Social work’s complex cloth: teaching hard history in an antebellum cotton mill

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Jane McPherson University of Georgia, USA

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Social work defines itself as a social justice profession, yet the historical record also shows social workers resisting social change, promoting social division and contributing to social exclusion. When social workers are unaware of these ‘hard’ histories, they are unable to identify destructive professional practices or reconcile with those whom social work has harmed. In this article, I present a model for using local history – in this case, the history of the University of Georgia School of Social Work – as a catalyst to help students confront and unpack ‘hard’ history. I unravel the interwoven local histories of cotton mills, women’s charitable activities and a system of entrenched racial hierarchy, and present a method for making the historical materials available and vivid to students. I conclude that we must welcome difficult history into our professional historiography as a necessary step towards becoming the liberatory profession we need to be.

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Jane McPherson University of Georgia, USA

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