Academic journal article Social Work

African American Social Work Pioneers' Response to Need

Academic journal article Social Work

African American Social Work Pioneers' Response to Need

Article excerpt

African American pioneer social workers of the Progressive Era (1898-1918) were at once concerned about the private troubles of individuals and the larger public issues that affected them. They also were acutely aware of their relationship to the community residents they served. There was very little physical, social, and economic distance between the workers and their clients. They lived in the same communities and by virtue of race shared many of the same societal problems and issues of concern. Their work at the beginning of this century reflects contemporary community practice. For these African American pioneers, community practice had both a macro- and a micro-orientation. These individuals "directed intervention designed to bring about planned change in organizations and communities" - macropractice (Netting, Kettner, & McMurtry, 1993, p. 3) while "developing, locating, linking with and managing community resources" in a way that helped to improve individual social functioning - micropractice (Hardcastle, Wenocur, & Powers, 1997, p. 2). Progressive-Era African American social workers' community practice was essentially "race work," which personalized problems to alleviate human suffering and concurrently organized and developed private organizations to change the system. The "race men" and "race women" who engaged in the emerging social work profession were among the "talented tenth," the educated elite of the African American community (DuBois, 1908). Self-help, race pride, mutual aid, and social debt became part of the underpinning that guided their practice. These principles and values were neither exclusive nor sequential. Instead they were each part of the foundation on which social work and social welfare services were developed to meet the needs of the African American community.

This article will briefly discuss these fundamental values as they were reflected in African American social work at the beginning of the century. The elements and dimensions that were a significant part of their practice repertoire are also discussed. As African Americans claimed their place among social work pioneers, the primacy of their mission to improve the collective social functioning of their racially segregated communities became clear. For these pioneers social work was both "cause and function."

Values and Principles

Self-Help and Mutual Aid

As noted the values and principles fundamental to African American social work practice were self-help, mutual aid, race pride, and social debt.

The focus on self-help and mutual aid became an institutionalized part of the African American community. Overwhelmingly excluded from full participation in the U.S. social system and at the same time receiving limited responses to individual and social problems from white social workers, African Americans developed a dogged determination to take care of their own. A review of the Proceedings of the National Conference on Charities and Corrections from 1874 through 1945 revealed only brief and infrequent expressions of concern about the many social problems and inadequate social conditions that were the lot of African Americans during the early decades of the 20th century (Lide, 1973). On the other hand, the Southern Workman, the literary organ published by Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for Negroes and Indians (now Hampton University), was devoted entirely to improving the economic, social, and political conditions of African Americans. The journal's mission was to expose problems and to suggest and examine strategies for planned change. During the early part of the century, the journal provided a publishing outlet for many African American social work pioneers, artists, business men and women, and others. Like many others, Sarah Collins Fernandis, a settlement house leader and pioneer in the public health movement, relied heavily on the Southern Workman as a tool for communicating information about settlement work, interracial activities, health, housing, child care issues, and the need for African Americans to help each other. …

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