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Social Welfare In The Black Community,1886-1939

Historical Perspectives on Social Welfare in the Black Community 

by Wilma Peebles-Wilkins, Ph.D., Boston University

Over the past two decades, social work educators and students have developed a body of literature, which describes the legacy, and contributions of African Americans or members of the Black community to social welfare historical developments. Prior to this time, the social welfare/social work history literature was limited most often to discussions about slavery and the ((Freedman’s Bureau)), the Niagara Movement and the development of the NAACP, and periodically inclusion of content on the Urban League, and sometimes time line information on the development of some of the earlier Historically Black Institutions such as Fisk University. Little content, if any, was available on the pre-Civil War or Civil War period. Rarely did lectures about social settlements include social settlements in the Black community, such as the Locust Street Settlement in Hampton, Virginia founded by Janie Porter Barrett. Barrett remained in the shadow of Jane Addams, Lillian Wald and other white women pioneers in the northeast.

Some social policy educators have indicated that African American or Black social welfare activities were residual in nature, were not mainstream activities, and therefore should not be considered social welfare activities. In this way of thinking, social welfare history should primarily describe the development of institutionalized and universal services. This perspective leads to a historical presentation of social welfare based on temporary activities which became permanent, which are primarily public and governmental, and which tend to exclude the earlier private social welfare activities which transpired historically in the segregated Black community through voluntary associations or mutual aid organizations. The reality is that there are examples of both public and private social welfare activities, which transpired under segregation customs, which have persisted over time and have not been included in the study or presentation of social welfare history. Excluding this content does not help social work students fully understand how Black people were cared for during historical times when they were totally excluded from the so-called mainstream or universal service delivery system. Definitions are helpful in responding to issues of residual (temporary) versus institutional (enduring) social welfare activities. Definitions are also helpful in developing a framework for integrating historical content on social welfare provisions in the Black community into the social work foundation curriculum.

Helpful Definitions:
1. Mutual aid organization— is a social welfare arrangement or form of group support in which individuals with a common concern, a shared heritage, culture or sense of community bond together for the purposes of care giving and meeting each others needs. Dating back to at least medieval times, mutual aid activities range from informal helping networks to formally organized voluntary associations.
2. Voluntary association — a formally organized social group or private, non-governmental common interest organization that tends to be more formal and viewed anthropologically as an adaptive or survival mechanism. A social agency under church auspices, for example, could be considered a voluntary association, or formally organized social group.
3. Selective social service provisions –- social services which are geared toward a special ethnic or racial group, specified community catchment or geographical area. This form of social service delivery was very prevalent in inner city neighborhoods during the 1960’s under governmental as well as voluntary sponsorship.
4. Universal social service provisions— social services that are for ‘all’ and are not limited to a specified geographical area, or designated group of individuals.

During the Colonial Period in this country, Black slaves were cared for on plantations, free blacks developed group support mechanisms, and as a rule of thumb all Black people were excluded from care under early Poor Law provisions. To fully understand the historical delivery of social services to African Americans or members of the Black community, one needs to take into account that in the early development of social welfare services, African Americans were cared for in separate historical spheres or excluded from governmental provisions under segregation customs. It is important for social work students to understand this duality and recognize that the early development of social welfare services transpired under parallel systems. This knowledge provides a context for understanding and appreciating the African American and/or Black experience in the United States and North America.

Republished with permission from

How to Cite this Article (APA Format). Peeples-Wilkins, W. (2006). Historical perspectives on social welfare in the Black community. Retrieved from

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