VCU Libraries Gallery

Early social work history

On January 4, 1917 a group of Richmond community leaders met to organize a school that could provide training for social workers. In June, the school hired Henry H. Hibbs, Jr. as school director, and he would lead the school until his retirement in 1959.  By the fall of 1917, the school had enrolled 31 students. The first class of what would be called the Richmond School of Social Economy met on October 4, 1917 in a rented building in Capitol Square. Hibbs and one other faculty member along with two part-time instructors were the school’s only teaching staff that first year. In 1918, the school changed its name to the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health.

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Board of Director minutes from the first meeting of the institution that became the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health and later Richmond Professional Institute. The school’s organization was led by Orie Latham Hatcher, then head of the Virginia Bureau of Vocations for Women.

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Newspaper clipping announcing the hiring of Dr. Henry H. Hibbs, Jr. to head the Richmond School of Social Economy. Hibbs would lead the school for 42 years until his retirement in 1959. 

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Students of the Red Cross Institute of the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health and Dr. Hibbs in front of one of the side entrances to the Virginia State Capitol building, 1918.

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Ora Brown Stokes Perry (1882-1957).

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Letter from Dr. Hibbs to Ora Brown Stokes, October 8, 1917.

Ora Brown Stokes Perry (1882-1957), an African American social activist involved in charitable work in Richmond, was denied admission to the school soon after it opened in 1917 because of her race. A few years later, with the help of Orie Latham Hatcher, she organized the Home for Working Girls which provided training opportunities for African American women in Richmond. She remained active in many causes including civil rights throughout her life. 

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The school officially became Richmond Professional Institute, Richmond Division, College of William and Mary, in 1939. This letter has one of the earliest references to the new name. John Stewart Bryan was then president of the College of William and Mary. 

In 1925, the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health relocated to a building at 819 W. Franklin Street, now called Founders’ Hall, and began an affiliation with the College of William and Mary. Soon the school’s curriculum expanded and courses were offered in art, recreation and community work, education, and other basic college subjects. The school was renamed the Richmond Professional Institute of the College of William and Mary (RPI) in 1939 in order to denote the unique character of the institution.