For six months in 1934, before the enactment of the Social Security Act, Forrester Blanchard Washington agitated for social change as director of Negro Work in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and used his reputation and accomplishments as a social work leader to create broad awareness of the negative consequences of the New Deal's social welfare policy for African Americans (Kirby, 1980). His advocacy is significant because his efforts represent social work's early attention to the need for work opportunities for African American people. Washington sought to change policies that placed African Americans on public assistance programs and that "reinforced the links of dependence and subordination" between them and elite white people (Lieberman, 2005, p. 65).
Washington's efforts were important to the evolution of social work in the United States because he advocated for a vulnerable African American population at a time when the profession, mirroring the broader society, generally offered little validation for their contributions to the cultural, social, and economic development of the country. Some leading white settlement house leaders and their associates, including Jane Addams, Louise de Koven, Frances Kellor, and John Daniels, blamed the social and economic problems of African Americans "on what they considered [to be] the weakness of the black family, the degradation of the black individual psyche and the annihilation of culture, all resulting from the system of slavery" (Lasch-Quinn, 1993, p. 13). The role of government and public policy in creating these problems was secondarily considered. The perspectives held by these settlement house movement leaders had long-term consequences in that they dominated the thinking of reformers who came after them (Lasch-Quinn). They helped create the social work climate in which Washington worked for equal employment for African Americans.
Washington was born in 1887 in Salem, Massachusetts, where his New England location somewhat protected him during his formative years from the open racism that constrained the lives of his southern African American peers. Washington's family raised him in this comparatively tolerant environment and was able to provide him with the opportunity for a rich education, one that was exceptional for African Americans of that era (Barrow, 2002). Washington graduated from Tufts College (now University) in 1909, completing a classical curriculum (Tufts University, 1950). He pursued a post-baccalaureate degree in economics at Harvard University from 1912 to 1914 (Harvard University Archives, 2000) and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in social economy in 1917 (Columbia University, 1925). Washington also trained at the New York School of Social Work, with support from a National Urban League (NUL) fellowship.
In the ensuing years, Washington held a number of important leadership positions. He served as the first director of the Detroit Urban League, where he assisted African American migrants in gaining employment. He became director of an NUL affiliate in Philadelphia in 1923 (Barrow, 2002), and three years later he became the director and an educator at the Atlanta School of Social Work (Carlton-LaNey, 1999). It was from this position that Washington was recruited to become director of Negro Work in FERA in February 1934 (Barrow).
Washington was always concerned with the broader social, political, and economic needs of African Americans. In both the North and the South, he took an early stand on the importance of African American employment and self-help because he believed that personal integrity emanated from employment and self-sufficiency (Barrow, 2002). In the 1920s he conducted a newspaper crusade against housing conditions and landlord exploitation in Philadelphia that were contributing to high infant mortality rates and communicable disease in African American communities (Washington, 1925). …