Reckoning with Social Work’s Past to Repair Harm
Brave Idea: Alumnus and Professor Emeritus John Kayser (MSW ’75, PhD ’90) shares his research on the history of social work and GSSW and discusses the role of historical consciousness and imagination in reckoning with our past, repairing harms, and improving how we teach and practice social work in the future. Kayser served on the GSSW faculty from 1990 until his retirement in 2014. His research chronicled the history of segregation in social work education and documented the origins of GSSW.
"Looking Back to See Ahead" by Helen Harris Perlman
Carlton-LaNey, I. (2001). African American leadership: Empowerment tradition in social welfare history. NASW Press. Learn More
Chandler, S. (1999). “Prising open that old prejudiced door”: African-Americans, poverty, and social work in the early twentieth century. In G. Lowe and P. Reid (Eds.), The professionalization of poverty: Social work and the poor in the twentieth century (pp. 105–119). Aldine de Gruyter. Learn More
Gary, R., & Gary, L. (1994). The history of social work education for Black people 1900–1930. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 21(1), 67–81. Read More
Hale, G. E. (1998). Making whiteness: The culture of segregation in the South, 1890–1940. Pantheon. Learn More
Jackson, W. (1966, September). The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Implications for social work education in the South. Social Work Education Reporter, 14(3), 27–29. Council on Social Work Education.
Kayser, J. (2004). The Bishop Tuttle School of Social Work and the life of Fannie Jeffrey: An oral history. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 10(1), 111–126. Read More
Kayser, J. (2005). The early history of racially segregated, Southern schools of social work requesting or receiving funds from the Rockefeller Philanthropies and the responses of social work educators to racial discrimination. Rockefeller Archive Center, Research Reports Online. Read More
Kayser, J. (2007). The history of the Bishop Tuttle School of Social Work for African American Church Women, 1925–1941. Aretê, 31(1/2), 150–174.
Kendall, K. (2004). Unforgettable episodes in fighting discrimination. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 10(1), 56–62. Read More
Amanda Moore McBride:
Welcome to episode six of the Brave Ideas for Social Change podcast series, produced by the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this academic year. This draws on GSSW faculty expertise for fast moving discussions on emerging research, practice, and policy innovations to spur social change. Today’s guest is Professor Emeritus John Kayser, who graduated from GSSW’s master's program in 1975 and our doctoral program in 1990. John served on the GSSW faculty from 1990 until his retirement in 2014. His research chronicled the history of segregation in social work education in addition to documenting the origins of GSSW. He contends that cultivating historical consciousness and imagination are required if we are to truly reckon with our past, repair harms and improve how we teach and practice social work now and into the future. John, we so appreciate your contributions in this area, thank you for sharing some of what you've learned.
Thank you, Amanda. It’s good to be back briefly. And it’s an honor to be asked to contribute. It really is. I really commend you and the school for investigating the profession’s own history. And I think it fits very well under the podcast frame of acts of bravery, because there are uncomfortable truths to learn about who we were, who we are today, and the challenge of who we will need to be going forward.
Amanda Moore McBride:
John, you talk about historical consciousness and imagination. Let’s ground our listeners. What does that mean to you?
Well, I’m going to borrow the title of a book by Helen Harris Perlman, and she wrote a really wonderful memoir with this great title, Looking Back to See Ahead. And I think the key concept here is the notion that the study of history is reflexive. That is, we’re in a dialogue really between the events and people from the past and those of us in present day about the meaning of what has transpired. And I distinguish this approach from a traditional research investigation into the past, which would focus on trying to understand how events unfolded as experienced by the people of a particular time, drawing largely on contemporaneous accounts of how those events were recorded and documented, assuming that they were, and hopefully a good researcher is going to look for as many different points of view as possible.
A reflexive approach to history goes further [taking] into account the influence, both on the original documenters and recorders of the events as they occurred. And later historical investigators take into account their cultural history, their cultural identity and their personal experience. And so when “official histories” are put forward, they’re at best a partial rendering of what has occurred, but not the full story. But they’re also likely to be highly biased; marginalized communities and individual people’s lived experience typically haven’t been included in the official histories. And it’s not just because their voices were deemed unimportant, but because in many cases, their perspectives are counter to the dominant historical narrative being constructed.
Amanda Moore McBride:
The origin of your interest in history actually started with researching the lives of individual social workers. I’d love for you to reflect a bit on the revelation that led you to actually ratchet that up a bit and to begin studying the larger history of racism in social work and higher education.
When I joined the faculty, a colleague on faculty, Pam Metz, and I began to study the lived experiences of women and men who were drawn to the field to social work. We asked our informants what brought them into the profession, what stained them throughout their career, and what wisdom they wish to pass on to the next generation of social workers. It’s through this work that we interviewed Dr. Virginia Gill, who is a 1961 MSW DU graduate. And at the time I met her, she happened to be volunteering in the GSSW alumni office. Dr. Gill was an African American, then in her 70s, who was born and raised and educated in segregated Louisiana. Her first career was as a public school teacher in a segregated school district. So, she’s in Louisiana; the premier school of social work in Louisiana is Tulane University in New Orleans.
So, this is middle to late 1950s, and she submits an application there. And she does all the usual things students or prospective students do in submitting an application — your educational history, your work history — but Tulane also asks for a personal photograph. So she sends all that out and very quickly gets a letter of rejection back. And the statement is, “Well, Tulane does not accept negro students.” She’s very deflated, very discouraged about social work and ready to give up. But she has a friend who’s living in Denver. And the friend says, “I think you should come to Denver School of Social Work. University of Denver is accepting Black students. You should apply there.” She's pretty skeptical, but she goes ahead and does that. She is accepted into our program, and she graduates and goes on actually to get her doctorate in health care administration later.
But she has a very positive experience in our master’s program. And seeing that just stayed with her is the kind of support that she got from the faculty, not only in the classroom, she had three young children with her. They were living in one of the small graduate apartments that used to be on campus. And certain faculty really provided additional support to her and her kids outside of the classroom. So she’s telling me all this, and I’m having just this internal, fairly major reaction. There’s segregated schools of social work? How did I not know that? After the interview’s over, I go back to the sort of fundamentals of oral history research and sort of the idea of you investigate both the memory trail, meaning the personal recollections of an informant, and you also investigate the paper trail, and that’s both published as well as unpublished documents.
And so I’m on the trail here, where is there published information, or even unpublished information about how segregation and social work got created and established. And I’m running into nothing. I start building timelines, and I end up searching in a number of archives, primarily the social welfare history archives at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, but other places as well. And I discover that all of the schools of social work in segregated, white-only public and private universities in the south were accepted as members without any objection into the accrediting organization that precedes CSWE. So this is going to be the American Association of Professional Schools of Social Work. But the relevance for CSWE is, all of those organizations accredited by the previous accrediting body are just adopted without objection, or questioning at all when CSWE gets started in the 1950s. So I start looking at the Atlanta School of Social Work, which was specifically designed for African American students. This is seen as a tremendous achievement.
The downside of that is, is that it’s also segregated. It’s not open to whites, and Black students who are interested in social work either by their own choice or because they are given no other choice, go to Atlanta. There’s very few Northern schools that are admitting Black students. And those that do in small numbers, those students are not living on campus. So the segregation maybe not have been in the classroom, but it certainly would be in terms of their lodging. There’s this obvious contradiction between the practices of these schools and the accommodation in accrediting organizations between what we say our espoused values are — our commitment to racial inclusion, our commitment to social justice — and at the same time, our more than tacit support for segregated and exclusionary practices. And so I really ended up saying that there was such a push early in our profession to professionalize social work. And part of that had to do with establishing schools of social work all over the country. That ended up being more important than taking a stand or raising objections in host universities to what was going on.
So, I ended up seeing this is a history that’s not just been avoided. It’s been actively suppressed. I ended up doing an oral history interview with Katherine Kendall, then also in her 90s, but very active, very knowledgeable. And she had worked in the predecessor accrediting body, and she was present at the birth of CSWE and had a long career there. And so I’m interviewing her — she had just written this book about the first 20 years of CSWE, again, with no mention in that book at all about segregated schools of social work — so I’m asking her about this. And so she’s both forthcoming and maybe not as forthcoming as I would’ve wished. And she tells me, “Well, yes, that happened.” But about two years after Brown v. Board of Education, there was this movement by her, by Whitney Young, Jr., who had been dean at the Atlanta School of Social Work, to create an accreditation standard mandating that schools have no discrimination at all. And it takes eight years to get this through CSWE.
Although Kendall claimed that the delay was due to the fact that the delegate assembly, rather than an accreditation commission or the board of directors, was the primary decision-making body at CSWE, it was never clear how much opposition or resistance may have come from the segregated accredited schools themselves.
Amanda Moore McBride:
John, I so appreciate how you took us along a storyline from an individual case to then the field overall. Let's stop in the middle at the University of Denver. What was the historical context at the time that the University of Denver social work program was founded, and at other key points in our school’s history?
Well, I think the history of segregation is very relevant to how we got started. So, the DU school of social work, the planning for it, takes about 10 years, and it gets started in the 1920s. And this is the exact same era in which the Ku Klux Klan rises to great political power in Colorado. And so this version of the Klan is not only anti-Black, they’re anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and especially anti-immigrant. And they have a very strong appeal to Denver’s white Protestant, middle-class population. They portray themselves as “the guardians of the 100% real Americans.” Among the nefarious deeds done by our Governor Clarence Morley, who was an openly declared Klan member, was he eliminated the funding for the director’s position at the State Department of Public Welfare. And his administration targeted local Catholic and Jewish social agencies. So that’s the background in the 1920s that the planning for our program gets started.
Do you decide to establish a school social work on the recommendation of a group of nationally prominent educators? And their recommendation was that DU start a “first class school of social work.” And it’s a great recommendation because there’s nothing in a multistate area in the Rocky Mountain West. So, the Denver chapter of what was then the American Association of Social Workers, several social agencies, they pony up half the money for a two-quarter series of demonstration courses in social work. They actually recruit a prominent case worker author from what was then Western Reserve University. There’s just a, then this response from the community. So do you start the Department of Social Work in 1931 at that point in time, the Depression’s well underway, Great Depression is well underway. The power of the Klan has collapsed politically in Colorado, and there’s just this clamor demand to have trained social workers do both social case work with clients, both in the white community and people of color, as well as people trained in social welfare administration.
Amanda Moore McBride:
I’m sure there are many members of our GSSW community who have never heard that. Thank you for sharing a bit about the context around our founding. Let’s go a few years into the future. Are there moments that you can point to where GSSW has attempted to combat racism within the profession?
Yeah, I think we have actually a positive history and something that I think we should honor and be proud of. So in the 1920s, again, Klan is in power. What I, it was recently revealed that there were over 30,000 enrolled members of the Klan in Denver, and at that time we are the 25th largest city in the United States. But there there’s another history, W.E.B. Du Bois singles out Denver as a model of racial inclusion. And he’s talking particularly about the era before World War I, but nonetheless, there is both histories there, histories of tolerance and respect and inclusion, as well as the Klan history. And so when the department of social work gets started, we have our first student of color, a man by the name of Herman Washington, also from Louisiana and thereafter, every single year, you have a small number of students of color enrolled in the program and fast forwarding a little, a little bit into the 1950s.
We graduate the first Native American student, Howard Walking Stick, to get an MSW in the entire country comes from our program in the 1950s. The first Chicana, Marta Sotomayor, she receives a doctorate from us in social work in 1973. And the first Native American, Ron Lewis — who’s a Cherokee from Oklahoma [and] was one of my teachers in the master’s program — he receives his doctorate in 1974. And I think that maybe not just highlight those particular individuals, because if you look in the ’60s and ’70s in particular, in the master’s program, there’s this whole cadre of African American students and Chicano/Chicana students who are coming through the program, they’re graduating, and all of them go into major leadership positions, not just in social agencies, but in city, state, and federal government positions. And the last thing I’d just try to single out is the work of Ken Kindelsperger, who was dean in the program from about 1972 to 1979.
So Kindelsperger, before he had come to University of Denver, he had been dean at the University of Louisville in the Kent School of Social Work. And during his time as dean there, he is a major civic leader working to desegregate the Louisville public school system. In CSWE and other places, he’s a good friend and close with Whitney Young, Jr. And so when he comes to Denver, [he has] a very strong emphasis on increasing the inclusion of students of color and faculty of color into the program. One of the things I realized, this is through another oral history interview with another faculty member who told me that in Kindelsperger’s years as dean, the percentage of MSW students from Black and Chicano students was probably as high as 30% of the total student body. And he also increased the number of African American and Latino/Latina people in both tenure track and adjunct faculty positions. So, I think that’s an important history. I’m not simply saying we rest on our laurels and say, “Yay us.” But I think it’s in stark contrast to some of the other schools that I’ve looked at.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Thank you for tracing this history. Let’s begin to shift our conversation to the future. What’s the relevance of the profession’s history to social work today and into the future?
I think that’s the key question, and I’m not going to clairvoyance about the future. I think the very first thing is that we have to bring this hidden history, or a legacy of shame if you will, into our conscious awareness as educators. And it has to be brought into the official history of social work education. And I would just say, frankly, this is the piece that worries me the most CSWE and probably all of the other segregated schools of social work and maybe all social or programs in general. I’m sure they can point to progress that they’ve made, or things that they did moving forward without trying to say they’re spinning history. If you only focus on the positive achievements of racial inclusion and you don’t speak about, or you don’t admit, don’t acknowledge the history that’s gone before, then I think that that’s perpetuating a somewhat of a false history.
I think that leads to a sort of a second series of questions. Since we’ve avoided it, we’ve suppressed this history, we have to ask what harm has that done to those that we’ve excluded? What harm has it done to the kinds of social work schools and educational programs that we’ve developed, and what harm has it done to the students that we excluded, and what harm has it done to the students who have been recruited into the profession, but without this kind of knowledge? And I think the third thing is, we have to say, well, we are the current custodians of the profession’s educational enterprise, and we must ask ourselves what kind of future must we build to correct the harm that we are complicit in?
Amanda Moore McBride:
John, I’m sure you’ve tracked since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the American Psychiatric Association issued a public apology for past racist practices, even established a truth commission to work toward accountability. This year, the National Association of Social Workers issued a similar apology. What more is needed for social work and institutions of higher education to repair harms and fundamentally change our teaching and our practice?
Well, I think the NASW statement is tremendously important, simply because there’s been nothing like it previously. And I think whether you’re an NASW member or not, that deserves a deep reflection and response. I think it behooves CSWE to do something similar. I would say whether you call it a truth commission or an accountability task force, you have to bring that hidden history of supporting exclusionary practices forward. I am just absolutely convinced that we have to go beyond our traditional way of teaching history. We get stuck in this requirement of, we have to have a syllabi and textbook and assigned reading, typically a written paper assignment so that we have a way of evaluating student learning. We have to go beyond just intellectual exposure, intellectual understanding of the past. We have to help students make an emotional connection about what life in a poor house was like, and what an overseer [of] the poor actually did, and the harm that that might have caused to families.
There was one example, in another class, we put Jane Addams on trial. I was the prosecuting attorney and the students were the jury. And I was prosecuting her for running a segregated settlement house. In another a class (I learned this is from one of the field coordinators at [the] school), her mother — this is a Jewish family — her mother had memories as a child of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on her parents’ lawn. I invited this elderly woman in with her daughter, and they shared that story. In another class, had an in-class assignment where the students had to research the Congressional record. And I did this when the Affordable [Care] Act was being debated. And later when one of the other efforts to [reform immigration] was being debated, let's look at what we can find about was social work present testifying before Congress? Did social work mount lobbying efforts? What did they do?
So that to try to form a judgment about how effective we were, or perhaps were we effective in affecting social change? So these are the sort of different approaches I tried to engage students intellectually and emotionally. I think if I were teaching today, and this is what I recommend for anybody who has an interest in infusing history into their courses, to look for community storytellers or leaders who could convey what working with social workers and social agencies was like, for better or worse. I try to find artists, playwrights, filmmakers, documentarians who can move us beyond an intellectual understanding of the past so we can make a deeper emotional connection. And that’s the place where I think we have to find the resolve and the courage to change the future.
Amanda Moore McBride:
John, as you reflect on our history, any advice for future generations of social workers and educators?
Well, the first recommendation is don’t wait for a 90th anniversary to think about the history. And you’re not, I just think that’s a tendency that organizations have. It’s, “Oh, we have this anniversary coming up, so let’s think about history.” The place I would really turn to is the preparation of new faculty members in their doctoral education. And we have social work doctoral education is very research-focused, quantitative, qualitative, mixed-method studies, and history research — which is really kind of located in the humanities department — really gets overlooked. And I would really like to see courses on historical research and maybe even elective courses on oral history methods. And then sort of the last recommendation is, I was going to say, find additional creative ways to teach history. But I think what I really mean is more dramatic ways to teach history.
Two weeks ago, I was at the Denver Art Museum, and they have this newly opened exhibit, Indigenous Arts of North America in the completely remodeled Gio Ponti building. And there is this very large canvas done by Kent Monkman is his name, Cree Indian from the Fisher River Band in Canada. And this canvas is a picture of a rural village in Canada in which the Canadian Mounties and the Catholic priests and nuns have swooped into this village. They’re yanking the children away from their parents who are angry, distraught, and very powerless because these children are being taken off to boarding schools. And that it just was a haunting picture, it was impossible to look at it without feeling sort of a deep response to it. And I thought back to the NASW apology statement, and I thought, what would happen if we had artists create similar portrayals of the events mentioned in the NASW apology?
So, the NASW apology talks about settlement house workers that excluded Black clients, social workers, that prevented clients from the right to vote. Social workers that recruited Black men into the Tuskegee experiment, social workers participating in the removal of Native American children, social workers who participated as intake staff in the Japanese internment camps. If we had those kinds of depictions, those visual impacting paintings or films or whatever they might be, it would be impossible to look away. We would scream. We would howl. But hopefully out of that shame is the courage and the brave ideas to affect change in the profession that are required for our survival and the future. Reflexive history is meant to be disruptive to our social construction of professional identity. And like every era of social work, there is just a great deal to do. So I would say in this particular area, hidden history of segregation and social work education, it’s time to find the courage, it’s time to get to work.
Amanda Moore McBride:
This has been such a fascinating and critically important conversation. John, how fortunate GSSW is to call you an alum and a professor emeritus. Thank you so much.
Thank you. Thanks.
Amanda Moore McBride:
Subscribe to our Brave Ideas for Social Change podcast for more conversations like this. Learn more at socialwork.du.edu/change. For more information on the history of GSSW and what the next 90 years may have in store for the school and the profession of social work, please visit socialwork.du.edu/next90.