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NABSW Celebrates Social Work Month
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As NABSW celebrates Social Work Month 2014, we want to ensure that visitors to our website get the opportunity to learn about those social work leaders whose names you will not find in social work text books.  African-American social work pioneers worked, oftentimes, along side White social workers.  However, mention of their significant contributions are rarely, if ever, mentioned in social work history literature. 

Therefore, NABSW would like to highlight the lives of a few men and women who serve as our social work pioneers.  Join us weekly to honor our ancestors, those whose strong and brave shoulders we stand upon.  As you read their stories, call their names, so their legacies will never die. 

Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts are taken from Carlton-LaNey, I.B. (2001). African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history. Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.  Chapter authors referenced when applicable.

E. Franklin Frazier
Kerr Chandler, S. (2001). E. Franklin Frazier and social work: Unity and conflict.  In I. Carlton-LaNey (Ed.), African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history (pp. 189-201). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

E. Franklin Frazier, director of the Atlanta School of Social Work from 1922 to 1927, is probably the best known of the African American pioneers in social work.  He is scarcely well known; the Encyclopedia of Social Work did not include his biography until 1987 and schools of social work rarely note and less often study his contributions to the field.  Still, his name is recognized, and his face appears on posters celebrating the profession’s centennial where he is described as an “author”, a “scholar noted for his studies of the lack family”, and as someone who “promoted training for social workers.”


There is some irony in Frazier’s recent emergence as a “social work pioneer.”  First, it was sociology, not social work that brought Frazier to prominence.  Frazier was the first African American president of the American Sociological Association and the author of eight books and over 100 articles in that field.  Social Work was late in claiming Frazier as its own.  Second, the designation “pioneer” implies a relationship of mutual support, even pride, which Frazier and social work rarely enjoyed.  Although Frazier worked with enormous energy during the 1920s to establish and accredit the first African American school of social work, the Atlanta School of Social Work, his relationship with the profession was much characterized by conflict as it was common purpose. 


Three of Frazier’s intellectual and social commitments united him in part with social work and at the same time led to significant disjunctures with the profession.  These are (1) a worldview that included socialism and the empowerment of the African American community through economic cooperation; (2) a radical commitment to racial justice, including an intense dedication to the kind of rigorous and scientific education that would “[fill] the Negro’s mind with knowledge and [train] him in the fundamental habits of civilization” (Frazier, 1924, p. 144); and (3) a controversial effort to use the combined tools of psychoanalysis and social inquiry to probe the internal operation of race prejudice and racial oppression in both Whites and Blacks.  These commitments, combined with an irreverent sense of humor and a personal unwillingness to compromise, defined Frazier’s achievements, enriched his energetic work on behalf of social workers, and eventually contributed to his decision to draw away from the profession.


In 1923, Frazier developed his thoughts on the psychosis of the White South in an article, “The Pathology of Race Prejudice”, which was published in Forum, a leftist liberal journal in 1927.  Frazier questioned why White men and women, who are normally kind and law-abiding, are capable of “revolting forms of cruelty” when African Americans are involved.  Shortly after this article was published, the board of trustees asked Frazier to resign from the Atlanta School of Social Work, and its appearance set in motion a small story remembered for years in the African American Community.  This marked the end of Frazier’s association with Atlanta and social work.   Frazier was a brilliant scholar who was drawn to social work’s potentially liberating role, found himself in the end unable to accept the “conditions of racial adjustment” that not only the South, but also his social work sponsors demanded. 

Mary Church Terrell
Warren Cook, S. (2001). Mary Church Terrell and her mission: Giving decades of quiet service.  In I. Carlton-LaNey (Ed.), African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history (pp. 153-162). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Mary Church Terrell was born on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee to Louisa (Ayres) and Robert Reed Church, who were both former slaves.  Her father was a successful businessman and a millionaire real estate owner.  Robert Church was able to afford luxuries for his daughter that were uncommon for “colored girls” of the day.  At the age of six, she was sent to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to attend the Model School conducted by Antioch College.  She then attended Oberlin College, which was one of the few integrated institutions of higher learning in the United States (Oberlin opened up its doors to African Americans in 1835).  Terrell graduated in 1884.


In 1887, Mary Church obtained employment in the public school system in Washing, DC, as a Latin teacher in the Preparatory School for Colored Youth.  From 1889 to 1890, she traveled to Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, where she quickly learned several languages, including German and Italian.  She relished both the cultural opportunities available in other countries and the freedom from racial tensions that she experienced there.  While abroad, she refused several invitations to marry European men because she felt that such a marriage would cause her to relinquish her African American identity.  In 1891, after her return to the United States, she married Robert Terrell, a Harvard graduate and an attorney, who later became a municipal court judge. 


Terrell’s return to the United States brought a quick reminder of the racial injustices and brutalities that permeated the lives of African Americans.  In Memphis, just one year after her marriage, there were 255 documented lynchings in the city.  One lynching death, of a childhood friend, propelled Terrell into new social and political arenas.  She sought out a family friend, Frederick Douglass, and both met with President Benjamin Harrison at the White House for the explicit purpose of requesting that he condemn lynching in his annual Congressional address.  However, President Harrison refused to take a public stand against lynching.  Terrell believed that the greatest obstacle preventing the end of lynching was the public’s attitude towards such a crime.  These, along with other events, Terrell began a life of activism and agitation for civil rights launching a lifelong career that touched the lives of the wealthy, the poor, the prominent, and the meek alike.


In 1892, Terrell, along with Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Jane Patterson, organized the Colored Women’s League of Washington, DC. Terrell was elected the first president.  The guiding principle behind this club was racial uplift and empowerment through self-help.  In 1896, African American women met in Washington, DC, to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).  Terrell became the organization’s first president. 


Terrell, the daughter of former slaves, amassed a lifetime of accomplishments that spanned the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  She spent her life seeking greater freedom as an African American and as a woman.  Transcending rites of passage customarily reserved for White women, she refused conventional roles and became the voice for millions of silent victims.  She used her talents to teach, to lecture, to organize social welfare services and to empower women.  She fought for racial equality and suffrage for women. 


Marcus Mosiah Garvey

Harvey, A., & Carlton-LaNey, I.B. (2001). Marcus Garvey and community development via the UNIA.  In I. Carlton-LaNey (Ed.), African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history (pp. 75-85). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Marcus Garvey was among the social welfare leaders who engaged in community building at the turn of the century.  He used social work-type organization, group work, and social action to recruit a huge following.  Using the principles of community building, Garvey created one of the oldest powerful organizations of the early twentieth century; the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA & ACL).  The UNIA and ACL was one organization, divided in name only in order to separate the functions friendly and fraternal organization.  UNIA was from those of the business organization and ACL was required by the state of New York.  Garvey’s UNIA & ACL initiated community strategies that were multifold, connecting empowerment strategies with economic, political, and social development.  UNIA enhanced its members’ sense of competence by allowing and encouraging them to have an effect on their social and physical environments.


Marcus Mosiah Garvey lived from 1887 to 1940.  Born in Jamaica, West Indies, he moved to New York in 1916.  He was deported back to Jamaica as an undesirable in 1927 after his release from serving one year in prison for alleged mail fraud.  W.E.B. DuBois, scholar, civil rights leader, and editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People journal, Crisis, acknowledged that Garvey was the central and dynamic force of the UNIA.  Garvey aroused the zeal and fervor of millions of Africans and African Americans during the UNIA’s heyday.


Garvey engaged in functional community organizing.  A fundamental community is defined as a community of interest. People share concern about common issues, but they may or may not live in close proximity.  Garvey understood that knowledge was power, and he encouraged his followers to educate themselves and to use every opportunity to educate people about the organization. He also embraced the social and economic development model of community practice. Additionally, in order to facilitate Afrocentricity, Garvey supported capacity building and self-efficacy; he also emphasized self-reliance, nationhood, and race first whether in religion, history, literature, or the economy. 


From a social welfare perspective, the UNIA & ACL provided a social and economic milieu conductive to individual, familial, and community development in an era when the local and national systems neglected to provide these services for African American people.  Ironically, even though the UNIA & ACL declined rapidly after Garvey’s death, its legacy lived and provided a model both philosophically and pragmatically for community practice among Black people worldwide.

Eugene Kinkle Jones
Armfield, F.L, & Carlton-LaNey, I.B. (2001). Eugene Kinkle Jones: A statesman for the times. 
In I. Carlton-LaNey (Ed.), African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history (pp. 137-152). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Eugene Kinkle Jones (1885-1954) grew up in an integrated environment in Richmond, Virginia. Both of Jonses's parents were well educated and taught in African American institutions of higher education.  His father taught theology at Virginia Union College for Negroes, and his mother was a music teacher at Hartshorn Memorial College for African American women.  Upon his completion of his studies at Virginia Union College in 1905, Jones enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to pursue a master's degree in mathematics and engineering. However, after one year, he refocused and completed his studies in economics and social science, earning a master's degree in 1908.  Jones confronted the color line that he found limited his employment options to teaching in the private and public schools for Negroes in Louisville, Kentucky.  There, he met the prominent social worker and sociologist George Edmund Haynes, who proposed that he come to New York and work for the newly formed League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (later renamed National Urban League [NUL] in 1920).

Jones became an energetic advocate for African Americans and began his lifelong commitment to legitimize the African American social worker's professional authority.  By 1916, Jones had been officially appointed the executive secretary of the NUL.  With the rapid migration of African Americans to the north, Jones realized the need for more professional social workers to serve the growing population.  He, along with other African American social workers, tried to convince white social workers of the need to address the race question.  Jones believed the best solution to address racial disharmony was to develop working relationships between the races.

Jones was involved in many aspects of the life of the community, and played a significant role in the African American intellectual movement in the 1920s.  He was perhaps the most instrumental participant in helping to establish a permanent repository for Arthur A. Schomburg's collection of African American historic artifacts.  Jones also worked to establish the Associates in Negro Folk Education located in New York City and Atlanta, which later published the Bronze Booklet Series that chronicled African Americans' history in their own words.  Jones was elected to serve on the executive board of the National Conference of Social Work (NCSW), where he continually addressed the accomplishments of African American social workers.  During his seven year stay on the NCSW executive board (1926-1935), he addressed and interpreted the social and economic concerns of the African American community to an integrated national audience. 

Kinkle Jones, as he was known, worked to empower the people he served.  He engaged in empowerment-based practice as he attempted to ensure a better quality of life for African Americans.  E. Kinkle Jones, social worker, politician, and statesman, should be remembered as one who worked to ensure a place for African Americans within the social work profession. 

Thyra J. Edwards

Martin, E., & Martin, J. (2001). Thyra J. Edwards: International social worker. In I. Carlton-LaNey (Ed.), African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history (pp. 163-177). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Thyra J. Edwards was born December 25, 1897 in Houston, Texas.  She graduated from Houston Colored High School in 1915, and went on to take courses in family casework, child welfare, and labor problems at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.  Over the next few years, she took additional courses in psychiatric social work, psychoanalysis, the social sciences, literature, and forensic science at Indiana University, Kent College of Law, and the University of Chicago.  Edwards went on to study labor relations and economic history at Brookwood Labor College, a trade union school sponsored by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in Brookwood, NY.  While enrolled as Brookwood, she also studied journalism and public speaking, both of which had a profound impact on her professional career.  Edwards continued her educational pursuits after receiving a fellowship from the AFL to study at the International People's College in Elsinore, Denmark where she studied worker's education, social welfare legislation, modern European political thought, and economic consumer cooperatives. 

Noted as one of the most outstanding Negro women in the world, Edwards is virtually unknown today in social work.  She was a journalist, world travelor, lecturer, and labor organizer, all of which she saw as an important component to social work.  Edwards believed that social work should not be limited to a narrow focus or single discipline, such as psychoanalysis or sociology, but should also encompass political economy, social history, women's issues, race relations, labor issues, and world affairs.  Edwards was ahead of her time with her emphasis on internationalism, and her ability to work with clients of all races and nationalities during a time when White social workers thought that Black social workers should only help Black clients.  Additionally, Edwards was able to rise to the level of supervisor and administrator, positions not typical for Black people at the time. Child welfare was her main area of focus from the beginning of her professional career as a social worker.

Thyra J. Edwards died on July 9, 1953.  She was cremated and her ashes scattered across the Atlantic Ocean that she crossed many times throughout her life.  Thyra J. Edwards was truly a social work pioneer.
Excerpts provided are only a snapshot of the accomplishments of these social work pioneers.  For further reading, consider purchasing Dr. Carlton-LaNey's textbook by clicking HERE!
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