Uplifting Black Heroes of Child Welfare
This month we celebrate Black History Month to honor African American heritage in the United States and share stories of Black achievement. We honor the men and women who blazed trails in our country, pushing us forward and recognize their bravery and the threats they faced to do so. It is especially important for those in the child welfare community to recognize these brave activists and reformists, as Black children are overrepresented in the child welfare system relative to the general population. To better serve Black children and reduce their risk of entering the system it is critical that we respect and embrace their perspective, culture, and history. In celebration of Black History Month, we’ve chosen to elevate the stories of Black men and women who played a significant role in improving the lives of children and advancing both the fields of social work and child welfare. Let us celebrate their achievements, continue their work, and strive for continued progress in their memories.
Janie Porter Barrett (1865-1948)
Although born in Athens, Georgia, Janie Porter Barrett would go on to be one of the most influential leaders in Virginia for social reform and child welfare. Janie attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, one of the first vocational schools for freed Black Americans, that is today known as Hampton University. After a brief stint teaching in Georgia, she returned to Hampton and alongside her husband, she worked to unite the local African Americans through neighborhood clubs and classes focused on bettering their small community. Through this work, Janie was made aware of the realities of struggling and orphaned Black youth who were often condemned as delinquents and thrown in jail. Through fierce dedication, communal fundraising, and a drive to see better futures for these children, particularly young Black girls, she founded the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls in 1915. The school took in at-risk Black girls and taught them appropriate early twentieth century skills so they could become successful domestic or farmworkers. Janie was also a leader in the Richmond Urban League as well as the National Association of Colored Women and even took part in the 1930 White House conference on Child Health and Protection.
Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry (1872-1943)
This granddaughter of legendary abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was born in upstate New York in 1872. Little is known about Fredericka’s early life. She attended the Mechanics Institute in Rochester, New York, and eventually moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, where she began teaching at Lincoln University. In 1912, Fredericka married Dr. John E. Perry, founder of the Wheatley Provident Hospital, moved to Kansas City and helped run the first private hospital in the United States for Black people. It was here that Fredericka also began working as a juvenile court worker where she witnessed the harsh treatment of dependent Black children who were often placed in state institutions, similar to the same injustices Janie Porter Barrett witnessed in Virginia. Taking the same strategic planning and fundraising approach as Porter Barrett, Fredericka opened the Colored Big Sisters Home for girls in 1934. This organization inspired other charitable organizations to create a similar home for white children. In 1943 the home closed as Missouri created its own children welfare service. By calling attention to the needs of Black foster children, Fredericka inspired state-sponsored child welfare that included all children.
George Edmund Haynes (1880-1960)
Born in poverty in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, George moved toward a brighter future through education. He received his bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in Tennessee, his master’s degree at Yale, and continued studies at the University of Chicago and eventually completed a Ph.D. at Columbia focusing on social problems facing Black Americans, specifically the African American diaspora from the South. He was the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia. As a leading sociologist of his time, George co-founded the National Urban League and served as its Executive Director from 1911 to 1918. Simultaneously, he founded the Department of Social Sciences at Fisk University and created one of the first programs educating and training Black social workers. After leaving the National Urban League, George served as a special assistant to the Secretary of Labor where he was able to push forward progressive policies impacting employment, housing, and recreation. His work helped advance African American worker inclusion in unions, improved working conditions, and put stricter policies in place regarding child labor. His impact in history is one of immense achievements that helped progress the fields of social work and higher education.
Lester Blackwell Granger (1896-1976)
A native of Virginia, Lester was born in Newport News. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, he graduated from Dartmouth in 1918 and moved to New Jersey, where he became a leader in George Edmund Hayne’s National Urban League chapter in Newark. After leaving this role, Lester began engaging in social work, helping Black youth in vocational schools. Lester also engaged in critical civil rights work, fighting for racial integration in the armed forces. He was an integral pioneer in social work and in 1952 he became the first president of the National Conference of Social Welfare. Lester eventually returned to his National Urban League work, founding the Los Angeles chapter of the organization and advocating for better economic opportunities for students at historically Black colleges and universities. Towards the end of his career, Lester turned to teaching, lecturing at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, passing his knowledge of social work and justice movements onto the next generation of leaders.
Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983)
Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1917, Mamie’s parents encouraged her to pursue higher education. She attended Howard University and initially focused her studies in physics and mathematics before switching her major to psychology. After graduation, Mamie worked for a law firm where she witnessed the impact of segregation on the self-esteem of Black individuals, particularly in children. This spurred her to dive deeper into psychology and its relation to the Black experience in America. Mamie went on to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia, becoming one of the first African American women to do so. While working at a children’s home in Harlem, she recognized the lack of mental health services for Black children. In 1946 she co-founded the Northside Center for Child Development to treat children and families in Harlem struggling with mental health concerns. Mamie’s academic contributions in the field of psychology were cited during the United States Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education to demonstrate the negative effects of segregation on children, helping to win the case and end school segregation. Her groundbreaking work in psychology laid the groundwork for new areas of research within the field of developmental psychology.
These activists pioneered the fields of child welfare, social work, community organizing, and psychology. Their accomplishments serve as a reminder that to honor their legacies we must continue to strive for the same progress they fought for, even today. We are all capable of learning, growing, speaking up, educating, and advocating for brighter futures for the vulnerable children we work with every day.