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Tefferteller, Ralph

in: People

Ralph B.  Tefferteller (January 10, 1910 – February 5, 1988): Social Worker, Labor Organizer and Director, Henry Street Settlement House

Introduction: Ralph Tefferteller was a social workers who spent much of his career (from 1946 to 1967) at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. After leaving Henry Street, with his wife Ruth, the Teffertellers worked with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Mission in Vietnam until 1971. Ralph arrived in Saigon in 1968, where he served as the UUSC social welfare administrator. Ruth, delayed due to illness, followed in January of 1969, becoming the UUSC senior social welfare adviser. Their mission in Vietnam was to create an all-purpose social welfare center that was very similar to the settlement house on Henry Street, yet designed to accommodate the unique needs of the war-ravaged area.

Early Years: Born January 10, 1910 in Maryville, Tennessee.  Early childhood was spent on his family’s farm near Maryville, Tennessee.  Graduated with a Liberal Arts Degree from Maryville College in 1932 and in 1935 earned his B.D. Degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

After attending rural school through the 8th grade, he graduated in one of the first classes from the new high school established by the Aluminum Co. of America in the new community of Alcoa, Tennessee in 1928. Tefferteller graduated from Maryville College in 1932 after becoming active in YMCA work on the college campus and among Southeastern student groups at Blue Ridge, North Carolina.

In 1932-1933, while at Union Theological Seminary he became acquainted with the newly established Highlander Folk School located in the Cumberland Mountains near Chattanooga, Tennessee, where a new adult education and leadership training center was being established which was to play an important part in developing leadership in the expanding organized labor movement and in later years serving as a focal point in training southern Negroes and whites for new positions of leadership in the integration of Negroes and whites in southern communities.

For Tefferteller, youth leadership work began during his undergraduate years at Maryville.  He served as Student-President of the YMCA on the campus and spent student summers at the YMCA graduate school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Later, as a student seminarian at Union, he continued his training in youth work and counseling through field placements in neighborhood churches and settlements on the lower east side of New York.  During the three years at Union Theological Seminary worked on a field work plan in the lower east side of Manhattan at the Church of Sea and Land.  During the summer of 1933 was counselor in the Madison House Settlement Residential Camp for boys and girls near Peekskill, New York.

After graduation from Union Theological Seminary in 1935 he spent two years on the staff of Highlander Folk School, a pilot adult education center in the Tennessee Mountains.  These two years were devoted to working with unemployed coal miners in the communities of Appalachia and with factory workers and share croppers of the southeastern region.  The School was to play an important part in developing the new leaders in the expanding labor movement and in training southern Negroes and white persons for leadership in integrating southern communities.

From 1938 to 1942 Tefferteller was employed by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (men’s clothing) travelling widely throughout the clothing manufacturing centers from Boston to the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, organizing and administering educational institutes. Until the start of World War II, Tefferteller continued in leadership and labor education programs organizing and promoting educational, cultural and recreational institutes for factory workers in urban areas.

Professional Career: It was during his tenure with the Clothing Workers Union that he married Ruth Sinovoy. Ruth was born on August 28, 1917 in Albany, New York. Also displaying an early interest in public service, she graduated from New York State College for Teachers with a B.A. in Social Sciences and English and from Columbia University School of Social Work with a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare. In 1942, Ralph and Ruth Tefferteller began coordinating their respective concerns and careers. From 1942 until 1946, both served in the Army. Ruth was an army hospital recreation worker with the American Red Cross and Ralph was an Army Air Force officer with Rehabilitation Command, working mainly with soldiers who suffered orthopedic injuries and combat fatigue.

In 1946, both Teffertellers joined the Henry Street Settlement, Ralph as associate director and Ruth as project director and special assistant to the executive director. It was to Henry Street that the Teffertellers devoted twenty-one years of their lives. They remained at the settlement until 1967, setting up educational programs, providing counseling services and recreational alternatives to urban youth and fighting drug abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Beginning in 1946, Tefferteller served as Associated Executive Director of Henry Street Settlement; in 1957, on the retirement of Helen Hall, he was appointed Executive Director. Through all these years he continued his interest in education and social work as a method for dealing with individual and community problems.  The problem of drug addiction among adolescents in the neighborhood of Henry Street Settlement was one of the most pressing community problems.  To better understand its devastating impact on individuals and family life he began recording their stories so that the larger community might be awakened to frightening hold narcotics was gaining on some of its American youth.

Following their tenure at Henry Street, the Teffertellers became involved in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) mission to Saigon, Vietnam. Ralph arrived in Saigon in 1968, where he served as the UUSC social welfare administrator. Ruth, delayed due to illness, followed in January of 1969, becoming the UUSC senior social welfare adviser. Their mission in Vietnam was to create an all-purpose social welfare center that was very similar to the settlement house on Henry Street, yet designed to accommodate the unique needs of the war-ravaged area. Echoing the rhetoric of the American government at the time, the UUSC mission determined to “Vietnamize” the social welfare center. The mission pursued this goal by training Vietnamese social workers to replace the UUSC American workers by 1972. Recognizing the ever-diminishing need for their services, the Teffertellers themselves left Vietnam around 1971. Back in the United States, Ralph Tefferteller officially retired, but continued to involve himself actively in various social welfare related campaigns and programs, including, but not limited to, the Marblehead Nuclear Freeze Committee and the North Shore Health Planning Council, of which he was president. Ruth Tefferteller remained officially employed, becoming the Area Director for the Massachusetts Salem-Danvers Department of Health. She held this post from 1971 until 1986. Ralph Tefferteller died on February 5, 1988. Ruth Tefferteller died in May of 1989.

Note:  Below is a resume prepared by Ralph B. Tefferteller.  Date unknown.


Ralph B.  Tefferteller

Date of Birth: 1/10/1910

Place of Birth: Tennessee


Maryville College                                                                                                       B.A. 1932

Vanderbilt University Summer Leadership Institutes

Union Theological Seminary                                                                                       B.D. 1935


February 1968 to Present Unitarian Universalist Service Committee International Headquarters, 78 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108

  1. Director, International Programs for Africa
    Chief of Party- Social Welfare Administrator UUSC Mission in Vietnam

1946-1967 Associate and Executive Director, Henry Street Settlement, 265 Henry Street, New York, N.Y.

1942-1946 Officer, Army Air Force Rehabilitation Command

1938-1942 Field Organizer for Cultural and Educational Activities Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, New York, N.Y.

1936-1938 Supervisor of Rural and Industrial Leadership Training for Adults and Youth Highlander Folk School, Monteagle, Tennessee

AUTHOR Addict in the Street. Grove Press, N.Y., N.Y. 1965


Board Member, Lower Eastside Narcotics Treatment Center, New York, N.Y.

Member- National Conference on Social Welfare

Member- U.S. Committee, International Council on Social Welfare

Detailed personal data and references available on request from: National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, 232 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016

Residence: Ralph B.  Tefferteller 127 Front Street Marblehead, Mass.

Some biographical notes

Born in East Tennessee on January 10, 1910.

Formal Education

Maryville College, Maryville, Tenn.                                                                          B.A. 1932

Union Theological Seminary, NYC                                                                             M. Div. 1935

1936-1938       Staff Member, Highlander Folk School, Cumberland Mountains, Tenn

1938-1942       Field Organizer in Cultural and Educational Department, National Office, Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, NYC

1942-1946       Officer, Army Air Force Training and Rehabilitation Commands

1946-1967       Associate Director of the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, NYC

1968-1971       Chief of Party for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Mission in Vietnam

1972-1975       Executive Director, Travelers Aid Society of Boston until retirement.

Some memberships and continuing volunteer activities

A founder and continuing Advisory Board Member of the Lower East Side Narcotics Treatment Center, NYC, for 25 years.

Member, National Conference on Social Welfare

Member, U.S. Committee, International Council of Social Welfare

Member, Advisory Board, Place Runaway House, Boston

Secretary/Treasurer, Monday Lunch Club, Boston

Member and past President, Board of Trustees, North Shore Health Planning Council

Co-chair, Marblehead Nuclear Freeze Committee

Coordinator, 6th Congressional District Nuclear Freeze Committees

Source: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN: