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Celebrating Black History Month: Pioneers in Child Welfare and Social Services

February 12, 2024

Each February, we’re reminded to take time to acknowledge and uplift the achievements of Black and African Americans, and the importance of these contributions to our nation’s rich history, although most of us know this learning and celebration shouldn’t be relegated to a single month. Simultaneously, Black History Month serves as reminder to reflect on the struggles and hardships people of color have faced and how we can work to create equity for all in our institutions, including child support. It’s important here to take the good with the bad, acknowledge the great achievements of people of color, but let’s not forget the historical context in which many had to struggle and fight for change and freedom in a country that has always purported to be free.

Naturally, children are at the heart of everything we do at smiONE™, so in honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black leaders and pioneers in child welfare and early education. From these great legacies and accomplishments, smiONE has been able to assist children of all backgrounds in getting the care, support, and resources they need to thrive. We’re grateful for those that came before us to secure support for children and we celebrate the diversity of the families we’re honored to serve.

What is Black History Month?

Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” celebrated for the first time during the second week of February back in 1926. Carter G. Woodson, co-founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (originally, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History), is considered the “Father of Black History” for his work highlighting Black achievements as a historian and lobbying for a month-long celebration of Black history. Woodson’s vision was eventually realized when President Ford proclaimed February 1976 as the first Black History Month.

Black Leaders and Pioneers in Child Welfare and Early Education

As we reflect on the history of child welfare and social work, it becomes even more clear that the U.S. has come a long way over the years, but there’s still work to be done towards unity and equity. These pioneers, visionaries, advocates, champions, and courageous leaders have blazed trails and opened abundant opportunities and resources to people of color in a system that, like most systems and institutions in the U.S., catered only to White people.

Carrie Steele Logan (1829-1900)

Born a slave and an orphan herself, Carrie Steele Logan would eventually come to work at Union Station where she came across far too many abandoned children. She began caring for the children in a box car during the day and brought them home with her at night. Logan wrote an autobiography and began selling copies to support her vision of creating a facility to house the abandoned children and provide appropriate care for their growing numbers. After rallying community support, selling her home, and using her book earnings, Logan procured four acres and began building her three-story orphanage. The Carrie Steele Orphans’ Home is the oldest Black orphanage in the country.

Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry (1872-1943)

Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry followed in her grandfather’s, renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, footsteps advocating for social change for Black people in America. Born in 1872, Perry taught, worked in the courts, and assisted her husband in the first private hospital for Black individuals in Kansas City, which he founded.

It was in her role working for the courts where Perry saw first-hand the injustices Black children faced at the hands of the foster care system before civil rights laws were passed. She found that Black children would be detained in juvenile facilities through adulthood rather than being put in foster or group homes. Focusing her efforts on young Black women, Perry founded the Missouri State Association of Colored Girls in 1923, and in 1934,with the assistance of the Kansas City Federation of Colored Women’s Club, Perry founded the Colored Big Sister Home for Girls, which existed for nearly 10 years before closing in 1943 as states began providing child welfare services that supported Black children. Perry also served as the chairperson of the National Association of Colored Girls.

Selena Sloan Butler (1872-1964)

Born in Georgia in 1872, Selena Sloan Butler was a visionary and leader in early child education. When Selena’s young son was preparing to enter preschool, she realized there were no accessible schools in any of the Black neighborhoods in Atlanta. So, she opened and ran a kindergarten out of her living room. Later, when Butler’s son entered public elementary school, she organized the first Black Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in the U.S. to help parents become more involved in their children’s lives and schooling.

Her efforts and success led to the first state-wide Black PTA, the Georgia Colored Parent Teacher Association (GCPTA), and, eventually, the National Colored Congress of Parents and Teachers (NCCPT), for which she was the founder and first president. When the NCCPT blended with their White counterpart to create the National Parent Teacher Association in 1970, Butler was posthumously recognized as a co-founder.

Thyra J. Edwards (1897-1953)

The daughter of escaped slaves, Thyra J. Edwards dedicated her life and career to supporting and advancing disadvantaged groups including women, children, and minorities. Edwards believed that social workers should advocate on behalf of disadvantaged and at-risk populations; focus on issues and problems specifically affecting the well-being of women; and demonstrate the ability to work with diverse populations.

She began her career as a teacher in Houston, but eventually moved to Chicago where she focused on social work and social justice on a global scale. She made international travel an important part of her life and her activism. In Rome, she formed the first Jewish childcare program to support children affected by the Holocaust. She became an advocate for both women’s and civil rights stateside. In a time when social work and social services were segregated, Edwards advocated for diversity and unification in the field. Later, Edwards moved to New York where she became a journalist and international correspondent. Here, she also became involved in labor relations and protested apartment evictions working with the Unemployment Council.

Ruth Ellis (1899-2000)

Long before the Stonewall Riot and the Civil Rights Movement, Ruth Ellis was a proud lesbian that opened her home up to LGBTQ+ youth. She recognized that the LGBTQ+ community was left out and excluded from most popular hangouts, so she provided a safe and loving space for the youth to spend time and interact. She advocated for Black civil rights, senior citizens, and the LGBTQ+ community. She even explored a version of a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in which LGBTQ+ youth were paired with an older mentor to guide them through the societal struggles. The Ruth Ellis Center, founded in 1999, continues her legacy of creating a supportive environment and community with and for LGBTQ+ young people.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

After graduating from college, Shirley Chisholm began her career in childcare as a daycare director and educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare. In 1968, Chisholm was elected as the first Black Congresswoman in U.S. history. In this role, Chisholm advocated for quality education access and fought for the rights of women, people of color, and the poor. She served as a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization of Women, and Chisholm was an instrumental champion in passing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP) legislation.

Dr. Evelyn Moore

Dr. Evelyn Moore began her work in early childhood education as a special education teacher at an elementary school in her home-state of Michigan. Here, she realized that Black children were often sent to special education classes rather than provided the appropriate support. Moore was soon pleased to hear about an experimental research project aimed at providing high-quality education to low-income, Black three- and four-year-olds.

In 1962, Moore joined the Perry Preschool Project as the youngest of four founding teachers. In her time with the Perry Preschool, Dr. Moore learned the importance and the reward of encouraging small class sizes, enriching exercises, and parents taking an active role in their children’s learning. The Perry Preschool enhanced their students’ success metrics for high school graduation, job retention, ability to form stable households and physical health.

In 1971, Moore co-founded the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), where she’s still the Executive Director Emeritus. In her 38 years with NBCDI, Moore advocated for universal childcare and law and policy changes to advance early education for all children, regardless of race or economic status.

The Black Panther Party (1966-1982)

Led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party arose of the need to empower people of color in the U.S. What began as a neighborhood police of sorts, eventually grew to create social programs to support Black children and families in the community. And, in 1969, the Black Panther Party began providing free breakfast for children, which would eventually become the inspiration and catalyst for the U.S. government’s free and reduced meals programs. The Black Panthers would go around to local grocery stores and ask for donations, consult nutritionists on breakfast meals, then cook and supply the meals to students at no-cost. And the schools and communities embraced this support when they noticed that children eating before school led to improved learning. The Party grew their social programs to eventually offer clothing, transportation, medical clinics, legal services, and more. The FBI and the government would go on to disrupt the Black Panthers’ operations by breaking into the buildings, soiling the food, and telling the public lies to discourage their attendance. These efforts did lead to the dismantling of the Black Panther Party’s program, but the public was putting pressure on the government now to feed the kids, and soon, in the early ‘70s, the School Breakfast program was authorized.

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