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date: 27 November 2022

African American Social Welfare Historyfree

African American Social Welfare Historyfree

  • Iris Carlton-LaNeyIris Carlton-LaNeyUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


This article discusses the African American social welfare system that began to develop during the early 20th century. This social welfare system, designed by African Americans to serve African Americans, addressed needs that were not being met by any other formal social services while the nascent social work profession was emerging. The myriad programs included settlement houses, boys and girls programs, training schools, and day nurseries. The women’s club movement played a critical role in the development of this social welfare system and provided much of the impetus for change and inclusion. Through formal organizations, including the National Urban League (NUL) and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and an array of clubs and social groups, social services were extended to urban and rural communities throughout the United States.


  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Poverty
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

African American social welfare had its informal beginning in the communities of enslaved Africans and in isolated communities of emancipated African American women and men. Those social welfare efforts provided models for the development of formal services and programs that ensued following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. African Americans quickly learned that freedom was not free. Even before the Civil War had ended, various forms of sharecropping and tenant farming emerged that were further developed as a replacement for the plantation system. This new plantation system was accompanied by intense exclusionary practices and policies such as convict leasing and debt peonage; any ideas that African Americans might have had for inclusion as free people were quickly dashed. These practices, laws, and policies were poignant and African Americans’ understanding of themselves as a distinct group was further crystalized.

Mutual Benefit Societies

The mutual beneficence that characterized enslaved communities can be traced to the African tradition of collectivity. This Afrocentric perspective embraced the interconnectedness of all things—mind, body and spirit—as well as the emphasis of the group over the individual. This group identity contributed to the establishment and growth of social institutions, including churches, secret orders, and mutual aid societies.

Mutual benefit societies became a significant fixture in the African American community and proliferated between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s. These groups were enmeshed in the collective consciousness and identity, reflecting African patterns of service and problem-solving. The assemblage of organizations known as mutual benefit societies included a broad array of groups that focused on specific problems and needs, including literary, temperance, and moral reform clubs and societies (Carlton-LaNey, 2005).

One of the most prominent mutual benefit societies was the Independent Order of St. Luke. Founded in 1867, the Order of St. Luke grew to a membership of more than 100,000 by 1920 under the direction of its charismatic leader, Maggie Lena Walker. The Order of St. Luke engaged in many different business ventures, including banking, real estate, department store operation, and newspaper publishing.

Finding ways to communicate with large diverse audiences was essential to the development and sustainability of social welfare among African Americans. The major roles in this system of communication were filled by newsletters and newspapers; the availability of written interchange further contributed to the African American community’s social and political uplift. The Order of St. Luke’s newspaper, The Luke Herald, provided regular news stories about injustices leveled against African Americans, touted the importance of racial unity and cooperation, and celebrated individual and community social events (Marlowe, 1993).

Similar to many mutual benefit societies, life insurance was a major component of the Order of St. Luke’s services, especially because white-owned companies refused to issue policies for African Americans. Among African Americans, membership in mutual benefit societies provided one of the few avenues available for purchasing life insurance and burial policies. The ability and will to own a burial policy signified good judgment, thrift, and moral uprightness. In sum, mutual benefit societies provided a social welfare service that was not available through the mainstream market economy. The many African Americans who were unable to avail themselves of large, well-organized mutual benefit societies established their own smaller-scale insurance-like groups. Mamie Garvin Fields (1983), a South Carolina teacher and community leader, noted the need for burial insurance, which prompted the development of “parlor societies.” Parlor ladies were an exclusive, small group of elite African American women, many of whom worked as teachers or contributed to their communities and families through volunteer and club work (Mark, 1999). The Parlor Societies of Charleston, South Carolina, met in individual family’s parlors to share information, provide social support, collect dues, and make payments of death, sick, and disability benefits.

Benevolent societies, such as the Order of St. Luke, the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, and the Eastern Star, enjoyed prominence in the African American community. These fraternal organizations also provided deposits for the initial capital used in establishing the first fifty African American banks founded in the United States. These benevolent societies also provided an array of services and programs to enhance and protect the welfare of the African American community. Many societies had youth groups or women’s auxiliaries, and they focused on enhancing family life. For example, in 1921, the Prince Hall Freemasons and the Eastern Star established a coeducational group called the Order of the Bees. This group’s mission was to prepare youth for membership and eventual leadership in the Masons and Easter Star and to discourage evil and unwholesomeness. These youth were given social and fraternal instruction as well as burial benefits (Summers, 2004).

Although insurance was a critical service provided by the mutual benefit societies, these groups also provided adults and youth with opportunities to develop business and leadership acumen. In sum, the benevolent societies became proving grounds for community leadership development and were multiservice organizations of prominence in African American communities throughout the United States.

Women’s Club Movement

The women’s club movement also proved fertile ground for the development of strong, competent leadership as well as for the establishment of a significant, well-crafted system of social welfare. The African American women’s club movement began with a meeting held in New York’s Lyric Hall to honor and support Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, who was a well-known journalist and leader of the anti-lynching crusade (Giddings, 2008). The social welfare system that the club women’s movement ignited provided a model for others that followed them, including the Greek-letter sororities. These groups as well as a proliferation of other clubs and social welfare services were established by the organizers of the Lyric Hall meeting or by those who had been stirred to action by the speeches delivered at the Lyric Hall meeting and by the enthusiasm shown by the organizers for reform and activism.

The list of reformers within the women’s club movement includes many strong, determined, intelligent, and politically powerful women, and they include Ida Wells-Barnett, Victoria Earle Matthews, Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lugenia Burns Hope, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Janie Porter Barrett, Elizabeth Ross Haynes, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown. These women, along with their peers, organized women’s clubs to support families, communities, and individual girls and women who were targets of harassment and sexual and physical abuse. These leaders vehemently condemned negative images and stereotypes of African American women and developed an array of programs and services to counter the destructive effects of gender-based attacks with a goal of building a stronger womanhood, maintaining intact families, and, ultimately, supporting the development of more stable communities.

Organized in 1896, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW) stood at the epicenter of the women’s club movement. Moreover, the NACW became the largest and most enduring protest organization in African American history (Hine, 1989). Among its membership, the NACW claimed the African American urban elite and the educated “Talented Tenth” of the African American population. The African American women’s clubs movement was defined broadly and consisted of varied organizations and groups of secret orders such as the Daughters of Zion, the Eastern Star (Evans, 2007), In addition, sororities were part of the club movement, including the Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Ro along with church-affiliated groups such as the Women’s Baptist Home Mission Society. The club movement also included groups of professional women such as the Madam C. J. Walker’s Hair Culturists Union of America, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, the North Carolina Teachers Association, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA) Black Cross Nurses. Through voluntary efforts, each of these women’s groups worked to develop, strengthen, educate, and uplift the African American community in various ways. Women’s clubs were involved in establishing homes for the elderly and kindergartens, conducting National Negro Health Week activities, establishing schools and sponsoring literary contests. Elizabeth Ross Haynes, a charter member of the Tau Omega graduate chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in New York, helped to sponsor the sorority’s annual literary competition that was open to high-school girls in New York and New Jersey. This competition served as part of the sorority’s commitment to promoting “systematized and continuous program of education” for high-school students (McDougald, 1925, p. 691). Ross Haynes recruited Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, two members of the Harlem Renaissance literati, to serve as judges for the literary competition. The competition provided the girls with an opportunity to develop and encourage their literary skills while interacting with accomplished and renowned artists and role models such as Hughes and Cullen. These two writers also provided the girls with diversity in poetic expression. The gregarious Hughes was an experimenter in free verse, whereas the shy, reserved, elitist Cullen was a master of traditional poetic forms (Quarles, 1964; Summers, 2004). Through this event and other carefully targeted activities, the sorority members modeled racial uplift and race consciousness along with an appreciation for aesthetic development and community involvement (Carlton-LaNey, 1997). Exposing high-school girls to an array of professional role models, including these two iconic figures in literature, was designed to instruct, inspire, and prepare the girls to take advantage of opportunities that they might otherwise believe were not attainable.

Working for the uplift of women and girls was the hallmark of the women’s club movement on the national, regional, and local levels. Not all of the club women were international and national impresarios. Work on the local level abound. For example, the League of Women for Community Service was a local Boston group that became highly effective in serving those in need in Boston. This group was established ostensibly to address problems the members observed in the local Boston African American communities. The league membership included prominent women of means, many of whom were married to professional men. These women held positions of leadership and power in their community and were generally affiliated with sororities, church groups, secret orders, benevolent societies, Colored YWCAs, and interracial groups.

Like many of these women’s groups, the League of Women for Community Service was very selective regarding membership, and it extended membership invitations to only the elite women of the community. The league’s funding came from both monthly assessments and, to a lesser extent, fundraisers. Their services were fueled by changing community needs and circumstances. The league women were also committed to serving military men, particularly because they understood that African American servicemen were often denied the resources that were routinely provided to white servicemen. These women helped to provide soldiers with warm clothing and toiletries, especially those headed overseas during World War I. Later the league opened and operated a day nursery to meet the needs of young children in the community. In an effort to protect and develop young girls, the league established a Girl’s Business Club to promote the girls’ growth as independent women. In sum, the League of Women for Community Service focused on providing services wherever the members identified need (Farley, 1990).

Middle-class African American women and men could be found at the forefront of the development and delivery of social work services. However, working-class women also organized to serve their communities and to support one another through social networking. For example, the Philadelphia Lucky Ten Social Club (LTSC) began as a sewing club that included African Americans who had migrated to the North from the same area of Virginia. The club’s mission was to strengthen the women’s link with family and to provide opportunities for them to socialize with each other. The LTSC was characterized by qualities of thrift and savings. They had three separate treasuries: the rainy day, vacation, and Christmas funds. The savings and dues-paying efforts became a ritualized highlight of their meetings. Similarly, the Jonquil Savings Club in East Baltimore was composed of working-class African American women, all of whom had migrated from the rural South and who lived on a few blocks in close proximity to each other. The Jonquil Saving Club’s purpose was to earn and save money that would be distributed equally among the members at the end of the year. They paid monthly dues and earned money by sponsoring fundraisers such as bus trips to various amusement parks, fairs, and casinos. The club existed for more than fifteen years, dissolving only after the health of the members began to fail (Carlton-LaNey & Andrews, 1998).

The welfare of the larger African American community was important to these women and men, who saw themselves not only as part of intimate groups of like-minded individuals, but also as committed and dedicated community activists. Organized groups of women and men, along with their families, benefited financially through savings clubs and profit-sharing fundraisers, socially through congregate activities, and spiritually through fellowship and social support (McGregory, 1991).

Settlement House Movement

Many of the women who were part of the women’s club movement were also part of the settlement house movement. African American settlement houses existed throughout much of America, with the greatest presence in the Northeast, South, and Midwest. Settlement houses were founded, staffed, and funded primarily by African Americans. Similar to the settlement houses serving various European immigrants, the African American settlement houses were founded to serve a specific population—filling a need necessitated by the complex web of paternalism, anxiety, fear, bigotry, and bias that forbade race mixing and denied African Americans access. The most famous settlement houses, Chicago’s Hull House and the Henry Street Settlement in New York, are well known in social welfare history. African American settlements, however, had neither the notoriety nor funding base to claim a similar place in American history. Yet, the settlement houses played a crucial role in the African American community, and they were vital to the welfare of African Americans, who needed safety, literary and cultural sustenance, short-term housing, health services, and child care. A few of the many settlement houses that served local communities included the Locust Street Settlement (Hampton, VA), Wendell Phillips Settlement (Chicago, IL), the White Rose Working Girls’ Home (New York, NY), Elizabeth Russell Plantation Settlement (Tuskegee, AL), Phyllis Wheatley House in Minnesota, and the Wharton Center in North Philadelphia. The settlement houses provided their local African American community with access to services and became local havens when needed.

The White Rose Working Girls’ Home in New York City was one of the earliest settlement houses established to serve African Americans. Founded by Victoria Earle Matthews, the White Rose Home was incorporated in 1898 to establish and maintain a Christian, nonsectarian home for girls and women and to provide training in the principles of practical self-help and moral living. The home’s activities included a mothers’ club, song service and Bible class, girls’ social club, children’s meetings, boys’ club, and relief services that routinely included free meals, lodging, carfare, and clothing (Cash, 1993).

The White Rose Home’s Traveler’s Aid program was a pioneering service initiated to protect young women traveling alone from the South. These new arrivals to New York were often unprepared for the dangers of the city and sometimes fell prey to unscrupulous people and predators who lurked at the docks to ensnare and victimize young women. By 1925, the White Rose Home’s board president noted that 30,000 girls and young women had been sheltered and served at the home (Lewis, 1925). In addition to these services, the White Rose Home claimed among its supporters and frequent guest speakers internationally prominent reformers, business people, and artists, including Booker T. Washington, Madam C. J. Walker, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The home undertook as a priority providing the community with opportunities for education. Reading materials, which were often in short supply, were available at the home for the community’s use. The home’s library was extensive and its holdings were eventually donated to the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Cash, 1993).

New York served as the site of several settlement houses for African Americans, including the Lincoln House Settlement. Birdye H. Haynes, one of the first African Americans to graduate from the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, worked as the head matron of the Lincoln House Settlement. Trained under the tutelage of Sophonisba Breckinridge at the Wendell Phillip Settlement in Chicago, Birdye Haynes became the head worker of Lincoln House in 1915. She observed the extreme level of need in the Columbus Hill community where the settlement was located, and she advocated for the residents’ welfare by seeking more highly trained workers and by urging provision of more meaningful services. Birdye Haynes engaged the community’s families and children in specifically tailored classes and clubs (Carlton-LaNey, 2001).

The Phyllis Wheatley House in Minnesota was a prominent part of the Minneapolis community. Like other settlement houses, the Wheatley House was founded in response to the discrimination and bigotry that excluded African Americans from services and full participation in the Minneapolis community. Philanthropists and social workers led the charge in establishing the Phyllis Wheatley House. Under the leadership of W. Gertrude Brown, an experienced social worker, the Wheatley House provided a range of social services to enhance wholesome leisure for the African American residents of Minneapolis. The house also provided transient living quarters for African American college students who had been accepted as students at the University of Minnesota but who were denied campus housing because of their race (Karger, 1986). The Wheatley House also provided lodging for internationally and nationally known entertainers and artists who were performing in the city but who, because they were African American, were not allowed to stay in the city’s hotels. Paradoxically, the venues for these performances were also closed to African Americans. Knowing that African Americans would not be able to see these renowned individuals perform, Brown took advantage of their stay at Wheatley and invited local community residents to come to see them as they rehearsed for their shows.

Working for Juvenile Justice

Rural communities also benefited from the settlement house model. Margaret Murray Washington and the Tuskegee Women’s Club worked with the Elizabeth Russell Plantation Settlement near Tuskegee, Alabama. They organized community projects with the settlement that included classes for girls, mothers’ clubs, newspaper-reading clubs for men, and boys’ clubs. A settlement school opened in 1898, and by 1906 it had become part of the local public school system (Dickerson, 2001).

Washington and members of the Alabama Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (AFCWC) also engaged in prison reform and activities to rescue delinquent African American boys. They worked to keep African American youth out of adult prisons, which led to the establishment of the Mt. Meigs Reformatory for Juvenile Law-Breakers in 1907. Later, these activists also founded the privately funded Mt. Meigs Rescue Home for Girls, which provided shelter and assistance to African American girls. By 1911, the Mt. Meigs Reformatory had become a state institution and all of the Mt. Meigs property was transferred from the AFCWC to the state of Alabama. Club women served on the reformatory’s board and continued their active involvement with the reformatory for many years (Dickerson, 2001; Perry & Davis-Maye, 2007).

Concern over juvenile justice for African Americans and the need for intervention practices also led to the founding of the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls in 1915 on a parcel of land in Hanover County donated by the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Through the efforts of its founder, Janie Porter Barrett and the club women, the school became a model for other states interested in establishing similar institutions for African American girls. The Virginia State Board of Welfare referred girls to the school who were considered incorrigible and who lacked other community placement options. The school’s goal was to help the girls to acquire self-efficacy and self-control and to develop home-life skills. The girls were trained in domestic science to prepare them for the limited jobs available to African American women at the time. The girls also received public school education through the eighth grade along with religious training and skills training in household management and crop harvesting. The state took over the school in 1920 and it was renamed the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls (Peebles-Wilkins, 2001).

The North Carolina Industrial Home for Colored Girls (Efland, NC), also known as the Efland Home, opened in 1921 and was modeled on the Virginia Industrial School. The North Carolina Federation of Negro Women, under the leadership of Charlotte Hawkins Brown, opened the home in rural North Carolina. The members of the state women’s group believed that the home needed a trained social worker in the position of superintendent. The girls, or inmates—the term used for any institutional resident during this period—ranged in age from six to sixteen years, and they were referred to the home by the juvenile court. The club women believed that the best way to serve and protect these young girls required a three-prong approach of (a) giving the girls a better social environment in which to live and learn, (b) devising ways to build the girls’ character, and (c) providing the girls with vocational training so they could make a living upon release (Brice, 2005).

The Efland Home was privately funded and run, making it the only private juvenile correction facility for African American girls in North Carolina. The state funded and operated similar facilities for delinquent white boys and girls and for African American boys, but it provided only a meager stipend for Efland home. In 1943, the state of North Carolina provided financial sponsorship for a school for delinquent African American girls called the North Carolina State Training School for Negro Girls, an institution that superseded Efland Home (Brice, 2007).

In addition to services to protect girls, many communities established programs tailored to the needs of boys. When efforts targeted a specific group within the community, it was done with an eye toward the good of the collective. Women’s clubs focused on the development, leadership, and empowerment of women and girls, which they understood would ultimately serve the entire community. African American men focused their work on the welfare of the larger community and sometimes designed projects specifically to develop boys and young men (Martin & Martin, 1995).

One example of these targeted efforts comes from Asheville, North Carolina, where African American men were very concerned about what they labeled the “boy problem.” The male leaders in the community believed the problem with African American boys was exacerbated by the failure of social organizations and institutions to address the needs of these boys (Hornsby, 2001). Although these men had become prominent and respected in the African American community, socioeconomic conditions and practices of race etiquette blurred, if not eradicated, the lines that separated African American manhood and boyhood (Summers, 2004). Preparing boys for African American manhood was a precarious feat that had to be approached with care and precision. These men understood that they existed in a social system that devalued them and that was violent and dangerous for those African Americans who were perceived as stepping our out of their place or “being uppity” (Foster, 1999). Nonetheless, the African American men of Asheville committed themselves to preparing these boys to serve their community with pride and industriousness.

Subsequently, the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) was established to provide a wholesome diversion for boys that would nurture them and keep them from drifting into dangerous and destructive life styles. The YMI counseled temperance in behavior and thought as well as taught boys how to live useful, virtuous, and wholesome lives. The YMI’s programs focused on mentoring and promoting quality and upstanding manhood; thus, it resembled the goals of the YMCA and the settlement house movement. The YMI provided a social outlet for African American boys in the Asheville community. The building that the YMI occupied was used by the entire community. For example, several churches used the auditorium for their regular services. The building also housed “a boarding house, Bible school, gymnasium, kindergarten, school of domestic science for girls, and a bathing department” (Hornsby, 2001, pp. 293–294). Although the YMI was clearly a place for the leading African American men of the community to work with and train boys, it also created a gendered hierarchy ruled by men. Women were, nonetheless, an integral part of the work of the YMI and their assistance on various projects was acknowledged and expected (Hornsby, 2001).


Education played a significant role and had particular meaning to the welfare of the African Americans. Many of the pioneers in social work and social welfare were among the educated elite or the “Talented Tenth,” a term that referred to that small percentage of African Americans who held college degrees. Most of the African American social welfare pioneers were teachers by occupation who shared the belief that they had an obligation to work for their race, which was a belief reinforced by African American clergy and churches as well as the universities these social welfare pioneers had attended.

Furthermore, these pioneers integrated the importance of, and need for, education into their welfare efforts. Services offered by social settlements usually included a newspaper-reading club that not only provided both the space and the newspapers for the community’s use, but also promoted civic awareness and engagement. Social welfare pioneers also used their oratorical skills to educate, excite, and motivate people. To reach those beyond local audiences, the pioneers relied on publications to spread information, to support and encourage, or to chastise and reprimand the larger African American community. T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age and A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owens, editors of the Messenger, were quick to lambast the African American community for its failure to forge ahead and to swiftly and promptly agitate for change and social and political inclusion (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Owens and Randolph were also critical of social work efforts and disparaged young social workers and social work organizations, including the National Urban League, for misdirecting bright young scholars whose talents they thought could be put to better use elsewhere.

Other social welfare reformers, such as Amy Jacque Garvey, who was the associate editor of the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA) Negro World, often specifically addressed women readers. She refused to discourse on topics such as fashion and etiquette but instead used discursive mechanisms to encourage women to read voraciously and to share their views on issues and problems that affected them and their families. Recognizing that many women were poorly educated and ill prepared to express themselves in writing but who, nonetheless, had lofty and important ideas to share, Jacque Garvey encouraged these women to solicit help from others who might write for them. She also encouraged the women to share their newspapers with many other readers and to give books as gifts (Taylor, 2002).

Others writers and journalists also recognized the role that their publications played in developing and maintaining the African American social welfare system. The Women’s Era, the publication of the Boston Women’s Era Club, provided a national platform for the women’s clubs movement and eventually became the designated literary organ for the NACW. The associate editor of The Women’s Era, Victoria Earle Matthews, had high aspirations for the paper. She wanted the paper to be wholesome, to be readily available, and to be of sufficient quality to be placed in circulation in libraries. Although wholesomeness was very important, the paper’s editors were tenacious in their efforts to inform, educate, and ensure impeccably high standards in club work. Club women were committed to their motto, “Lifting as we climb” and offered various services to subscribers in promoting self-development and personal growth. It was a common practice for the paper to encourage its readers to seek opportunities for higher learning. To facilitate education, The Women’s Era mailed school catalogues and other circulars with information on colleges, normal schools, and music or art schools to anyone who provided a stamped, self-addressed envelope (White, 1999).

Two monthly magazines were important in promoting community movements because they provided information to their readership and allowed space for readers to share ideas and strategies for change: The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Opportunity, the publication of the National Urban League. Hampton Institute’s Southern Workman was another significant monthly publication. The goals of the Southern Workman were to promote respect between the races and to provide information on the contributions of African Americans to society. The president of the Hampton Institute was astute; he understood and used the power of the press. Through the Southern Workman, the school’s president was able not only to provide current news, but also to strategically influence public opinion and to help shape policy while engendering school support. These print media constituted important resources that developed a large audience interested in learning about the welfare of the African American community, approaches for confronting oppression, and valuable options for growth and sustainability.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, and advocate for women’s rights, learned very early in her life as a reformer and human rights advocate that she needed to have control of her own publications in order to provide frank, open, and uncensored information to readers about lynching and other racial atrocities. She owned and edited several newspapers during her lifetime, including the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the Chicago Conservator, and The Fellowship Herald. The Fellowship Herald was also the newspaper for the Chicago Negro Fellowship League and Reading Room that Wells-Barnett founded. Wells-Barnett used these papers to make corrections to the information published in the mainstream and to provide accurate information that the white media refused to print, especially when such information pertained to racial violence and lynching. The newspapers, newsletters, and tracts of Wells-Barnett and other reformers provided information and directives to the African American community while also urging readers to educate themselves and to share information that would protect and support the community.

Building Organizations and Institutions

The establishment of organizations and institutions in response to unmet community and individual needs constituted another priority that emerged in the African American social welfare system. During the Progressive Era, the period between the 1890s and World War I, large numbers of African Americans began to leave the agrarian South for urban centers in the North, Midwest, and West. At the same time, immigration from Europe had slowed, leaving manufacturers in urban areas without a ready pool of laborers. Manufacturers began sending labor agents to the South to entice African Americans with jobs and free transportation. In addition, newspaper ads regularly extolled the limitless opportunities for employment, education, and decent housing in U.S. cities. The lure of free transportation, jobs, and the promise of an improved quality of life motivated African Americans by the thousands to join the steady northern and western migration, a stream that would not subside for the next thirty years.

In the North and Midwest, the rapid and steady migration of African Americans was overwhelming. The glow of urban living soon wore off as African Americans found their employment opportunities were limited by race and gender discrimination. Moreover, de facto segregation herded African Americans into so-called Black Belt areas, where housing costs were disproportionately inflated despite the deplorable housing quality. Housing was commonly described as overcrowded, dilapidated, unsanitary, and “lacking adequate heat, solid foundations, serviceable roofs and running water” (Wolfinger, 2009, p. 789). To make the situation more untenable, social problems that accompany overcrowding and poverty intensified. The plight of these new urban dwellers was made worse by the lack of sanitation, poor quality and limited health care, and high rates of crime and juvenile delinquency (Quarles, 1964).

Marcus Garvey responded to the desperate predicament of African American urban dwellers through the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was founded in the United States in 1914. Garvey was an accomplished orator and a skilled organizer. He used community organizing, group work, and social action strategies to gather an impressive following, effectively creating one of the most powerful organizations of the century. Garveyites fervently and zealously embraced the social and economic aspects of community development. The UNIA strove to promote race pride, to reclaim the fallen, to assist the needy, and to better conditions in African American communities (Harvey & Carlton-LaNey, 2001).

Although some of Garvey’s objectives did not come to fruition, he was instrumental in galvanizing people of African ancestry, developing social services and programs to enhance life for the new urban dweller and instilling a sense of race pride and determination. The UNIA’s membership included such prominent social welfare reformers as Ida B. Well-Barnett, Madam C. J. Walker, Asa Philip Randolph, and Chandler Owens (Harvey & Carlton-LaNey, 2001).

Another prominent social welfare organization, the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes, was founded by George Edmund Haynes and Ruth Standish Baldwin in 1910. It was later renamed the National Urban League (NUL). Similar to the UNIA and the settlement house movement, the NUL was defined by work with African American migrants. The NUL was guided by a comprehensive set of goals, including to demonstrate cooperative social welfare work; to protect women and children; to organize boys and girls clubs; to provide wholesome places for amusement; to work with delinquents, who were frequently without supervision; to provide comfortable housing for convalescent women; to prepare workers with job skills; and to train African American social workers for employment in urban centers across the country (Carlton-LaNey, 1996).

Training African American Social Workers

Educating and training African American social workers began during the Progressive Era. Discrimination, particularly in the South, prohibited African Americans from enrolling in most social work programs; therefore, formal training for African American social workers was delayed until black colleges established their own programs. The first such program was Fisk University’s Department of Social Sciences, which was established in 1912 to provide the training that African American social workers needed to address the social problems that their communities faced. George Haynes, an Arkansan and a graduate of Fisk, served as director of the Department of Social Sciences. He believed that black colleges had a unique mission that included education for service. The Fisk students who were enrolled in the Department of Social Sciences were trained for professional social work practice. These students were required to live at a local settlement house, and they were expected to have intimate knowledge of the communities in which they lived and worked. The Fisk University social work program predates other social work training programs for African Americans by several years. The Fisk University program, along with the National Urban League Fellowship Program, provided an educational opportunity for these students.

Similar efforts to train African American social workers took place across the South. In 1919, Lugenia Burns Hope developed a Social Services Institute at Morehouse College to train African American social workers. The institute established as its theme to make the world safe for babies and children (Rouse, 1992). This very successful institute was superseded by the Atlanta School of Social Work the following year. Five years later the Bishop Tuttle Memorial Training School of Social Work was established at St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina. The school, founded by the Episcopal Church’s Women’s Auxiliary, emphasized the integration of classroom instruction and community work (Burwell, 1996). Both the Atlanta School of Social Work and the Bishop Tuttle School were instrumental in helping to professionalize social work training for African Americans. Additional ways evolved to make training available, such as the North Carolina Public Welfare Institutes for Negroes. These institutes trained African American social workers throughout the state for more than twenty years and were in operation until 1946 (Burwell, 2001).


The complex African American social welfare system was defined by the abject poverty, isolation, and racial oppression that African Americans experienced in both rural and urban communities. Building organizations and institutions were among the mechanisms African Americans used to respond to their community’s needs. Challenging the racially segregated social welfare system and the insulated nascent profession of social work demanded that African Americans be strategic and deliberate. They developed a type of nonconfrontational activism that involved a movement toward interracial cooperation. The reality of race relations in the United States during the early 20th century militated against genuine interracial cooperation. However, African American social work pioneers understood that without some relationship with the white community, their efforts might be seen as a threat and subjected to sabotage.

African Americans did not always agree about the best and most strategic approach to social service development. The fervor for change was so strong among some reformers that they held a pathological concept of other African Americans who were not well-educated or who did appear motivated to improve their situations. Other reformers and activists believed that they were obligated to model appropriate behavior and become examples for the less fortunate to follow. Invidious distinctions notwithstanding, these pioneers moved with deliberate speed to identify problem-solving strategies and to institute appropriate and self-sustainable programs. The extent of social problems that the African American faced allowed room for many different approaches to meeting human need.

Developing programs and services that were sustainable was critical. These pioneers wanted to see their privately developed and funded social services become part of state-run and state-sanctioned service systems. Social work pioneers were not reticent in turning over their institutions, their property, and their expertise to the state in hopes that the programs would become permanent entities serving the African American community as long as they were needed. Although the political activism and agitation of 20th-century African American social welfare pioneers met with little tangible results or changes in the system, nevertheless their work provided many services and programs that ultimately relieved human suffering and provided needed resources in the African American community.


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Further Reading

  • Armfield, F. (2012). Eugene Kinckle Jones: The National Urban League and Black Social Work, 1910–1940. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
  • Carlton-LaNey, I. (Ed.). (2001). African American leadership: An empowerment tradition in social welfare history. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
  • Crewe, S. E. (2009). Dorothy Irene Height: Profile of a giant in the pursuit of equal justice for black women. Affilia, 24, 199–205.
  • Giddings, P. (1985). When and where I enter: The impact of black women on race and sex in America. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Gordon, L. (1991). Black and white visions of welfare: Women’s welfare activism, 1890–1945. Journal of American History, 78(2), 559–590.
  • Herrick, J., & Stuart, P. (2005). Encyclopedia of social welfare history in North America. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Jimenez, J. (2005). The history of child protection in the African American community: Implications for current child welfare policies. Children and Youth Services Review, 28(8), 888–905.
  • Kogut, A. (1970). The Negro and the Charity Organization Society in the Progressive Era. Social Service Review, 44, 11–21.
  • Lash-Quinn, E. (1993). Black neighbors: Race and the limits of reform in the American settlement house movement, 1890–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • O’Donnell, S. (1995). Urban African American community development in the Progressive Era. Journal of Community Practice, 2(4). 7–26.
  • Peebles-Wilkins, W., & Aracelis, E. (1990). Two outstanding black women in social welfare history: Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Affilia, 5, 87–100.
  • Ross, E. (1978). Black heritage in social welfare, 1860–1930. New York: Scarecrow Press.
  • Schiele, J., Jackson, S., & Fairfax, C. (2005). Maggie Lena Walker and African American community development. Affilia, 20, 21–38.
  • Simon, B. (1994). The empowerment tradition in American social work: A history. New York: Columbia University Press.