5 African American Pioneers Who Paved The Way for Social Work

It is important to recognize the contributions of those who strove for societal progress before us. As an MSW program dedicated to celebrating social justice and cultural diversity, SocialWork@Simmons is proud to honor five major pioneers in social work history. These extremely prolific civil rights advocates helped establish the necessary momentum for societal progress and have positively affected the lives of millions of people around the globe.

George Edmund Haynes (1880–1960)

African American Pioneers in Social Service, SocialWork@Simmons

George Edmond Haynes was a lifelong civil rights advocate and had a diverse educational background in social work. In fact, Haynes was the first African American to graduate from the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia University School of Social Work).

Haynes went on to become co-founder and first executive director of the National Urban League. He went on to work as a special assistant to the secretary of labor (under the title of director of Negro economics), making him one of the two highest-ranking Black federal employees.

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)

African American Pioneers in Social Services, SocialWork@Simmons

Mary Church Terrell is one of the most prominent advocates and pioneers for African American women in the US. As the daughter of former slaves-turned-small-business-owners, she was one of the first Black women to earn a bachelor’s degree, the first black woman appointed to a school board, and the first African American admitted to the Washington DC Branch of the American Association of University Women.

She later co-founded the National Association of Colored Women and went on to become a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Thyra J. Edwards (1897–1953)

African American Pioneers in Social Service, SocialWork@Simmons

Thyra J. Edwards was a lifelong social worker with a multinational impact.

Her career began as a social worker in Chicago and she went onto diversify her skills as a lecturer, women’s rights advocate, labor organizer, and journalist. After WWII, she became the executive director of the Congress of American Women. One of the major contributions of this organization was the establishment of the first childcare program in Rome to assist Jewish Holocaust survivors.

She advocated for people of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities, and worked internationally until her death in 1953.

Lester Blackwell Granger (1896–1976)

African American Pioneers in Social Service, SocialWork@Simmons

Lester Blackwell Granger launched his career as a high school teacher and a social worker. In 1952, he became the first Black man to serve as president of the National Conference of Social Work.

Lester Blackwell Granger spent most of his time as acting NCSW president advocating for civil rights measures. After WWII, he served as a special consultant to the Navy in support of efforts to desegregate the military, which earned him the Navy’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award and the Presidential Medal for Merit.

In 1958, he was one of four civil rights activist leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., to meet with President Eisenhower to discuss civil rights reform. Like George Edmund Haynes, Granger served as president of the National Urban League for a large part of his career.

Dorothy Height (1912–2010)

African American Pioneers in Social Service, SocialWork@Simmons

Dorothy Height was a women’s rights and civil rights advocate and is often referred to as “The godmother of the civil rights movement.” Height began her lifetime of advocacy by campaigning against lynching and as a social worker.

She went on to establish the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice, founding the National Women’s Political Caucus, leading the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and co-organizing the famous 1963 March on Washington.

Height is the recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, among many other awards and honorary degrees.

Of course, this post just scratches the surface at the many African American social service professionals who have become leaders in the field. As we continue to strive for societal progress, it is important to recognize the diversity of the social service profession and those who paved the way for where we are today.


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