Skip to main content

Cutler, Vilona Phillippi (1890-1970)

in: People

Vilona Phillippi Cutler (1890-1970) — Social Worker, Educator, Humanitarian and Activist


Introduction: Vilona P. Cutler was a multi-talented social work pioneer in Oklahoma.  Her many contributions were listed in a letter written in July 1984 by Leonard D. Benton, president of the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City who praised Vilona Cutler for her work. Benton wrote: “Ms. Cutler was a pioneer in the area of human and race relations in the City and State of Oklahoma. She was a driving and inspirational force which led to the founding of the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City in 1946. As a charter member, the archives reflect that Ms. Cutler was committed and consistent in the promotion of human dignity, race relations and equal opportunity. Many doors of opportunity were opened to Blacks and other minorities through the work of Ms. Cutler.” (Pierson, 2012)

Early Years: Vilona Phillippi Cutler was was born June 17, 1890 in Harper County, (south central) Kansas.  She was the youngest of four children and she was raised on a farm where her parents grew wheat and raised cattle. Her father served at different times as Harper County sheriff, county clerk and treasurer. Her mother, a college graduate trained as a school teacher was viewed in their rural community as ‘close’ to being a doctor. Ms. Cutler recalled memories of her mother leaving in middle of the night on horseback to attend to a sick child or to assist with a birthing. (Pierson, 2012). After high school graduation, Ms. Cutler took and passed the Kansas teacher’s exam that led to a teaching position in a one-room country school. With her earnings as a teacher and combined with a 1910 part-time deputy clerk position she was able to fund her college education at Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan. She studied for a degree in bacteriology to help farmers like her parents with the trials of farming. She completed a four year degree in three years and earned a graduate scholarship that helped her complete 45 graduate hours toward a MS (Master of Science) degree in bacteriology. While a student she was an active leader in several student organizations;  one of them, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) helped her secure a role as a “war camp worker” at the beginning of World War I in 1917. She was assigned to Camp Wheeler in Macon, Georgia where her role involved setting up recreational activities and support services for the wives of war troops. Her war time experience as a “war camp worker” exposed Ms. Cutler to the disparities between whites and blacks and influenced her to become an activist for oppressed people. Her commitment to social justice is reflected in her advocacy actions over thirty three years with the YWCA (Pierson, 2012).

 Professional Career:  In April 1919 Vilona Cutler was transferred to Miami, Florida, center of three military camp units. Her war camp worker role ended with end of World War I. Ms. Cutler’s professional role with the YWCA began when she was named general secretary of the new Miami YWCA operating out of the former Fort Dallas Hotel. This former hotel facility allowed the new YWCA to provided housing for working women who moved to the city to support the war effort. During her tenure in Miami Ms. Cutler recognized her need for additional professional training to help returning veterans and their families with psychological problems. As result of the 1929 financial crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, the Miami YWCA was forced to cut its work force from sixty to six  and Ms. Cutler was moved to Yonkers, New York to assume the general secretary role of the community’s local branch of the  YWCA. During her years at Yonkers Ms. Cutler was able to complete her social work coursework studies at the New York School of Social Work in 1936. At that time the New York School of Social Work was not a degree granting institution; the graduates received a diploma which was considered equivalent to a two year master of social work degree.  It was formally recognized several years later when Columbia University accepted the work of the New York School for degree granting purposes. Her field work concentration was in group work and community organization and both supported and enhanced her YWCA experience. In the summer of 1936 Ms. Cutler accepted the position of general secretary of the Oklahoma City YWCA. During academic year 1940-41 Ms. Cutler was appointed instructor at the University of Oklahoma in social work on a part-time basis to teach the new social group work course. She continued her part time affiliation with the School until she retired in 1959. She taught social group work and supervised field work students placed at the YWCA. From 1950 to 1953 she served as Director of the School of Social Work at rank of Professor of Social Work.

In her role as YWCA Executive Secretary she fought against white privilege social norms and Jim Crow segregation laws that presented multiple indignities for Black Americans. Early in her tenure as YWCA director she recognized that Oklahoma African-American girls and women had the same needs as their white counterparts in Great Britain that gave purpose to the founding of the first YWCA in 1898. In 1941 she worked to establish a small “YWCA Branch” to serve the Black community. In 1945 she was instrumental in convincing her YWCA board of directors to create a multiracial committee for purpose of raising funds to secure a permanent building to house the branch serving the Black community. Her original fund raising idea was to use Black artists for a concert. It is assumed several Black committee members were ministers and that is how idea of using Black church choirs took hold. Racial barriers were broken in the fund raising process and by the concert itself, attracting an audience of more than 6000 mixed race patrons in a public facility, the Oklahoma City Civic Center Municipal Auditorium, a facility that had been off limits to Black patrons previously. Twenty-three church choirs with more than five hundred voices were present for the first concert on February 25, 1946. The event was so successful it became an annual mixed race fund raising event. During same year, Ms. Cutler broke additional racial barriers by integrating the YWCA dining room, the first such downtown eating establishment. She also integrated the YWCA camp facility for girls and young women that same year. She helped establish a USO facility for Black service men and was one of forty-eight founding members of the Oklahoma City Urban League established in 1946. She provided office space for the controversial Urban League in the basement of the YWCA. In academic year 1940-41 she was appointed instructor of social work at the University Of Oklahoma School Of Social Work on a part-time basis to offer a course in social group work that was new content for the school. Ms. Cutler presided over the first MSW accreditation process by the American Association of Schools of Social Work while Director (1950-53) of the School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma. Before the National Association of Social Workers was established, she chaired the earlier American Association of Social Workers Oklahoma Chapter and in 1955 she became the first chair of the new social workers national membership organization, the Western Oklahoma NASW Chapter.

Significant Achievements and Awards: In January 1948 Cutler was nationally recognized for her race relations leadership work in Oklahoma City, her service on the Governor’s Children’s Code Commission, her involvement in the founding of the National Urban League Chapter of Oklahoma City, and her opening of the YWCA camp to Negro girls. For these achievements Cutler received the New York School of Social Work prestigious Norma and Murray Hearn Social Ac­tion Award presented annually to an outstanding social worker in the nation. She also was first recipient of the annual Americanism Award for meritorious community service presented by the Lewis Berlitz B’Nai B’rith Lodge Women’s Auxiliary. In November 1950, the Urban League of Okla­homa City established the Vilona P. Cutler Award, its most prestigious award to recognize and honor Cutler’s contributions to the Oklahoma City community. It is presented every five years to an individual in recognition of meritorious and outstanding service for building better human rela­tions to advance the general welfare of all Oklahoma citizens. In 2008 the Urban League presented its sixteenth Vilona P. Cutler Award.


NASW Social Work Pioneers, NASW Foundation:

Pierson, G. N. (2012). Vilona P. Cutler: Humanitarian, activist, and educator. The Chronicles of Oklahoma XC(1), 52-67

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2015). Vilona Phillippi Cutler (1890-1970) — Social worker, educator, humanitarian and activist.  Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from