Celebrating Our First African-American Social Work Graduate

The conversations at this year’s All School Day about race relations and the recent 50th anniversary of the Selma, Alabama, “Bloody Sunday” march inspire us to reflect on our country’s civil rights progress and those who give us courage to stand up for social injustices. One of those people is Carmelita White — the first African American to graduate from the USC School of Social Work.

White (1908-1995), who received her degree in 1931, shared recollections of her path-breaking career spanning 38 years. That 1993 interview is captured in an oral history video preserved by the California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA), a nonprofit volunteer organization operating since 1979 under the auspices of the USC School of Social Work and USC Libraries.

Especially at a time when nearly half of Americans believe race relations have worsened under our nation’s first black president, it is encouraging to hear stories of perseverance like White’s and draw strength from her example, knowing how she navigated the challenges of her time.

Breaking the Color Barrier

White entered the USC School of Social Work in 1927, after graduating from Polytechnic High School, in downtown Los Angeles. On her first day, White arrived early, located her classroom and sat in the middle of the room surrounded by empty seats.

The spunky seventh child of a large family, she’d grown up striving to keep pace with her older brothers and sisters, yet was also accustomed to being protected by them. From an early age, White displayed the traits of a pioneer. She was fearless and daring — oftentimes taking one of her brothers’ bikes to venture out on her own.

Imagine her courage then on the first day of class as white students, one-by-one, entered the room, looked her over and made a choice. Many sat as far away as possible — their glares revealing disdain.

“They could not stand for me being in there,” she said.

Other students noticed how she was being ostracized and purposefully sat with her. They became her network of support and protection.

“The half that sat on the side of the room I was on, we went through four years together in classes, and many of us have remained friends,” recalled White. “So I made it through … I enjoyed it very much, as long as I knew that half of the campus at least … was on my side.”

Making an Impact

Immediately upon graduation, White began her career as a social worker with the Los Angeles County Bureau of Welfare. The brevity of her job search can also be attributed to her audacity as a child.

White’s father worked as an elevator operator at the welfare bureau, and as a youngster, White would often take his place when he left the building to cash his paycheck. This wasn’t an easy job, and operating the elevator required some strength and technical knowledge. There were no buttons. You “practically had to pull the building,” White said about the lever used to operate the elevator.

This made her familiar to people like A.C. Price, the welfare bureau’s director. On the night she graduated from USC, her father informed her that she had been added to the welfare bureau’s payroll and was to report for work the next day. One of Price’s district directors had already “put in first claim” on her. White worked as a social worker for Los Angeles County from the day after she graduated until her retirement in 1969.

A telling comment in the interview suggests that her longevity resulted not just from the need to hold a job but also from her commitment to uphold the principles of social welfare.

“I always liked people, and children especially. If it had not been for other people’s children, I would have some money today,” White joked.

She explained that she invariably took groups of four or five boys and girls out shopping, using her own money to buy them things they would otherwise never have.

White’s spirit and determination inspire those of us who want to make a difference through social work.

Students seeking a master’s degree in social work today have a much broader range of options than she had. They can customize their education to specialize in such areas as mental health, children and families, or community organizing. They can even earn their Master of Social Work degree online through programs like the MSW@USC.

We may live in different times than White, but our issues are not all that different. As social workers, we are still working toward greater racial, ethnic and gender equality. And like White, we dream of a day where America can truly transcend its divisions.