The League’s beginning in the Progressive Era

WWI image of Camp Custer soldiers in Detroit in 1917

Soldiers from Camp Custer near Battle Creek parade in front of Detroit City Hall to promote “liberty loans,” 1917. Credit: Detroit News

The Michigan League for Human Services traces its roots to 1912, when it was the Michigan Conference of Charities and Corrections. Led by social workers, the Conference held an annual meeting to discuss the major public welfare issues of the day.

In 1912, major change was afoot across America with the U.S. involvement in the Great War, later called WWI, just a few years away.

It was the Progressive Era, where reformers worked to curb abuses by government and industry and to improve the lives of workers, the poor, children and other groups.

Thousands of immigrants were arriving, the first assembly lines began production and the suffragettes fought for the right to vote, finally prevailing in 1919.

Early Ford assembly workers

Early Ford assembly plant. Credit: Michigan Historical Center

In just two years, 1914, Henry Ford would introduce his famous $5 a day pay — jaw-dropping wages at the time — that contributed to the birth of the middle class in America, and in 1915, the millionth Model-T would roll off the line.

The official beginning of the League a century ago was really more of a restart than a brand new venture, with the revival of a dormant organization during a tumultuous period of unrest and reform.

Charity journals show that the Michigan Conference of Charities and Corrections was active for many years before 1912, holding annual meetings from 1882 to about 1909 and organized through a similarly named government board called the State Board of Corrections and Charities.

One social work journal explained that the Michigan Conference of Charities and Corrections disbanded around 1909 but began gathering steam again in 1912 as concerns about the well-being of child laborers were raised by the public.

Girl in factory

Child labor laws were passed during the Progressive Era

The previous year, in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City took the lives of 145 female workers, sparking calls for workplace safety and child labor laws across the country.

As the conference fought to re-establish itself during this period it was no longer under the auspices of the state board but was designed as an annual meeting as an “open forum for discussion of all questions pertaining to the common welfare.’’

It was modeled after the National Conference on Charities and Correction, once headed by social reformer Jane Addams who fought for decent housing and sanitation, factory inspections, rights of immigrants, women and children and the eight-hour day.

Early topics of the Michigan Conference included a minimum wage for female workers and “outdoor relief for the poor,’’ a term used to distinguish support given to individuals as opposed to moving them to “poorhouses” or “almshouses” or auctioning them as labor.

The early agenda was ambitious. The 1914 annual conference in Grand Rapids called for a reformatory for women, a domestic court in every county, corrections to address not  “what has he done?” but “what does he need?,” the placement of orphans and creation of facilities for those with epilepsy and developmental delays to relieve the overcrowding in mental hospitals.

Then, as now, the Conference was unafraid to speak its mind. In 1917, the Conference met in Lansing and discussed child labor practices with the main speaker lamenting: “Millions for hogs but not one cent for children,’’ in an apparent complaint about government protection of agriculture while ignoring child labor exploitation.

Some archives also refer to the organization as the Michigan Conference of Social Work. In 1918, the name became official. The Michigan Conference of Social Work focused on social issues and social workers but leaders were attorneys, judges, professors and even a U.S. senator.

One of the organization’s first calls to action was in 1919 when the executive committee called for Gov. Albert Sleeper to put before lawmakers at a special session the “proper provision” of the “feeble-minded.”

Immigrants in America class in Grand Rapids

Immigrants in an Americanization class in Grand Rapids. Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library

The 1919 meeting in Traverse City was a seminal one with the outline of a county-based organization supporting strong social work standards and several committees that reflected the language of the day: “Feeble-minded,” family, health, children, correctional institutions and “Americanization.”

Growing pains were obvious. Grace Cone, the group’s longtime secretary, wrote in the Journal of Social Forces in 1922 that the 1919 recommendations had not been acted upon. According to Cone, the executive committee called for a push to turn “rhetoric into reality” and hire a professional executive to run the organization. It also called for the naming of a legislative group to influence policy and legislation. Dues were to remain at $1 a year.

Even with its problems, by the end of the first 10 years, records from that era show the organization had solidified into a statewide network with prominent leaders who debated vital issues of the day and searched for ways to influence legislation and policymakers during a turbulent time.

Looking back through a 21st century lens, it’s hard to imagine the dedication needed to hold this network together and plan a multi-issue, two-day conference in rotating cities in the days before email, computers, fax machines or even widespread use of autos and telephones.

— Judy Putnam

The League history project was researched and written by Sara Metz, Sharon Parks, Jim Lunday and Judy Putnam

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