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Egypt, Ophelia Settle (1903-1984)

Ophelia Settle Egypt – (1903–1984) – Social Worker, Historian and Pioneer in Family Planning


Introduction: Ophelia Settle was born in a small town near Clarksville, Texas in 1903.  Egypt received a BA degree from Howard University in 1925 and obtained an MA in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928. In 1944 she was awarded an MS from the New York School of Social Work. She later received an advanced certificate for work toward a Ph.D. at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work. Over the course of her career Ophelia Settle Egypt helped expose the infamous Tuskegee study of syphilis among black sharecroppers, and played a leading role in Charles Johnson’s “Shadow of the Plantation” study of the sharecropper system. As the Depression wore on, she left Fisk University to assist with relief efforts in St. Louis. She accepted a scholarship from the National Association for the Prevention of Blindness to study medicine and sociology at Washington University, where, as a black woman, she was required to receive all her lessons from a tutor. She also became head of social services at a hospital in New Orleans, and five years later conducted research for James Weldon Johnson, about whom she wrote a children’s book. Egypt was a social worker in southeast Washington, D.C., and for eleven years was the director of the community’s first Planned Parenthood clinic, which was named for her in 1981.

Career Achievements: In the late 1920s, Ophelia Settle Egypt conducted some of the first interviews with former slaves, setting the stage for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) massive project ten years later. Ophelia Settle Egypt was a young researcher when she worked alongside sociologist Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University as he produced some of his best known and highly regarded work. While in Nashville, Egypt was responsible for conducting one hundred interviews with elderly men and women who had been enslaved as children.  Her interviews were a part of Fisk University’s publication, Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves (issued in 1945 as a 322-page volume designated as Social Science Source Document No. 1, and in 1968 in an NCR/Microcard Edition).

In the early 1950s, Mrs. Egypt, a social worker in Southeast Washington, DC saw a problem in her community, and set out to solve it. In the neighborhood where she lived and worked, she often came in touch with impoverished mothers of large families. Many of them were hardly more than girls themselves, and they told her over and over that they felt that they had no options. They thought they’d never be able to obtain birth control information and services. Mrs. Egypt thought otherwise. In 1956, Planned Parenthood hired her to bring family planning into her community. She did exactly that, with tireless commitment.

Mrs. Egypt went door-to-door, visited in living rooms, spoke at informal neighborhood gatherings, handed out literature at public housing projects, and reached out to others in every possible way. Single handedly and single mindedly, she persuaded community leaders, including clergy, that family planning was a means of empowerment that gave women and men more control over their economic condition. In 1957, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. opened the first private family planning clinic in Southeast Washington, and for eleven years, Mrs. Egypt was its director. In 1981, the Parklands Planned Parenthood Clinic was renamed Ophelia Egypt Center in her honor. Ophelia Settle Egypt died on May 25, 1984, at the age of 81.

For More Information:

Ann Allen Shockley Interview with Mrs. Ophelia Settle Egypt conducted December 12, 1972 at Mrs. Egypt’s home in Washington, D.C., Fisk University Black Oral History Program, Special Collections and Archives, Franklin Library, Fisk University.

Barnes, B. (1984, June 1). Ophelia Egypt, Author, Backed Birth Control. The Washington Post.


Ward, Andrew (2007). Ophelia Settle Egypt.

NASW Foundation – Social Work Pioneers, Ophelia Settle Egypt

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2014). Ophelia Settle Egypt – (1903-1984) – Social worker, historian and pioneer in family planning. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

4 Replies to “Egypt, Ophelia Settle (1903-1984)”

    • See the Encyclopedia of Social Work: In 1929, while serving as a research assistant to Dr. Charles S. Johnson, director of the Social Science Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Egypt conducted original research on the conditions of slavery among African Americans. Her personal interviews with more than 100 former slaves in Tennessee and Kentucky are contained in Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves, which was published by Fisk University in 1968. The original, historical research conducted by Johnson and Egypt was one of the earliest uses of oral history documentation in the United States, predating the Works Progress Administration 1936–1938 study, the largest collection of ex-slave interviews available in this country.
      If you’re looking for the Ann Allen Shockley interview with Ophelia Settle Egypt, it’s part of the Black Oral History Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Franklin Library, Fisk University, Nashville, TN. The date of the interview was December 12, 1972.

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