learning Center. It still exists today, as a public agency for juvenile delinquents of all races.
Thyra J. Edwards was born in 1897 in Houston, Texas. She graduated from the Houston Colored High School, and went on to train in social work. Throughout her career, Edwards’s main interest was the plight of children. She wanted to learn about child welfare policies and practices of other countries, and a fellowship allowed her to study at a college in Denmark. This trip abroad had a profound effect on her approach to her work, and led her to believe that African Americans, and especially social workers, needed to have a more international perspective. Before returning home, she also explored England, Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union, Austria, Germany, and France.
Edwards brought back with her the desire to mobilize African American women workers, and she became a labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Chicago. She had a broad view of social work, and considered her union organizing to be a part of her social work practice. Edwards also worked in relief agencies in Chicago, advocating especially on behalf of the poor and unemployed. She believed that social workers should become politicized, and she herself was involved in many political causes.
In 1936, Edwards began leading educational and cultural tours of Europe for African Americans, which she called travel seminars. Her tours became so popular that she eventually added a travel seminar to Mexico. While abroad, she served as a foreign correspondent, sending stories home to be published in the US.
Edwards led a very busy, full life, and was a sought-after speaker. She lectured both in the US and abroad, and conducted seminars at numerous colleges and universities. She also held positions in the Women’s Section of the National Negro Congress and the Congress of American Women, and was a member of several professional groups.
During the Spanish Civil War, Edwards traveled to Spain, where she organized relief for children who had been impacted by the war, including psychiatric units to help children deal with the war’s psychological and emotional effects. After World War II, she served on an international committee investigating post-war conditions in Germany for women and children, and she organized the first Jewish child care program in Rome for survivors of the Holocaust.
Although her life was cut short by illness, Edwards accomplished an enormous amount during her career. Her approach to social work was far ahead of her time, and continues to serve as a model for social workers today.
Sarah Collins Fernandis was born in Port De Poset, Maryland in 1863. She graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, and went on to attend the New York School of Social Work. She began her career as a teacher, including one position that brought her to several southern states. As a result, she learned about what conditions were like for African Americans in the south after the Civil War, and what was needed to improve them.
Fernandis eventually settled in Washington, DC with her husband in an African American neighborhood known for violence and poor living conditions. She believed that social and economic deprivation were to blame, and was determined to change the neighborhood’s reputation and improve her neighbors’ standard of living. To do so, she founded a settlement house called the Colored Social Settlement. Fernandis lived in the settlement herself, and was intimately involved in the life of the community. Some of her initiatives included establishing a branch of the public library, teaching community members how to save money, providing free kindergarten classes, providing food and bathing facilities for those who needed them, and building the first playground open for African American children in Baltimore.
In Fernandis’s mind, education was a critical factor in improving living conditions for poor African Americans, and she lobbied for legislation that would make school attendance compulsory. She was also committed to improving housing conditions and advocated for African American property ownership. She fought to have old, uninhabitable shacks torn down and new, low-income housing built in their place.
Fernandis went on to found a second social settlement in Greenwich, Rhode Island. She participated in a lecture tour with the National League of Women Voters, and was invited to serve on the Women’s Advisory Council to the US Public Health Service.
E. Franklin Frazier was born in Baltimore in 1894. He received an undergraduate degree from Howard University and a master’s degree in sociology from Clark University, and studied at the New York School of Social Work from 1920 to 1921. In 1922, Frazier accepted a position as a professor at the Atlanta School of Social Work, which had been established only a couple years earlier. One year later, he became the school’s director.
Frazier brought energy and enthusiasm to his position. He worked hard to raise the school’s profile, make it economically independent, and attract qualified students. Under his leadership, the school implemented higher standards for accepting and educating its students.
Frazier was outspoken and uncompromising in his beliefs about racial justice. He despised segregation, and disapproved of African Americans who were willing to accept the status quo. He was also committed to socialism and the power of economic cooperation to uplift African Americans. While studying in New York, he completed an investigation of African American longshoremen sponsored by the Urban League. He continued to study African American workers after moving to Georgia, and also examined topics such as the cotton economy, lynching, African American schools, and the emerging middle class.
The field of social work did not always welcome Frazier and his ideas. Socialism was not widely accepted in mainstream social work, and people of both races took offense to the strong opinions he expressed. After publicly criticizing a book written by one of the white board members of the Atlanta School of Social Work, Frazier’s already fraught relationship with the board of trustees deteriorated further, and he was asked to resign in 1927. Later that year, amidst uproar about an article he had written called “The Pathology of Race Prejudice,” Frazier left Atlanta and the field of social work.
Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887 and moved to New York in 1916. He created the Universal Negro Improvement Association & African Communities League, and used community building techniques to grow the organization into a powerful force for change.
Garvey believed strongly in cultural self-determination and the importance of having a sense of place. The UNIA was rooted in what would now be called an ecological perspective; it aimed to improve the economic, political, and social circumstances of Africans and African Americans throughout the diaspora. Garvey’s charisma and skill as a public speaker drew people into his movement, and he encouraged his followers to educate others about the organization in order to reach a wider audience.
Within the UNIA, a group called the Universal African Black Cross Nurses was created to provide preventive medicine, care for the sick, and promote safety and health. The UNIA also focused on educating and nurturing children through a range of programs, including classes about African and African American history. Garvey felt that it was important for African American children to have high self-esteem and pride in their race.
Economic development and independence were also an important part of the UNIA’s mission, and multiple business ventures were established to achieve this aim, including restaurants, a printing press, and a shipping line. Active members of the organization paid dues, which were used to help those experiencing illness or financial distress.
Although the UNIA declined after the U.S. government deported Garvey back to Jamaica in 1927 on charges of mail fraud, the organization and the movement it represented left behind a model for community practice among Black people worldwide.
Birdye Henrietta Haynes was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1886. Her older brother, George Edmund Haynes was a prominent figure in the field of social work, and had an important influence on her. After moving to Tennessee to attend high school, she enrolled in Fisk University, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1909.
Haynes taught high school domestic science briefly, and then received a fellowship to study social work at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. While attending school, she lived at the Wendell Phillips Settlement, and also served as the head worker there. In this role, she helped develop programs to serve the African American community, including activities for children, lectures, and social events. However, the board of directors did not provide Haynes with adequate support and resources, and after graduating from the Chicago School, she relocated to New York to become the head worker at the Lincoln House Settlement.
The Lincoln House Settlement had a more engaged board of directors and a staff that reported to Haynes. During her almost 7 years at the organization, Haynes became deeply involved in the community, which helped her earn the trust and respect of the local residents. She was determined to bring about positive change through her work, sometimes staying as late as midnight to provide support for the house’s various activities. The long days and hard work eventually took their toll, and Haynes started experiencing bouts of illness that forced her to resign. Shortly after, she died from heart failure at the age of 35. Although her social work career was ultimately cut short, Haynes was a pioneer whose work no doubt impacted many, despite the constraints she experienced as an African American woman navigating a system that was not designed to support her.
George Edmund Haynes and Elizabeth Ross Haynes both graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1903, and they married in 1912. They were highly educated—George Haynes earned a doctorate in sociology and economics, and Elizabeth Ross Haynes had a master’s degree in sociology, both from Columbia University. They believed that education was critical to African American empowerment, and that they had an obligation to lift up those who were less fortunate.
George Haynes was the cofounder and first executive director of the National Urban League. The NUL became a major social work organization in the African American community, offering a range of services such as education, daycare, housing services, and travelers’ aid. Haynes also established the earliest social work training program for African Americans through the NUL, at Fisk University. The program included two courses on African American history, and required students to live within the community’s settlement houses, so that they could better understand the people they were serving.
Elizabeth Ross Haynes began her social service work with the Student Department of the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association. She provided support for branches of the YWCA on college campuses, and offered encouragement and mentorship to the young women she came in contact with. Ross Haynes was also a speaker, a philanthropist, and a consultant for various organizations.
Both George Haynes and Elizabeth Ross Haynes conducted scholarly research, which they wrote about and presented. George Haynes wrote many articles and several books during his career, and also wrote detailed reports that became part of the public record. In addition to her research papers, Elizabeth Ross Haynes wrote a children’s book and a biography.
Eugene Kinckle Jones was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1885. Because both of his parents taught in higher education, Jones grew up in an integrated environment, despite Jim Crow segregation. He attended Virginia Union College, and then went on to graduate from Cornell University with a master’s degree in economics and social science in 1908.
While teaching in Louisville, Kentucky, Jones met the social worker George Edmund Haynes, who suggested that he come to New York to work for the National Urban League (NUL). He accepted the position of field secretary in 1911, and was charged with investigating and reporting on the conditions of life for African Americans living in New York City. Jones also helped migrants acclimate to the urban environment, and worked to expand employment opportunities for African Americans.
In 1916, Jones was appointed the executive secretary of the NUL. In this leadership role, he became the spokesperson and figurehead for the organization, traveling to speaking engagements across the country and serving on a variety of special councils, committees, and boards. He also called on his large network of contacts in philanthropic organizations to help fundraise for the NUL.
Jones recognized that more trained social workers were needed to serve the African American population, and he encouraged young African Americans to pursue social work as a career. He kept this issue at the top of the NUL’s agenda, and the organization’s Fellowship Program was successful in training and placing many African American social workers.
Born a slave in Fort Valley, Georgia, Matthews was the youngest of 9 children. After emancipation, she moved with her mother to Virginia, and then New York City. Although she was forced to leave school at age 15 to support her family working as a domestic, she continued to educate herself however she could.
As a freelance journalist published in many notable newspapers of the time, she wrote to educate others about African American people, bring attention to the racism they faced, and advocate for reform.
Matthews was one of the founders of the African Americanwomen’s club movement, which brought African American women together around the shared goal of uplifting their community. She was active in both local and national organizations, helping to found the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn in 1892, acting as the chair of the executive committee of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and serving as the first national organizer for the National Association of Colored Women. In these roles, she was a powerful advocate for African American women, calling people across the country to join in the movement for social reform.
After the death of her teenage son, Matthews turned her focus to helping children and young women in New York. In 1897, she led an effort to start a social service organization, which became a settlement house called the White Rose Mission and Industrial Association. The home offered many services, including classes for children and adults, lodging, social clubs, free meals, and a library. Matthews was especially committed to providing aid for young African American women who moved to New York for work, often with few resources and no local connections. Representatives from the White Rose Home would meet new arrivals at the docks and help them adjust to life in the city.
Lawrence Oxley was born in Boston in 1887 to a middle-class family. He received a private education at a local preparatory school and took classes at Harvard University, although he did not receive a degree. He joined the army during the first World War and was one of few African Americans to serve as a Morale Officer.
Having conducted surveys about conditions among African Americans during the war and taught social science classes at a college in North Carolina afterwards, Oxley was named the director of the Division of Work Among Negroes in 1925. The Division was a part of the North Carolina State Board of Charities and Public Welfare, and was established to promote self-help and study social conditions in African American communities.
Because welfare work was strictly segregated, Oxley encouraged African Americans to be their own agents of positive change, and he organized people across the state to raise the funds needed to make community improvements. He was also committed to increasing the number of African American social workers and providing social work training and staff development. To do so, he established annual public welfare institutes that brought together prominent social workers and students from the surrounding states.
As the director of the Division of Work Among Negroes, Oxley dealt with individuals and institutions, often serving as a mediator in cases of racial conflict. He was also a speaker, writer, and researcher who conducted detailed studies on child welfare, crime, and unemployment for the state of North Carolina.
In 1934, Oxley took a job in the U.S. Department of Labor. In this position, he mediated labor disputes all over the country, helped find job placements for African American workers, and conducted nationwide studies on organized labor and the Black worker. Even after retiring from public service, he continued his social welfare work as an advocate for the elderly.
Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863. Her father had risen from slavery to success as a businessman, and could afford to send her to Ohio to attend the Model School run by Antioch College. Afterwards, she attended Oberlin College, which was one of the only integrated institutions of higher learning in the US at the time.
Terrell worked as a teacher in Washington, DC for a couple of years, and then traveled to Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, where she learned several languages and enjoyed freedom from the racial tension she experienced at home. Two years after she returned to the US, one of her childhood friends was lynched in Memphis. The murder had a profound impact on Terrell, and pushed her toward greater activism and involvement in the fight for racial justice.
Along with others, Terrell organized the Colored Women’s League of Washington, DC, and she served as its first president. When the organization merged with the National Federation of Afro-American Women to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), she also served as president. Under her leadership, care for children was a major part of the NACW’s agenda. Terrell advocated for free kindergartens in every city and the creation of a Mothers’ Congress to teach women about appropriate child rearing practices.
She traveled to speaking engagements across the country and the world, addressing among others the Berlin International Congress of Women, the International League for Peace and Freedom, and the World Fellowship of Faiths. In 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World.
Margaret Murray Washington was born in 1865 in Macon, Mississippi. Little is known about her early life and her family. After the death of her father when she was seven, Washington went to live with a local Quaker family. She enrolled in Fisk University’s Preparatory School in 1881, where she studied topics such as Latin, Greek, philosophy, science, and literature.
Washington was a gifted student, and shortly after graduating, she was offered a job teaching English at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Thanks to her leadership abilities, she was soon promoted to Lady Principal and Director of Women’s Industries at Tuskegee. In these roles, and as the wife of the school’s president (she married Booker T. Washington in 1892), Washington was deeply involved in the school’s activities, and kept a close watch over the faculty and students.
Much of Washington’s work extended to the local community. In 1895, she founded the Tuskegee Woman’s Club. Washington was particularly attuned to the socioeconomic challenges that rural African Americans faced, and she was determined to help them improve their situation. Members of the Woman’s Club hosted weekly educational meetings for rural mothers, and worked with the residents of the Elizabeth Russell Plantation Settlement, organizing clubs and classes, helping with medical bills, building a playground, and starting a school. In addition, Washington established the Town Night School, which taught a range of vocational and academic classes to adult residents of the town of Tuskegee.
Washington was also involved regionally and nationally. As the first president of the Alabama State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, she led the group in working for prison reform. They founded the Mt. Meigs Reformatory for Juvenile Law-Breakers, which kept delinquent boys out of adult prisons. She also served as the president of the National Federation of Afro-American Women and of the National Association of Colored Women, and lectured widely.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi to parents who had recently been freed from slavery. When she was 16, both of her parents and three of her siblings died of yellow fever, leaving her to raise her five remaining siblings on her own.
Wells-Barnett was a woman of strong convictions, who wasn’t afraid to fight for what she believed. In 1884, she successfully sued a railroad company for forcing her off a train when she refused to ride in the smoking car. The article she wrote about the lawsuit marked the beginning of her illustrious career as a journalist.
In her writing, Wells-Barnett called attention to inequality and advocated for racial justice. She focused on educating the public about the horrors of lynching by gathering data and challenging inaccurate perceptions. She travelled to Europe in 1893 and 1898 to enlist Europeans in the anti-lynching cause.
Wells-Barnett was also active in the women’s club movement and multiple national organizations. She organized the first civic club in Chicago for African American women, and founded the Negro Fellowship League, which was an alternative to settlement houses in Chicago. In order to fund the center and provide social services, she worked as a probation officer, the first African American to do so in Chicago. In 1913, she established the Alpha Suffrage Club, which conducted voter registration drives for African American women. She was involved in the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Afro-American Council, but ultimately withdrew from all three organizations over ideological disagreements.
Outspoken and unwavering in her beliefs, Wells-Barnett was not always popular. She faced real consequences and considerable danger for the work she did. Nonetheless, she remained committed to the cause of African American empowerment throughout her life.