A History of African American Social Workers: Trailblazers & Innovators

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A History of African American Social Workers: Trailblazers & Innovators
Bio: Tiffany Thompson earned an MSW from Spalding University, Louisville, Kentucky. She is a published author who is passionate about foster care, women’s rights, education, and social justice. When not volunteering or pursuing professional development, she enjoys spending time with her family.

Reflecting on the fact that February is African American History Month, the aim of this article is to share some highlights from the history of African American social work practice and lessons moving forward. Currently, a gap exists in the knowledgebase involving past and present African American social work practice. Although individual stories have been shared, there are very few comprehensive studies or articles about the impact of African American social workers on the profession, the challenges they face, or the advances they have made. Their experiences, resilience, and grit has distinguished the field of social work practice among other helping professions. From the Progressive Era (1898-1918) to today, African American social workers have continued a strengths-focused heritage that will endure for generations (Carlton-LaNey, 1999.)

In the book, The American Century: A History of the United States Since the 1890s, authors Walter Lafeber, Richard Plenberg, and Nancy Woloch discuss the plight of African Americans during the Progressive era beginning with the 1890s.

This information provides needed context for understanding the circumstances surrounding this point in history. The socio-economic status of African Americans, throughout these years, was uncertain compared to that of foreign settlers (Lafeber, Polenberg, and Woloch, 1988). Many Southern African Americans lost their voting rights. Walking behind other suffragettes, Northern African American women often protested for voting rights. Concerning Settlement houses, access for African American clients was limited to racially separated spaces. Mary White Ovington, a New York social worker and supporter of W. E. B. Dubois, tried unsuccessfully to establish a settlement house for African Americans (Lafeber, Polenberg, and Woloch, 1988).

Documenting the conditions of New York’s African American public squalor, Ovington circulated an article in 1911. Unfortunately, empathy among settlement workers was scarce. Anticipating audiences would encourage the elimination of racial prejudice, Dubois presented an exhaustive look at the predicament of African Americans in “The Philadelphia Negro (1899)”. Taking a pro-active stance, DuBois started the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to end racial separation and push for equality in education and voting privileges (Lafeber, Polenberg, and Woloch, 1988). An atmosphere filled with poverty, discrimination, and a lack of resources was fallow ground for early African American social workers.

Iris Carlton-LaNey, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, revealed some historical nuggets in an article titled, “African American Social Work Pioneers’ Response to Need.” Carlton-LaNey (1999), discusses standards and ideologies, fundamentals and aspects of practice, and connotations for future practice that characterized the African American social work narrative.

During the Progressive Era (1898-1918), the primary focus of African American social workers was the individual and systemic challenges confronted by their clients and the broader population. Themes such as paying-it-forward, reciprocal assistance, positivity about one’s racial-ethnic background, and empowerment were evident in their professional tradition (Carlton-LaNey, 1999).

The following are significant points gathered from Carlton-LaNey’s (1999) standards and ideologies of the period:
• African American social workers cultivated a climate that involved helping their community.
• In the modern age, social advocacy, born out of reciprocal assistance, came to the forefront.
• African American social workers fostered concepts such as; empowerment, awareness, and a positive self-image.
• Forerunners such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Elizabeth Ross Haynes, Lucy Laney, and Mary McLeod Bethune were teachers and/or founded educational institutions during their vocations as social workers and social reformers (Carlton-LaNey, 1999).

If you compare these themes from the Progressive Era to the mission outlined by the NASW Code of Ethics (2008), there are many similarities:
Code of Ethics: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence (NASW Code of Ethics, 2008).

Progressive Era African American Social Work practice: community outreach, advocacy, reciprocal assistance, empowerment, awareness, and self-esteem (Carlton-LaNey, 1999).

Regarding fundamentals and aspects of practice, Carlton-LaNey (1999) shares the following insights:
• According to Hine (1990), Nannie Burroughs, organizer of the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, DC realized the weight of bringing about racial and sexual freedom when she concluded that African American social workers “specialize in the wholly impossible” (as cited in Carlton-LaNey, 1999, p. 318).
• African American social workers volunteered time and humble monetary contributions to individuals, families, and senior services as a humanitarian aspect of their practice.
• Secret societies such as: Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, True Reformers, and the Masons provided socialization, networking opportunities, and resources for their clients.
• The National Negro Business League, the NAACP, foster homes, libraries, hospitals, and mental health institutions were initiated by African American social reformers.
• A worldview adopted by many African American social workers during this era was the Africentric paradigm. This belief denoted: worth of the person, group culture, and humanity’s subsistence as a whole.
• In 1911, Fisk University designed the premier structured social work curriculum for African Americans. As the initial executive director and co-founder of the National Urban League, Dr. George Edmund Haynes originated history classes to be included in the social work curriculum. Via the National Urban League Fellowship, many students took advantage of the new scholarly social work preparation offered.
• Social justice matters were critically examined through a concept called a “race lens” (Carlton-LaNey, 1999, p. 314). In the African American life-cycle, this process deemed racism as a prevailing force (Carlton-LaNey, 1999).

Exploring the service delivery of African American social workers and their influences during the Progressive Era, gives us a framework for identifying the difficulties met by early practitioners and their communities. It also allows for detailed evaluation of our current practice (Carlton-LaNey, 1999). After further examination, I realized that these early torchbearers are not so different from modern social workers today. As a MSW graduate student at Spalding University from 2013-2015, I had three examples of African-American social workers who were professors and innovators in the field: Mindy Eaves, Ron Jackson, and Justin Miller, Ph.D.

Mindy L. Eaves, MSW, is currently a Doctor of Social Work candidate at the University of St. Thomas. She earned her MSW from Spalding University in 2011 and was an instructor for the Spalding School of Social Work. She is presently the Ombudsman for Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Kentucky and an Adjunct Social Work Faculty at Western Kentucky University. She has written numerous social work publications, most recently “The A-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and other Helping Professionals” along with fellow editors Erlene Grise-Owens and J. Jay Miller and “The Ombuds Wellness Workshop with Nancy J. Deering. She continues to serve the Greater Louisville Metro and surrounding communities through her professional practice and social justice advocacy. (linkedin.com/in/mindy-l-eaves-a43b1b62, 2017).

Ron Jackson, MSW, is currently Assistant Dean of Off-Campus Student Relations at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona. He was formerly the Director of Leadership and Student Development and Social Work Faculty at Spalding University. He continues to work tirelessly for the ASU campus community and the broader society to bring about social justice (linkedin.com/in/ron-jackson-801b3359, 2017).

Justin “Jay” Miller, Ph.D. is presently Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Kentucky. He is chair of Kentucky’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board for a duration of two-years, from January 2017 – December 2019. Through his scholarship, research, and instruction at UK, Miller is an enthusiastic voice and supporter of youth involved in juvenile systems, foster care youth, and those aging-out (Blackford, 2017).

He is also a representative of the Children’s Justice Act Task Force (Vaughn, 2016). Off campus, functioning as advisor and researcher, Miller is president of Foster Care Alumni of America –Kentucky.

In addition to other professional positions, he is also vice chair of the Kentucky Board of Social Work, (Blackford, 2017). Additionally, he is one of three social work educators who co-edited a book published in July, 2016 titled, “The A-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and other Helping Professionals” (Blackford, 2016).

Along with the book, Miller’s most recent scholarship publications include: “Conceptualizing a Mobile App for Foster Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: A Mixed-Method Approach” by Miller, Jay J; Chih, Ming Yuan; Washington, Earl and “Conceptualizing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning for Social Work Education” by Grise-Owens, Erlene; Owens, Larry W; Miller, Jay J. (Otis, 2017).

Taken together Eaves, Jackson, and Miller were valued mentors during my graduate studies. I am grateful for all of the time, talent, and wisdom each of these individuals shared with me. This article would not permit the presentation of all the African American social workers who have served their communities, defined social work practice, developed programming, and originated benevolent organizations to uplift individuals and families. As we remember African American history month, let us not forget the contributions of our brothers and sisters in the field.

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