Jacob Billikopf (1882—1950): Social Worker, Labor Arbitrator and Leader in American Jewish Philanthropies
By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Jacob Billikopf was born in Vilna, Russia, on June 1, 1882, to Louis and Glika (Katzenelenbogen) Billikopf. He emigrated to the United States in 1895, and lived in Richmond, Virginia with an older sister, Rebecca Billikopf Tatarsky. Upon his arrival in the United States, Billikopf spoke no English. He began his schooling at age 13 when he entered and completed the eighth grade. He attended Richmond College for a brief time. With a fellowship from the National Council of Jewish Women he transferred to the University of Chicago where he earned a Bachelor of Philanthropy degree (Ph.B.) in 1903.
After graduation, his first professional position in a social welfare agency was as Head Resident of the Jewish Settlement House in Cincinnati, Ohio from 1904-05. From there, he moved on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where for two years he was in charge of the Neighborhood House, the Hebrew Relief Association, and the United Jewish Charities. Billikopf’s next move was in 1907 to Kansas City, Missouri where he was employed as head of the Federation of Jewish Charities. In a letter he wrote in 1946, Billikopf said Kansas City “…was the town where for ten years I did my most creative work in civics, philanthropies and social legislation.”
In the span of ten productive years, he developed a number of lasting and important professional relationships and honed his skills in community leadership. Shortly after Billikopf moved to Kansas City, he became involved in a variety of non-sectarian civic projects and philanthropies. In 1908, due to the deplorable conditions in penal institutions, the Mayor of Kansas City, Thomas Crittenden, asked Billikopf to serve as Chairman of a Commission and undertake a study of the area’s correctional institutions and submit to him a list of recommendations on ways to improve conditions. The Counsel for this Commission was Frank P. Walsh who later was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to be Chairman of the Industrial Relations Commission; and sometime later Walsh was appointed Chairman of the Taft-Walsh Labor Board during World War I.
The Mayor also asked Billikopf to recommend two additional members to serve on this Commission. It is significant that one of the persons Billikopf strongly recommended was William Volker, a successful entrepreneur in the shade and linoleum business. In a letter Billikopf wrote in 1946 to Harold Swift, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago, he described Volker “…as a modest and very generous person but never up to that time identified with civic causes.”As a result of the thorough inquiry into the conditions of the area’s penal institutions, the Commission recommended that the large workhouse where “…prisoners were kept in a state of idleness and demoralization” be demolished. In its stead, the Commission recommended: 1) establishment of a Municipal Farm; and, 2) the creation of a Board of Pardons and Paroles to oversee the Farm. The recommendations were accepted by the Mayor; and, at Billikopf’s urging, William Volker was appointed Chairman of the newly created Kansas City Board of Pardons and Paroles. Billikopf was appointed Vice-Chairman and Frank P. Walsh was appointed General Counsel.
In September 1909, the Kansas City Board of Pardons and Paroles appointed Leroy Allen Halbert as the Commission’s paid Secretary. Later that same year, during a severe economic depression, it was announced that a parade of unemployed men were planning to go to city hall and demand some sort of helpor relief from the Mayor. Halbert, William Volker and Billikopf learned of the proposed parade and they arranged to meet with Mr. E.T. Brigham, Superintendent of the Helping Hand Institute, to discuss a plan to help the unemployed. The Helping Hand Institute, established in 1894, was originally a rescue mission for homeless men and runaway boys. During the winter months, it also served as a refuse for the temporarily unemployed. In the winter of 1909, the Institute was managing a stone quarry in the city’s Penn Valley Park under the auspices of a committee representing a variety of local charitable and civic groups. The Institute used homeless and unemployed men currently living in their sleeping quarters to quarry and break rock. The Park Board bought the rock from the Institute at a dollar a yard and used it for making streets and boulevards. The men who worked in the rock quarry were paid in script redeemable at the Institute for meals, groceries, lodging and clothing. With a days work a man could earn enough for a few days room and board. A city official at the time characterized this arrangement as the “best investment” of its kind Kansas City ever made.
William Volker was also a member of the board of the Helping Hand Institute and he was helping to finance the rock quarry operation. With Volker’s and Billikopf’s support, E. T. Brigham and Leroy Halbert went together to meet Mayor T.T. Crittenden and suggested to him that the city meet the demands of the unemployed by expanding the rock quarrying operations, thereby allowing some of the unemployed to have paid work. The Mayor accepted the suggestion and announced the plan to the unemployed who were pressing for help. Volker and a Mr. Pearson were appointed to be a committee overseeing the new operation; shortly thereafter, they met and recommended to the Mayor that he enlarge the committee into a commission charged with considering the duty of the city toward helping the poor and the unemployed and to design measures to prevent, as far as possible, the spread of more poverty and unemployment.
The Mayor then appointed a body of prominent and representative community leaders with experience in dealing with social problems in the city and they set to work on this assignment. Volker stepped up and offered to finance a study tour to be undertaken by Halbert and Charles A. Sumner, the secretary of the City Club. Their charge was to visit large cities all over the country and learn what was being done in those cities to deal with poverty and the unemployed. From the findings of their reports and their own ideas about what to do, the commission then set out to devise a plan to create a new agency.
Volker consulted various lawyers about drafting an ordinance to embody the ideas of the commission. He also recommended increasing the number of members on the Board of Pardons and Paroles to five (from three) and to change the name from the Board of Pardons and Paroles to the Board of Public Welfare, a name selected by Mr. Volker. On April 14, 1910 the Kansas City Council passed the ordinance, as drafted by William Volker, and created the nation’s first Board of Public Welfare. Leroy A. Halbert was appointed General Superintendent of the new Kansas City Department of Public Welfare, the first organization in the United States using that name. The functions of the newly created Board of Public Welfare were numerous and included among them: administration of the Municipal Farm, supervision of the Pardon and Parole Board, Factory Inspection, Municipal Baths, Recreation Centers, licensing, a Free Legal Aid Bureau and a Free Loan Agency. From 1908 to 1917, during the reigns of four different city administrations, Billikopf and William Volker served on the Board of Public Welfare.
In a personal letter dated December 16, 1946 sent to Harold Swift, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago, Billikopf described how he and Volker helped protect the Board of Public Welfare from becoming “politicized” by elected officials looking for patronage positions: “…Miraculous to relate neither the Goats (the so-called Pendergast wing of the Democratic Party) nor the Rabbits, headed by Joseph Shannon ever disturbed the Board which had a large number of employees. To such an extent did we have public opinion back of us that the politicians left us serenely alone with the result that missions from various parts of the country came to Kansas City to study our activities; above all how we managed to operate without interference from either or both most powerful factions of the Democratic Party.
“On one occasion the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, or Association of Commerce (I forget the exact title) invited me, through Julius Rosenwald who sponsored the affair, to address a gathering of some three hundred and forty persons. As a result of the description given of the manifold activities under our Board of Public Welfare, Professor Charles Merriam, then Alderman, introduced a Resolution in your City Council creating a Board of Public Welfare. If not mistaken, Mary McDowell was the first Executive Director of the organization.”
In his role as head of the United Jewish Charities of Kansas City, Billikopf worked in support of municipal baths, public night schools, a free legal bureau, remedial loans, public recreational facilities and improved conditions for prisoners. Of particular importance was his work on behalf of dependent children. He was a leading advocate for widow’s pensions that were formalized by the Missouri legislature for Kansas City in 1911. He also taught sociology and economics at the University of Missouri, served as president of the Missouri State Conference of Charities in 1911-1912. Beginning in 1913, when he was only thirty, he was included in Who’s Who In America. In 1914, the NAACP recruited Billikopf and other Jewish leaders for its board of directors.
In 1917 Billikopf left Kansas City and moved to New York City where he became the executive director of the American Jewish Relief Committee that raised $20,000,000 for the aid of displaced European Jews after World War I. As Billikopf’s prestige increased, he was called upon to head a number of national organizations. He served as president of the National Conference of Jewish Social Workers and its successor, the National Conference of Jewish Social Service. In 1918 he directed the National Coordinating Committee for Aid to Refugees and Emigrants.
After World War I, Billikopf’s involvement in the wellbeing of the needy increased. In 1920 he settled in Philadelphia, where he became the first full time Director of the Federation of Jewish Charities. He also held positions with many public and private welfare agencies, most notably as president of the National Conference of Jewish Social Service. While in Philadelphia, he married Ruth Marshall, daughter of famed Jewish leader and lawyer, Louis Marshall. She died in 1936 at the age of 38. They had two children, David M. Billikopf and Mrs. Florence Schweitzer.
In Philadelphia, Billikopf became very involved in labor issues, serving as chairman of the National Labor Board of the Philadelphia region in the 1930s, chairman of the Ladies Garment Industry of Philadelphia, vice president of the American Association for Old Age Security and chairman of the Philadelphia Committee of One Hundred on Unemployment Relief in 1930-31.
He served as impartial chairman of both the Ladies’ Garment industry and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Philadelphia. He later represented the department stores of Philadelphia in their labor relations. He was also a member of the board of trustees of the New School for Social Research, and president of the board of trustees of Howard University. In 1937 and 1938 he dedicated himself full time to bringing European Jewish refugees into the United States.
In 1942, he married Esther B. Freeman. Jacob Billikopf was a contributor to The Nation and The Survey. He established the Jacob Billikopf Foundation at the University of Richmond, which conferred upon him an honorary LL.D in 1928. In 1942, the alumni association of the University of Chicago cited him for his “service to community, nation and the world.” Following World War II he served on the Clemency Board in Washington that was established to review court martial sentences.
After a long illness, Jacob Billikopf died in 1950 at the age of 68.
Source of Correspondence: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA), Cincinnati, Ohio. The Center has an extensive collection of Billikopf paper.
More information about Jacob Billikopf can be found at: Cornell.edu – ‘Guide to the Jacob Billikopf Arbitration Awards, 1925-1927’, Cornell University Library, and the
Kansas City Public Library: Conrads, David. 1999. “Jacob Billikopf, Social Worker, 1883-1950” [biography]. Missouri Valley Special Collections.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). Jacob Billikopf (1882- 1950): Social worker, labor arbitrator and leader in American Jewish Philanthropies. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from [date accessed] http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/billikopf-jacob/