Historian examines interwar African American social welfare reform in St. Louis

Priscilla Dowden-White, associate professor of history at UMSL, wrote the book "Groping toward Democracy: African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis, 1910-1949."

St. Louis was home to a dynamic group of African American social welfare reformers long before the start of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s. University of Missouri–St. Louis historian Priscilla Dowden-White provides fresh insight into this interwar community in her new book.

“Groping toward Democracy: African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis, 1910-1949” integrates social welfare theory with social history to describe the African American community-building campaigns and organizing strategies during the first half of the 20th century. That era was flanked by two tide-changing Supreme Court cases: Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation laws in 1896, and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which in 1954 declared unconstitutional the separation of black and white students in public schools.

Dowden-White, associate professor of history and UMSL alumna (BA history 1985), called the years between cases “the most entrenched period of institutionalized racial segregation this country has ever known.”

She added, “Given the overwhelming historical focus on the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, one might inaccurately assume that the preceding decades were somewhat dormant in terms of community organizing efforts pertaining to African American social welfare.”

“Groping toward Democracy” provides evidence that organizing for social welfare was alive and well in St. Louis. That St. Louis perhaps stood apart from other cities at the time is due in part to it being a leading member city in the Council of Social Agencies movement, Dowden-White said.

“A hotbed of Progressive era reform, St. Louis attracted an aggressive cadre of black and white social reformers who were interested in markedly improving the social welfare of the city’s African American community,” she said.

Dowden-White’s book depicts the dilemmas these organizers faced in their crusade for democracy and equality during a time when St. Louis was home to one of the nation’s largest black populations. The period covered in the book was a time when African American residents of St. Louis used separate schools and hospitals than their white neighbors. Yet governing officials and city voters, among them African Americans who retained the right to vote, funded these institutions.

“In this well-researched and carefully argued book, Priscilla A. Dowden-White reveals the hidden history of black community activism and institution building in St. Louis during the first half of the 20th century,” said George Lipsitz, author of “A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition.” “’Groping toward Democracy’ shows how community leaders steeped in traditions of social welfare progressivism used the idea of ‘the community as a whole’ and the ideal of a democratic public culture to forge alliances and win victories in struggles against residential segregation and other forms of racial exclusion.”

University of Missouri Press released “Groping toward Democracy” this spring. It is available for purchase at St. Louis-area and online bookstores.

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