Richmond was a pioneer in social work nationally

WAY BACK WHEN

March 17, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's pioneer and forgotten professional social worker, Mary Ellen Richmond, who has been compared to her contemporary, Jane Addams of Chicago's Hull House, is buried on a slight knoll in Loudon Park Cemetery.

Carved on the white marble tombstone is the Family Welfare Association's emblem and motto: "Light from hand to hand. Life from age to age."

Richmond originated the casework method used by professional social workers.

As she described it, such work "has for its immediate aim the betterment of individuals or families, one by one, as distinguished from their betterment in the mass." She thought that the concept of "mass betterment" was the objective of social reform.

Richmond was the author of "Social Diagnosis" and "Friendly Visiting Among the Poor." She lectured widely on such topics as "Face to Face with Reality," "The Social Case Worker in a Changing World" and "Case Work and Community Agencies."

Richmond, who was born in Belleville, Ill., in 1861, moved to Baltimore with her family and graduated from Eastern High School. After working briefly in New York, she returned to Baltimore in 1881.

She was working as a bookkeeper for a stationery store when she answered a newspaper advertisement for an assistant treasurer for the Charity Organization Society of Baltimore in 1888.

The Charity Organization Society of Baltimore had been founded in 1881 "to combine and develop all the charitable resources of the community for the relief of poverty, the prevention of pauperism and crime, and the raising of the standards of the community."

Within two years, she was made general secretary of the society.

"Meanwhile, she had gained a first-hand knowledge of social service. She had personally visited families and individuals under the society's care. She had personally investigated cases called to the attention of the society. She had decided that the prevailing system of charity administration, too often a condescending benefaction by ladies bountiful, was all wrong," wrote The Sun.

Richmond envisioned professionally trained social workers, and in 1898, the New York School of Applied Philanthropy was established. In later years, she taught there.

In 1900, she left Baltimore and became general secretary of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, where she directed the organization's activities until 1909, when she was named director of the Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York.

"Miss Richmond devoted increasing attention to the meticulous analysis of cases in an effort to discover ways of alleviating family difficulties, concentrating on the judicious use of financial relief to overcome personal disadvantages. ... She herself interested contributors in initiating such reforms as improved public sanitation and the upgrading of custodial institutions, and she was among the leaders in a campaign to tighten child labor and compulsory education laws in Pennsylvania," noted a profile in "Notable American Women."

"She felt, however, that any measure for `mass betterment,' seeking to aid all deprived families through taxation, would weaken family solidarity and responsibility. Repeatedly she maintained that the major role of social work was individual and family treatment," the profile noted.

As social workers became more common, she helped establish a common vocabulary and code of ethics. She became a proponent of the theories of Carl Jung and Adolf Meyer in helping in the rehabilitation of individuals.

"While serving with the Russell Sage Foundation, she proved to be a major influence on the many schools of social work which were being established at the time. ... By any standard she had been the central figure in the emergence of professional social work," concluded the profile.

She devoted the last decade of her life to studying the administration of marriage laws throughout the nation.

At her death in 1928, The Sun said in an editorial: "What are now regarded as but natural ways of expressing effective sympathy through organized charity were then being invented in this city. Their adoption throughout the country came later. And to such people as those mentioned above a general debt is due - a debt which cannot be paid to Miss Richmond. Her death has put an end to opportunities for telling her that the city of her younger enthusiasm is still grateful."

Of her life, The Sun observed, "Mary Richmond was by no means a cold, humorless reformer. Her life, as a pioneer and social worker, was marked with a capacity for laughter as well as pity."

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