Talking with Elizabeth Prior
Elizabeth Prior didn’t choose to be a social worker. She was immersed in it and it took hold of her heart and soul.
“My father was a professor of the classics. He always felt that education was not vocational. Education was to become educated. Therefore, when I graduated from Goucher College, I did not have a specific vocation though I could speak French and Spanish. I knew somebody at the Department of Welfare (DPW) where I got my first job. That plunged me into the world of social work. It was like diving off a diving board when you’d been used to warm water and you plunge into cold water. I mean I didn’t really know anything. I hadn’t even had much sociology in college, but once in it I got involved. I was given a caseload way off in East Baltimore. It was a caseload that hadn’t been covered for 3 months, so I really had to put my nose the grindstone.
I got really interested in social work and realized that I needed to know more. Like in medicine, they say the first thing is to do no harm. I didn’t want to keep going if I didn’t understand things better about what I was doing. I had a friend who was going to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to get a degree in social work because Maryland School of Social Work did not exist. I decided that I would go to graduate school too.”
Mrs. Prior’s resolve to go to graduate school was strengthened in the late 1940s when the ‘Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Review Commission’ began making recommendations to cut out social welfare programs without even discussing the problems and issues with DPW.
“It made me so infuriated because they didn’t come and find out at all what we were doing or anything about the work we were doing that I decided then and there that I was going to get a degree and make a difference in the agency. Another thing that really got me very upset was that I could not go to lunch with a black co-worker from the agency. We couldn’t sit at a counter together, so we went to Pennsylvania Station because that was where we could have lunch side by side. This was before the civil rights movement – before Brown vs. Board of Education. It was horrible.”
The University of Pennsylvania accepted Mrs. Prior into their two-year program in social work.
“The agency was good to us. The first year they paid us 3/5ths salary. The second year I worked in the agency four days, so I was better off financially. I also became a higher level caseworker.”
Black people at this time could go to college together, but high school was segregated.
“I went to Western High School and it was totally a white school. There were a lot of Jewish kids, but no blacks. I was maybe more attuned to what was happening in the Jewish community than the black. There was a swimming place called Beaver Dam in Cockeysville. It was marvelous because it was an old quarry. There was a big sign when you drove up – NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED. GENTILES ONLY!”
From 1953 to 1960, Mrs. Prior was raising her children, and involved in social movements of the time through her husband’s work, particularly with the Barrette School for Girls in Maryland.
“It was a school for delinquent black girls or Negroes as we called them back then. It was terrible. Those kids had grown up in the ghetto of Baltimore. They didn’t know how to play. They interacted with each other, but games were not something they were familiar with… They [the state of Maryland] had one school for white girls and one for white boys, Barrette for black girls and one for black boys at Cheltonham. After Brown vs. Board of Education , they began to desegregate the schools, but it wasn’t easily or quickly done.
In general society at this point in time had some very strong feelings about desegregation. There were two subsystems. In some ways the blacks were able to rise better in the two systems than they were when they were integrated. They could get higher-level positions better and easier. I think basically the social workers were behind integration, but I do think there was a strain in some aspects. When you have two systems, you have two ways to advance. When you put them together, it may make it more difficult for the blacks to achieve supervisory positions or principal shifts.”
Mrs. Prior was acutely aware of the social milieu and its geographic accommodation to segregation.
“The whole housing situation in Baltimore was locking blacks into downtown making a ghetto. You couldn’t move to Roland Park if you were black. They had covenants. You couldn’t do it. It was a ringed city. Then one area would open up and a flood of black families who were becoming middle class would move out. The real estate people would come out and put signs up in a neighborhood where a black family had moved in and say ‘You can see what is happening to this neighborhood. I’ll give you good money for this house.’ Whites got panicky and sold their home, so neighborhoods changed relatively fast.”
In 1962, Mrs. Prior went to work for the Baltimore City Schools as a social worker.
“Kids would get into trouble. They’d be misplaced and cause problems. The teachers would not know what to do with them. It was a very difficult setting. Baltimore is a very racial town – a racist town. There were lots of racial issues in the schools.”
Baltimore continues to maintain its racial (as well as ethnic) separatism. There are still areas that are solidly black and then across the street, it is solidly white – with not much interaction in between.
“My first school was down in Southwest Baltimore and you could practically draw a line between black and white.”
Within a few years, Mrs. Prior was working in Northwest Baltimore with all black students. The issues and problems in the schools mirrored the changing racial setting in the larger society including white teachers working in black schools, a white principal of an all black school, black foster children in white homes, black and white couples both heterosexual and homosexual. As a social worker, she was integrally involved in helping her peers and students accept and adjust to these differences.
Mrs. Prior credits her lifetime passion for “treating others equally” to her Mother. It was her Mother who influenced her values and perceptions of black people as a child that have proven to be a focal point for her for a lifetime.
“My Mother was a very special person. She died when I was seven years old. She was well beloved in her community. We had black servants. She took one of them in who was ill with jaundice. The woman died in our upstairs bedroom.” The interactions she observed between her Mother and the black servants made an impression on her. “Oh, they’d hug me and they’d love me. We had one particular person that my brother looked to as a second mother because our own Mother was so very ill”.
This is perhaps a surprising outcome, since Mrs. Prior grew up in a Virginia household with her grandfather who had served in the Confederate Army.
“My grandfather was in the Civil War. He was 21 years old and a courier for the Confederates. His idols were Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee. He had a big picture of Jackson and Lee in his bedroom until the day he died.”
To this day, Mrs. Prior practices what she preaches. She lives in an integrated neighborhood, has close bonds and ties with people of all races, preferred to work in predominantly black schools for two decades before retiring, and speaks out against racism whenever and wherever she sees it.
Mrs. Prior was interviewed by Kimberly Goldstein