A Life of ‘Empathy, Pragmatism, and Leadership’: Forrester Blanchard Washington

The dedication of Tufts’ first Black alumnus to improving living conditions for African Americans included service in the Roosevelt Administration’s unofficial “Black Cabinet”

In 1927, about a decade into his career as a social worker, educator, and activist, Forrester Blanchard Washington had what he described in a letter to a friend as an epiphany.

Washington, a member of the Tufts Class of 1909 who is recognized as the first Black graduate of Tufts, was living in Philadelphia at the time. He was serving as director of the Armstrong Association, a social-service organization created to address the needs of the growing population of Black Americans moving from the South to the North. He recognized that, despite the effects of the Great Migration, in which millions of Black people from the rural South relocated to cities in other parts of the United States, most Black families still lived in the South. The poverty there created an acute need for social services—and for skilled social workers who deeply understood the population.

Washington had spent a number of years encouraging northern-based social workers and other professionals to relocate to work with families in the South. His epiphany occurred when he suddenly understood that he should, as he wrote to a friend, “practice what [he] preached.” He declared that he would “consecrate [his] life to social work education,” providing southern-based social workers with the education and skills they needed to serve local populations.

Soon after, Washington moved to Georgia, where he became director of the Atlanta School of Social Work, leading it for nearly 30 years and developing it into a premier training ground for professionals in the field.

Self-Belief—and a Commitment to Others

Frederica Barrow, a social worker who wrote her dissertation for Howard University on Washington and his contributions to the field, describes Washington as a visionary whose family background and unique collection of traits allowed him to excel as a leader.

“Because of his atypical upbringing,” Barrow says, “he believed in his own self-efficacy.” Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1887 and raised primarily in Boston, Washington grew up with inspiring role models in his family and in the surrounding area. Unusually for the time, his parents did not rely on agriculture or domestic work to make a living; his father was an artist, and his mother had received an education. Both parents prioritized education for Washington and his three younger siblings.

Moreover, growing up in a northern city exposed Washington to Black leaders and intellectuals like Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and William Monroe Trotter. As Barrow wrote in a 2007 article for the journal Social Work, Washington’s education was “rich” and “exceptional for African Americans of that era.” He attended South Boston High School and became, in 1909, the first Black graduate of Tufts College. He went on to enroll in graduate studies in economics at Harvard University. After two years, he left Harvard and later earned a master’s degree in social economy from Columbia University.

As an African American in his time, according to Barrow, Washington encountered a lot of resistance and difficulty throughout his education and beyond. “But it never seemed to deter him,” she says. “He recovered quickly from setbacks and was committed to helping other people without his ego getting in the way. This gave him a kind of pragmatism that made him an excellent leader. He could transcend whatever constraints he faced in order to keep working for the goals he was trying to achieve for other people.”

Creating Change in Detroit and Philadelphia

Those goals centered around helping African Americans from the rural South establish urban lives that offered opportunities to thrive.

In 1916, when Washington was newly out of graduate school, the Urban League tapped Washington to become the first director of their newly created Detroit branch. (Founded in New York in 1910, the Urban League is a civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment, equality, and social justice for African Americans.)

His first order of business at the Urban League: helping individuals find employment. By one count, in his first year in Detroit, he found jobs for 6,993 men and 1,279 women. But he wanted the population he worked with to do more than just survive.

As he later wrote in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the “Southern agricultural Negro did not migrate, any more than other peoples have migrated, motivated primarily by the hope of obtaining a better paying job or a more comfortable house or any other of his animal needs but rather was his migration a quest for happiness—‘to have a better time—to get more enjoyment out of life.’”

In keeping with that belief, Washington focused many of his efforts on creating a better life for Detroit’s Black migrants, urging them to adjust to urban conditions, creating recreational programs to help them do so, and supporting their social and emotional lives in whatever ways he could.

Barrow offers the following example of one way in which he did so: “It was the beginning of the First World War,” she notes, “and white people in Detroit were very supportive of white soldiers who were going off to fight.” Washington recognized that that same backing was not going to happen for Black soldiers, so he organized parades and support systems to see those soldiers off. “It was a display of his empathy, pragmatism, and leadership,” says Barrow.

Between 1918 and 1923, Washington experienced several job changes and some major life events. He left the Detroit Urban League to work briefly for the U.S. Department of Labor. He met and married his wife, Sophronia Davis. In 1920, he had a daughter, Dorothy, his only child. And that same year he took a job in Detroit as the director of research for a charity organization. He stayed in that position for three years, ultimately moving with his family to Philadelphia, where he worked for the Armstrong Association until his “epiphany” and relocation to Atlanta.

Changing the Course of American Social Work

By the time Washington took over at the Atlanta School for Social Work, an institution that had suffered from lack of funding and flagging enrollment, he had already established himself as an effective change-maker.

Forrester B. Washington

Washington (circa 1940) Photo: Property of the Robert W. Woodruff Library

Though he’d never spent significant time in the South, Barrow says, “he went with his eyes open.” He knew he would face extreme segregation, but he would not let it deter him from his goals: “He left Philadelphia telling his friends they should not have any worry about his well-being in the South,” says Barrow.

In assuming leadership of the School for Social Work, Washington thrived. He secured funding for the faltering institution, galvanizing the support of connections he’d made with powerful people in Detroit and Philadelphia. He also overhauled the curriculum, building out a new two-year program with an emphasis on the social needs of African Americans and carving out four separate departments in a move to attract more students.

He also expanded opportunities for fieldwork and research, eventually turning the institution into, in his own words, “more than a school.” That is, while it became under his leadership the nation’s central training ground for professional African American social workers, it also served as a promotional agency for the entire field of social work throughout the South. As Barrow put it in a 2020 article for the journal Phylon, “Washington’s leadership and accomplishments are intricately tied to the development of social work and social welfare in the southern United States.”

The Call of the Roosevelt Administration

Washington continued to lead the Atlanta School for Social Work until his retirement in 1954—with one notable interruption. That hiatus took the form of a year spent working in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s so-called Black Cabinet, an informal group of about 45 African Americans working in federal executive departments and New Deal agencies and serving as public policy advisors to the president and first lady.

In 1934, Washington joined the group as Director of Negro Work in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). As noted in blackpast.org, Washington used his position to criticize and publicize the unequal treatment of African Americans at the hands of state FERA administrators and white employers. He also issued calls for equal employment and educational opportunities for Black workers and exhorted his fellow social workers to act as advocates, both within the Roosevelt Administration and in the private sector, for greater work opportunities for African Americans. However, ultimately, frustrated by the government’s lack of support for his priorities, he resigned and returned to his leadership of the Atlanta School for Social Work the following year.

In an article he published upon his retirement in Intake, a journal he had started years before at Atlanta, Washington’s tireless dedication to helping others shone through: “Please remember,” he wrote, “that it is my last chance as Director of the School to address myself to my ‘first love’: you the students and ex-students of the school. May I state here also that as I leave the School, I feel a definite responsibility for each of you and want you to feel free to call on me at any time for any service I can render.”

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