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Forrester Blanchard Washington (1887-1963) — Social Work Pioneer, Advocate for African Americans and Educator
By Angelique Brown, MSW
Introduction: Although not as widely known as others, Forrester Blanchard Washington was an African American social work pioneer whose advocacy efforts were dedicated to improving the lives of African American during the Great Depression and New Deal. His work as an administrator, policy analyst, advocate, and educator have contributed greatly to social work as a profession not only for African Americans but for oppressed populations in general.
Education & Background: Washington was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1887. Being raised in New England, he did not experience overt racism to the same degree as some of his peers who were raised in the southern states. In this relatively tolerant area, he was given educational opportunities that would not have been available to him in other parts of the country. In 1909, he graduated from Tufts College (now University). After pursuing post-baccalaureate studies in economics at Harvard University for two years, he later graduated with a master’s degree in social economy in 1917 from Columbia University. With the support of the National Urban League fellowship, Washington also trained at the New York School of Social work.
Always concerned with the social, political, and economic needs of African Americans, Washington’s career included many important positions that allowed him to advocate for the needs of the African American community. He was the first director of the Detroit Urban League, served as director of a National Urban League affiliate in Philadelphia, and in 1926 he became director of the Atlanta School of Social Work, which was dedicated to educating African Americans social workers during a time when other schools would not accept them because of their race.
Washington and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration: In May 1933, early in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term, the Federal Emergency Relief Act was passed. This new law established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). President Roosevelt appointed Harry Hopkins, a social worker, to administer the agency which provided both direct and work relief. FERA policy was intended to be groundbreaking because it prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, color, and non-citizenship. However, practices at the local and state levels continued to give preferential treatment to white people. African Americans voiced their objections to this discrimination and called for their elected officials to intervene so that African Americans could have an equal opportunity to obtain work. It was at that time that Washington was recruited by the Roosevelt administration to serve as director of Negro Work in FERA. Washington was one of several African Americans who made up what became known as “Black Cabinet”. This diverse group gave African Americans a measure of hope because there were now African Americans who held seemingly influential positions within the federal government who were representing their interests.
Washington joined FERA with a desire to institute systemic changes that would provide all African Americans with an equal chance to obtain jobs created in the New Deal recovery programs. He advocated for African Americans to be considered for all jobs, rather than only for menial labor. He also was interested in the conditions of the educational institutions and health facilities for African Americans and reasoned that improvements in both areas would benefit the communities overall, not just African Americans. So passionate about ensuring that African Americans be allowed equal access to employment, Washington delivered a speech at the 1934 annual meeting of the National Conference of Social Work where he named a number of groups that he saw as playing a role in developing a dependency on welfare by denying employment to African Americans.
Although Washington repeatedly attempted to persuade the Roosevelt administration that addressing the challenges faced by African Americans went beyond offering direct relief or common labor, he soon discovered that African Americans were not the primary focus of the administration’s political agenda. He did not want to continue on in a role that he felt would only make African Americans dependent on welfare and subsequently resigned from FERA and returned to Atlanta where he felt he could be more effective as he pursued his interests in social justice for African Americans.
Social Work Call to Action: Washington not only challenged the practices and ideals of the Roosevelt administration, he also called for his fellow social workers to take greater responsibility for the design of social welfare systems and take an active role in their development. He was against what he saw as social workers’ abandonment of taking an active social advocacy role and failing to become involved in the political process that was shaping American social welfare.
In 1936 Washington and others participated in a written symposium on “Political Action and Social Work” which they used as a call for social workers to engage in political activism and to illustrate the negative consequences of social workers becoming bureaucrats in the federal government rather than change agents and advocates.
Note: Forrester B. Washington made several presentations at the National Conference on Social Welfare; three of the presentations can be viewed in the ERAS tab under Civil Rights or linked to directly by clicking on the title:
In 1917: A Program Of Work For The Assimilation Of Negro Immigrants In Northern Cities — By: Forrester B. Washington, Director of the Detroit League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes
In 1928: The Effect Of Changed Economic Conditions Upon The Living Standards Of Negroes — By Forrester B. Washington, Director, Atlanta School of Social Work
For more information on the life, works, and legacy of Forrester B. Washington refer to:
Barrow, F. (2002) “The social welfare career and contributions of Forrester Blanchard Washington: A life course analysis.” Dissertation Abstracts International, 62, 3573