What Happened in Harlem

Welfare workers strike

This week’s police murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing riots, brought back some troubling memories. I was working in Harlem in April 1968, when MLK was assassinated and Black neighborhoods in nearly 200 U.S. cities convulsed into rioting, arson, and looting.

What was I doing in Harlem? In June 1965 I graduated from City College of New York with a liberal arts BA and the belief that a diploma would lift me out of the clerical jobs that had supported me through college into a challenging intellectual career. However, it turned out that the only better position open to someone without any specific skills (other than typing and the ability to read Chaucer in Middle English) and without connections (such as a rich uncle willing to train me as a junior manager) was caseworker for the NYC Department of Welfare. All you needed was a bachelor’s degree in any subject: ancient Greek literature, philosophy, zoology…didn’t matter. My pay jumped from $100/week to around $120/week.

New hires had three weeks of training in rules and procedures. First and most important, the instructor told us that we were now professionals. We were going to be sent out into the community of welfare recipients to impose regulations on their disorderly lives, and teach them how to improve their lot in the future. Denying financial assistance was just as important as providing it, we were told, because it would help the clients become self-sufficient.

After those three weeks, I was assigned to visit indigent residents of an old age home in the Bronx, one run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Each person on my caseload of 60 had to be seen once a month, and I then filled out paperwork to let the Welfare Department know the person was alive and should continue to receive welfare checks.

I was 21 years old and bored silly, so I asked for a different assignment. You had to work in one location for six months before being allowed to transfer, unless you were willing to go to “high crime areas” like Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, or Harlem. Since I already lived in Manhattan I chose Harlem, which is how I ended up in Unit 2 under the supervision of Mrs. Thelma Harrell, a kind and generous woman. We all adored her.

In those years the centers were divided into units of five field caseworkers, each with a unit clerk and a supervisor. There was also an intake department with its own supervisor. The caseworkers in these centers were almost exclusively white. The unit clerks were Black, and so were the supervisors and managers. These were civil service jobs with decent pay and benefits, where you could get promoted based on passing an exam and keeping your nose clean, jobs that provided security and protection from the discrimination people of color faced in private industry.

My cases were about half Black and half Puerto Rican, and all single mothers. Some things I learned on this job:

1) Clients received an automatic clothing grant but it was rarely enough for a growing family. Previous caseworkers, I was told, had insisted on inspecting these women’s closets before writing up requisitions for additional grant money for clothes and bedding. When a client tried to show me what she owned—or really, didn’t own—I replied that she should just tell me what she needed. Then I’d go back to Mrs. Harrell and she’d okay the expenditure.

2) Because Cardinal Spellman was very influential in NYC politics, it was against the rules for caseworkers to give out information on contraception. Yet women were blamed for having children they hadn’t wanted or couldn’t support. They were also blamed for being deserted by the fathers. One of my co-workers carried fliers describing the various methods of birth control and gave them out to her clients. I learned the terms in Spanish—la diafragma, the diaphragm; los pastellilos, the pills—so I could discuss them with women who didn’t speak English. I also referred people to the Margaret Sanger Institute, where I had first obtained these items for myself.

3) Most important, I learned that I was young and ignorant and in no position to teach a 40-year-old single mother of two, three, four, or eight how to manage on a welfare check that barely covered her rent.

Then, in July 1967, we caseworkers went on strike.

The NYC Welfare Department had seen a massive strike in February 1965, four months before I was hired. Everyone—caseworkers, clerks, supervisors—had participated. They had won significant pay raises, health insurance, a reduction in case size from over 120 to a maximum of 60, and an automatic clothing grant for clients.

By 1967, though, the case size was creeping up again. Union organizers called meetings at every center and gave us pep talks. We had a city-wide meeting in a larger auditorium. The New York Times covered it with a snarky article in which we were all described as wearing “beards and miniskirts.” In other words, we were to be dismissed as a bunch of hippies. I don’t think the Times ever supported a strike in its entire history, except maybe one directed against a Communist government.

I am generally a soft-spoken person, but while leading chants on the picket line, I learned that I could shout loud enough to be heard down the block. As a protest, and at the request of the union, I also slept several nights on an air mattress in front of City Hall. By morning, each time, the air had leaked out and I was sleeping on the hard sidewalk, in need of a bath and change of clothes. Neither the mayor’s office nor the news media noticed me.

The strike was a bust. Unlike the one in 1965, only caseworkers went out. We didn’t attempt to pull in the clerks or supervisors. The clerks by now had a separate union, but I believe we’d also bought into the notion that we, unlike the clerks, were “professionals.” I’m sure implicit racism and intellectual snobbery were also involved. We caseworkers were overwhelmingly white college kids and the clerks were almost all Black, with only high school diplomas. During the strike, the clerks and supervisors kept the welfare centers running. It didn’t take long for the city to decide that caseworkers were superfluous and there was no need to come to terms with us. Eventually, in fact, after I’d left the department, these jobs were eliminated entirely.

By the time the strike was over and I returned to work, the Harlem Welfare Center management had figured out that Unit 2 was giving out more clothing grant money than any other in the center, and they broke us up. I don’t know where they sent Mrs. Harrell. I also don’t remember my new supervisor’s name, but he was one of those “I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps-why-can’t-you?” types, with a sour disposition, so I thought of him as Mr. Peptic Ulcer. I couldn’t stand him and asked to be transferred to Intake.

Intake work consisted of interviewing applicants, and either accepting or rejecting them. Most I accepted: the carpenter who’d come up from the South, found work, and was laid off shortly afterward. The woman whose new baby was born brain-damaged. Heroin addicts just discharged from rehab. The addicts came to us in droves, because the Mafia was pushing heroin hard in Black communities. We opened their cases, gave them a first check, and never saw them again—they used the money from that first check to shoot up. I did turn down one guy who’d managed to get his fix between the time the rehab center let him out and the time he showed up at my desk, already nodding out.

On Thursday night, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered, and with him, the hopes and dreams of many Black Americans for peaceful progress. The next morning, instead of taking the bus, I climbed into a co-worker’s sedan jammed with ten other caseworkers. We kept our heads below the car windows so as not to present a target, peeking up now and then at burnt-out stores, at pavements glittering with broken glass. When we arrived at work we found that everyone, including clerks and supervisors, had been told to crouch when walking past windows, some of which already had bullet holes. I heard a couple of shots during the day.

Official labor statistics show very low unemployment rates from 1965-1970, perhaps because so many young men had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, so were no longer counted as out of work. Yet the reverse was happening in the communities that we served. More and more Black people had lost their jobs and they flooded the welfare centers. The intake staff couldn’t handle them all. One afternoon a father of five, who’d been sent from a Brooklyn office the day before and waited all day in Harlem, only to be turned away again, yanked a water fountain out of the wall, overturned rows of chairs, and then picked one chair up and hurled it through the supervisor’s window.

Another day a young couple came in, having left their children with relatives for the day. The man explained that he’d been laid off and survived the week by borrowing $5 from one friend and $5 from another. I took his file to Mr. G, the intake supervisor, for approval. He told me to have the applicant go back to his friends and ask each of them for a note verifying the loan. I said I would not humiliate the man that way. I dropped the file on Mr. G’s desk, explained to the young couple what had happened, and walked off the job.

2 Responses to What Happened in Harlem

  1. Perry Brass June 2, 2020 at 8:39 am #

    This is such a fabulous piece, Martha. It really is from another time, when people like social workers were considered worthwhile, and a whole generation of kids wanted to change the world, and some of us did. Nowadays, social workers are just considered losers in capitalist roulette, and why would you want to do that when you could be writing business plans for next big social network? So we don’t have social workers, just social networkers.

  2. Martha Shelley June 2, 2020 at 10:35 am #

    Except that we caseworkers weren’t really trained social workers. Even then the city had such disdain for welfare recipients that they hired any kid with a B.A. and sent them out to “teach” — really police — the poor.

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