Kneading, Needing, and Eating Black Bodies

The History of Social Work and Its Concern for Black Citizenship in the United States


  • Fabienne Snowden Medgar Evers College
  • Willie Tolliver Associate Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, CUNY
  • Amanda McPherson BSSW Student at Medgar Evers College, CUNY



White domination, History, Social Work with Black communities, African Americans, Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, Radical Social Work


Social workers have been on the frontlines alongside marginalized communities since the profession’s emergence. This stance continues with supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement and centering the structural inequities that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights. A narrative that centers the history of social work’s concern for Black citizenship in the profession’s formation is neglected in the literature. This historical review traces the genesis of the profession’s work to expand access to the entitlements of citizenship among Black communities. Thematic analysis of secondary sources is used to investigate the formation of the profession and its work to ensure access to resources among Blacks communities. Study findings identify that the profession emerged from the bonds between the Abolitionist Movement and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, then moved away from working with Black people during the Settlement Movement and did not return to addressing the needs of these communities until the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Black social workers answered the call to support Black and non-Black communities in the absence of the profession’s national organization’s presence. Social work needs, kneads, and eats Black bodies by being in complicity with systems of oppression. The history of social work and its concern and lack of concern for Black citizenship is a pedagogical innovation that addresses the historical amnesia that White domination fosters. The findings of this analysis call social workers to task to disrupt White dominant epistemologies of ignorance by incorporating this historical context into their social work pedagogy.


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