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Winston, Ellen Black

in: People

Ellen Black Winston (1903-1985) — Teacher, Professor, State Welfare Director and First U.S. Commissioner of Welfare (DHEW)

By Wilma Peebles-Wilkins, Dean Emerita, Boston University


Introduction: I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Ellen Winston in the late seventies and early eighties when she was an Adjunct Faculty member in the Social Work Program at North Carolina State University. She was strong-willed and determined even in her late seventies. In one of her lectures to the social work student body, she conveyed her strong convictions about social policies and services to the elderly.  The three A’s were the focus of her lecture on elder services: availability, acceptability and accessibility.  She emphasized the need to develop an array of services to meet the needs of America’s growing elderly population and to ensure that these services were accessible psychologically, geographically and economically.  Beyond this, she noted that service providers must always be aware that effective service delivery requires awareness that because of cultural and other factors our diverse elderly population may find services unacceptable.   It was during this time that ”Dr. Winston”, as we called her, was President of the National Council on Aging.

Career: Ellen Winston was born on August 15, 1903 in the Western part of North Carolina in Bryson City where her father, Stanley W. Black was prominent in the business community.  Ellen Black Winston was considered a change agent and a social scientist.  She received her undergraduate education at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina and two graduate degrees in Sociology from the University of Chicago.  She later, married Dr. Sanford R. Winston who chaired the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University for thirty years.

After earning both a master’s and doctoral degree in Sociology, she taught social science in the Raleigh public school system and later chaired the Department of Sociology and Economics at Meredith College in Raleigh.  During her early career, she also worked in the Division of Research for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  While at the WPA, she was responsible for technical publications about public relief.  Subsequent to editing these technical publications, Ellen Winston was the American editor of Nation and Family in 1941 and published several scholarly works and professional articles. However, it wasn’t until 1944 that her career in public welfare and social services was fully launched.

Her life’s work was devoted to” helping others help themselves.”   From 1944-1963, she served as the North Carolina Commissioner of Public Welfare and during those eighteen years she was the highest-ranking female executive in North Carolina government.   When oral historians questioned Ellen Winston about being a feminist, she stated that she definitely was not.   In January, 1963 she was appointed by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the first U.S. Commissioner of Welfare in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).  She served in this post until she resigned in 1967 in order to pursue social welfare policy issues, and shortly thereafter in 1969, she lost her husband Sanford Winston who had retired in 1963.

Dr. Winston received wide recognition for her social welfare accomplishments and in 1974 she received the North Carolina Award for her work in social welfare policy.  She was invested in both state and national organizations. In addition to her presidency of the National Council on Aging mentioned earlier, she was President of the American Public Welfare Association from 1959-1961, President of the National Conference on Social Welfare (1965-1966), and Vice President of the Child Welfare League of America (1966-1972).  Before her death in July 1985, she received one of the five Distinguished Women of North Carolina Awards.

5 Replies to “Winston, Ellen Black”

  1. This article represents the essence of Dr. Winston in her later years and her contribution to the field of aging. John F.Kennedy had great confidence in her. Her contemporaries, Samuel Silberman and Katerine Kendall saw her contributions. Eugenics is the state’s failure during a time of limited knowledge about the human potential. Those who view Winston as a racist because of her writings about the “Negroes share” also need to see this in the context of the times. This essay portrays Ellen Winston as it should.

  2. Ellen Winston’s legacy is considerably more complicated than this article suggests. Dr. Winston was a committed stakeholder of the North Carolina Eugenics Board and the privately-funded Human Betterment League, both of which contributed to the sterilization of more than 7,600 North Carolina citizens. Dr. Johanna Schoen, in her research on eugenics in North Carolina, revealed that Dr. Winston’s consistent involvement with the Eugenics board was what sustained the momentum of the state eugenics program. The victims of these sterilizations were largely marginalized groups that were dependent on state support and that Dr. Winston had been charged with protecting.

    Throughout our nation’s experiment with eugenics, North Carolina was the only state that allowed social workers to directly petition for sterilizations. Today’s social workers, particularly in the state of North Carolina, must wrestle with the role that the profession had in stripping away people’s reproductive rights and the thousands of lives that were ruined because of it. Dr. Winston was, undoubtedly, a remarkable pioneer in the field of social work and we have a special responsibility when remembering her many accomplishments to also acknowledge her failures.

  3. Thank you for this wonderfully written article on Dr. Ellen Winston, who is an exalted social work pioneer. Her legacy is still very present and appreciated, here at NC State. She changed the Department of Social Work in very positive ways that have become the threads of our fabric, which render our vision, mission and community actions relevant in contemporary times. Dr. Winston’s impact is evident locally, regionally, nationally and internationally through the institutions and lives that she transformed.

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