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Groping Toward Democracy

African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis, 1910-1949

Priscilla A. Dowden-White

Publication Year: 2011


Decades before the 1960s, social reformers began planting the seeds for the Modern Civil Rights era. During the period spanning World Wars I and II, St. Louis, Missouri, was home to a dynamic group of African American social welfare reformers. The city’s history and culture were shaped both by those who would construct it as a southern city and by the heirs of New England abolitionism. Allying with white liberals to promote the era’s new emphasis on “the common good,” black reformers confronted racial segregation and its consequences of inequality and, in doing so, helped to determine the gradual change in public policy that led to a more inclusive social order.


In Groping toward Democracy: African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis, 1910–1949, historian Priscilla A. Dowden-White presents an on-the-ground view of local institution building and community organizing campaigns initiated by African American social welfare reformers. Through extensive research, the author places African American social welfare reform efforts within the vanguard of interwar community and neighborhood organization, reaching beyond the “racial uplift” and “behavior” models of the studies preceding hers. She explores one of the era’s chief organizing principles, the “community as a whole” idea, and deliberates on its relationship to segregation and the St. Louis black community’s methods of reform. Groping toward Democracy depicts the dilemmas organizers faced in this segregated time, explaining how they pursued the goal of full, uncontested black citizenship while still seeking to maximize the benefits available to African Americans in segregated institutions. The book’s nuanced mapping of the terrain of social welfare offers an unparalleled view of the progress brought forth by the early-twentieth-century crusade for democracy and equality.


By delving into interrelated developments in health care, education, labor, and city planning, Dowden-White deftly examines St. Louis’s African American interwar history. Her in-depth archival research fills a void in the scholarship of St. Louis’s social development, and her compelling arguments will be of great interest to scholars and teachers of American urban studies and social welfare history.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Part of this book’s research finds its origin in my doctoral dissertation on African American public education and health care, covering the period from 1910 to 1949. The research for the dissertation made me aware of the prominent role institution building had played in this particular African American community’s history. As a native St. Louisan growing up in this city during the ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

Although my name is the only one on the cover of this book, countless individuals have contributed to this project. This book is dedicated to R. J. M. Blackett, my dissertation advisor, mentor, and friend; to Beverly Jarrett, retired director and editor-in-chief of the University of Missouri Press, for her enthusiasm...


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pp. xvii-xx

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pp. 1-22

Groping toward Democracy presents an on-the-ground view of local institution-building, neighborhood, and community-organizing campaigns initiated by African American social welfare reformers in St. Louis during the period of the Great Migration from 1910 to 1949. There were, in fact, two periods of mass migration of black southerners over the first half...

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Chapter One: Vice Lords, Rousters, and Public School Men and Women: The Cultural Inheritance of an Organizing Community

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pp. 23-57

In the 1930s Clara Jones transferred from the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee where she was one of approximately twenty-five African American students to Spelman College in Atlanta, with the hope that her new choice, “would provide an environment comparable to what she had enjoyed in her hometown [St. Louis].” Jones had not forgotten the limitations...

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Chapter Two: “Democratizing the City, Instead of Just a City Beautiful” : Segregation, City Planning, and the Roots of Interracial Organizing

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pp. 58-92

St. Louis mayor Rolla Wells’s inaugural theme was the “New St. Louis,” meaning a better, cleaner, more beautiful, friendlier city bound together by a sense of shared purpose, with the approaching World’s Fair of 1904 as the capstone. One incarnation of the ubiquitous “solidarity of movement” that Wells observed surrounding the World’s Fair developed a national following...

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Chapter Three: “That Movement Which Is Active in Making Communities Feel That the Negro Is Part and Parcel of Society as a Whole” : Social Work, Community Organization, and the Genesis of a Civil Rights Agenda

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pp. 93-114

In 1910, when the St. Louis Committee for Social Service Among Colored People (CSSCP) formed to become the city’s first organized interracial effort whose aim was to improve the social welfare status of the city’s black community, it joined a community organization movement already in progress. Social welfare scholars have categorized this movement in three stages, of ...

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Chapter Four: Teamwork for a Better St. Louis: The Framework of a Social Welfare Organizing Community

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pp. 115-142

Three organizations figured prominently in the efforts to help St. Louisans to view African Americans and their group interests as part and parcel of the city’s overall well-being and progress. The most conspicuous was the SLUL, whose raison d’être was forged out of a need to assist rural southern migrants in their adjustment to an urban environment. Two less obvious...


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pp. 143-155

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Chapter Five: In the White Light of Critical Public Opinion: Health Care, Education, and the Manipulation of Public Culture

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pp. 156-199

In 1924 Jesse F. Steiner noted that much of what was being spoken of in popular usage as community organization dealt with a very limited phase of the whole problem. The community that seriously undertook to organize all its social forces had taken but one step when it devised the machinery for coordinating its social agencies. “If community organization is the way ...

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Chapter Six: Not Ice Cream and Cake . . . Must Be Something Deeper: The Neighborhood Club and Block Unit Movement

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pp. 200-242

Although specific neighborhoods, like the Ville, were sometimes front and center of black reform efforts (as in the case of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital), these struggles were externally focused, aimed at wresting concessions from a racially discriminatory power structure. However, the social work tradition of community organization also had an internal ...

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Epilogue: “Negroes Are . . . Disturbed These Days and Fighting for Everything”

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pp. 243-260

In 1949, after more than twenty-three years of service as executive secretary of the St. Louis Urban League, the indomitable John T. Clark was quietly forced into retirement. Greatly admired and respected throughout the Urban League movement, the “Dean of Urban League Secretaries” was now considered a liability to his organization. Understandably, some of Clark’s...


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pp. 261-292


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pp. 293-300

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272263
E-ISBN-10: 0826272266
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219008
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219004

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 10 illus
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1