African American Women Leaders in Social Work

What do you think of when you think of social work month? Social work month? There is one? Yes, and it’s in March. What do you think of when you think of professional social work? Do you think of a child being forcibly removed from a home? Do you think of well-meaning “dogooders” who just don’t get the life on the streets? Do you have other misconceptions and stereotypes which are rampant in our society?

In a world where we often feel helpless to deal with poverty, crime, and discrimination social workers have been seen as both part of the solution and part of the problem.

The truth is more complex. There are many sorts of social workers, the title is not universally protected. When you say someone is a social worker it may or may not mean they are a trained professional social worker. You have to look into the situation more closely. When you say the social worker and the court are acting in the best interest of the child there are often many legal and social barriers to effective action.

One classic stereotype is that social workers represent the values of the dominant culture acting to influence and control minority populations. In fact social work and social service have a long proud history in minority communities. In the following article we learn about African American leaders in social work whose impact has been positive and far-reaching. This is not a case where the dominant culture controls or judges minority communities. These leaders speak for minority communities with strength, resolve and commitment.

Honoring the African American Women Who Have Changed Social Work—(USC, School of Social Work, 2019)—From women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement to contemporary issues of race, class and beyond, these seven women have dedicated their lives to changing their communities—and the world.

1. Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)—Mary Church Terrell accomplished many firsts in her lifetime. After graduating from Oberlin in 1884, she became the first African American woman to earn a college degree. She and her husband then moved to Washington, DC, where Terrell worked tirelessly toward women’s suffrage. Terrell was particularly dedicated to combating the exclusion of African American women from the women’s rights movement.

In l896, Terrell co-founded and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women, and then went on to become a charter member of the NAACP. Terrell fought for civil rights all the way to the end of her life. Her 1950 lawsuit against a restaurant that refused a serve her ultimately brought about the desegregation of restaurants in Washington, DC.

2. Thyra J. Edwards (1897-1953)—Thyra J. Edwards began her career as a school teacher in her hometown of Houston, Texas. After moving to Chicago, Illinois she shifted her focus to social work. Edwards held travel seminars around the world, focusing on at-risk populations and women in many cultural contexts. In 1953, she organized the first Jewish child care program to help Holocaust survivors. Edwards was also a skilled journalist, orator and union organizer, and served as the executive director of the Congress of American Women.

3. Dorothy Height (1912-2010)—Dorothy Height, called “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement” by Barack Obama, was a key figure in some of the most groundbreaking developments of the 20th century. She joined the Harlem YWCA in 1937, where she would direct integration of its centers and establish its Center for Racial Justice in 1965. During her time at the YWCA, she began volunteering for the National Council of Negro Women, and became president of the organization in 1957.

Height played an instrumental role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, and would go on to help found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Height was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

4. Darlyne Bailey—Darlyne Bailey is a professor, dean emeritus, and director of the social justice initiative at Bryn Mawr College. She was one of the first women to attend Lafayette College, and went on to receive her master’s degree at Columbia University. Bailey helped start a community mental health center at Case Western Reserve University, where she later earned her doctorate. In 1994, she was appointed Dean of the Mandel School for Applied Social Sciences at Case Western.

Bailey was recently honored by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as a Social Worker Pioneer. Her work emphasizes a multidisciplinary, multicultural approach to health and human services, as well as leadership development and organizational behavior.

5. Ruby Gourdine—Now a professor at Howard University, Ruby Gourdine began her career as a probation officer in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Richmond, Virginia, where she became interested in issues of race and child welfare. After receiving her master’s degree at the University of Atlanta, she became the first professional social worker hired by the Roxbury Children’s Center, where she would develop their adoption program.

Gourdine was then recruited by the Spaulding Group to develop special needs adoption programs in Washington, DC. Her work on behalf of children with disabilities led her to become the State Supervisor for Social Work Services in the DC public school system.

6. Mildred Joyner—Mildred Joyner has been a community activist and a pioneer in teaching, writing and researching gerontology and multicultural issues for 30 years. She began her career as a child welfare worker in the Chester County Children, Youth and Families Agency in Pennsylvania. She went on to establish the first Master of Social Work program in the Pennsylvania state system of higher education.

Joyner has served as a leading member of every social work professional organization, and was named a Social Work Pioneer by the NASW. In 2005, the Mit Joyner Gerontology Leadership Award was created in her honor.

7. Ruth McRoy—Following 25 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, Ruth McRoy now directs the RISE (Research and Innovations in Social, Economic, & Environmental Equity) Program at Boston College. Her research focuses on the history and philosophy of American social welfare, as well as issues surrounding adoption and foster case. McRoy also contributes to the AdoptUSKids project, studying barriers to special needs adoptions.

McRoy has published over 100 articles and 12 books, and has received many honors in her lifetime, including being selected as a fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare in 2010.

In closing, let us celebrate not only February as Black History Month but March as Social Work Month and Women’s History Month, remembering that social work leadership has come from minority and non-minority communities with a great commitment to the welfare of all.

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