The Care of Dependent African-American Children in Chicago: The Struggle between Black Self-Help and Professionalism

By O'Donnell, Sandra M. | Journal of Social History, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

The Care of Dependent African-American Children in Chicago: The Struggle between Black Self-Help and Professionalism


O'Donnell, Sandra M., Journal of Social History


During the Progressive and post World War I eras, social welfare provisions became both more organized and more professional. These developments significantly shaped modern day government programs and private philanthropy. Among the Progressive contributions to social welfare organization were licensing and standard setting practices for agencies, the establishment of a policy preference for family-based care and an aversion to institutions, federated planning and fundraising for private charities, the idea that government's role in promoting social welfare is a residual one when private philanthropy proves inadequate, and the transition of the charity organization from a loose group of well-meaning volunteers to a business-like nonprofit corporation.(1) Underpinning all these contributions was the idea of professionalism--that charity should be "scientific," led by skilled professionals rather than by volunteers. As Kathleen McCarthy notes, Progressive social welfare reforms "were also the epitaph for the . . . volunteer,"(2) as well as for local initiative.(3) Although these developments brought inarguable improvements in social welfare provisions for poor and troubled people, they also set in motion a problem that persists to this day--the discouragement and resultant disengagement of communities in battling their social problems.

This paper describes one casualty of the professionalism of social welfare--the African-American self-help tradition in caring for dependent children in Chicago. The beliefs by white social welfare professionals that blacks held outmoded policy preferences, that they could not manage programs, and that they could not manage money thwarted efforts from the black community for legitimation and public support of their services. The subsequent loss of African-American agencies left black children entirely dependent on poorly funded and understaffed public facilities. Although the development of public responsibility was in some ways a gain for black children, as it was for others, black children uniquely lacked access to private, not-for-profit services once the public institution was established. Moreover, the demise of African-American agencies also meant the demise of some important service principles in caring for African-American children that were not to be rediscovered until much later.

Black self-help philanthropy flourished into the Progressive Era. As August Meier has noted, "[b]y the last decade of the [nineteenth] century it was clear that the main themes in Negro thinking on the race problem were that for the most part Negroes must work out their own salvation in a hostile environment and that, furthermore, they must be united in their efforts at racial elevation."(4) Denied access to orphanages, old peoples' homes, clinics, and settlement houses serving whites, blacks responded by establishing their own benevolent institutions.(5) By the turn of the century, W. E. B. DuBois was able to document the existence of hundreds of black charities nationwide, in northern cities as well as throughout the South.

These charities were likely to be sponsored by churches or by social clubs, especially women's clubs affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. They included "day nurseries" (day care centers), educational programs, recreation, and settlement houses. But old peoples' homes, orphanages, homes for single working women, and health care were especially emphasized. The common theme of all these programs was that of "social uplift": that, by helping the community's most vulnerable members, the entire community is elevated. This belief is exemplified in the National Association of Colored Women's Club's motto, "Lifting as We Climb." Philip Jackson has established that the proliferation of black charities in the Progressive Era was in part the product of a striving of the Black middle class for legitimation by white society.(6) Both Meier and Jackson have observed that the predominant black social welfare institution shifted from the self-help programs of clubs and churches in the Progressive Era to the more formal and professional Urban League in the pre-Depression era. …

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