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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen Black Winston, December 2, 1974. Interview G-0064. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Improving social welfare standards to protect the vulnerable

Winston discusses her goals of improving standards of social welfare in order to protect vulnerable people, notably children and the elderly, when she became the North Carolina Commissioner of Public Welfare in 1944. Winston describes the condition of the public welfare department when she assumed control over it and explains how she worked within its established parameters and through legislation to make important changes.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen Black Winston, December 2, 1974. Interview G-0064. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ANNETTE SMITH:
You became Commissioner of Public Welfare in 1944, in North Carolina. What was the situation like then? What was the welfare program like then, in North Carolina?
ELLEN WINSTON:
I was sworn in on June 1, in Governor Broughton's office. My parents came, my husband was there and Mrs. Bost was there, my brother and niece came from Charlotte. And we had several members from the State Board of Public Welfare and some of the staff from the Department. I even remember what I wore. It was very nice, with a hat, and I'm sure that I carried gloves. (laughter)
ANNETTE SMITH:
You were a proper Southern lady.
ELLEN WINSTON:
Indeed I was a proper Southern lady. And I still remember the shock when I came back from Washington one time to make a speech at a public welfare meeting and the county people saw me for the first time making a speech without a hat. When I went into the Welfare Department, I was really very fortunate in terms of the fact that the program had been soundly organized and developed. In other words, I had a good structure on which to build. We had good state legislation because it made it possible to take advantages of any changes in the Social Security Act that would be helpful to the state. I learned a great deal from the people that were in the office. Mr. Stewart was the auditor, I think that was the title. Now, we would call him the business manager or something of that sort. He was very sound in handling the already quite large finances of the department. Miss Lilly Mitchell was still active at the time and Miss Mitchell was a stickler for doing things in the right way. And she taught me many lessons about the details of administration. Mrs. W.B. Aycock, whom I had known before as a great leader in PTA work and in educational advancement, was our director of personnel and a joy to work with. There were many members of the staff who were sound and good and helpful, so that it made a fine base on which to start. Of course the grants were disgracefully low. We did not have a great variety of programs which were administered by the Department. In other words, the stand-bys were the public assistance programs and the child welfare programs. We did have legislation in regard to the licensing of charitable solicitations in the state. We had responsibility for the inspection of jails and setting various kinds of standards there. We had licensing authority with regard to child caring institutions except that church related institutions of a certain size were exempt. So, there was quite a lot of legislation, very good legislation, on the books. It was the kind of legislation that I liked because it was broad and provided an opportunity for flexibility, for imaginative program planning. There were not too many details written into the law. One of the things that people have to learn is that you don't write specifics into legislation in terms of program operations, but rather that you try to get general enabling legislation. The way that you operate the program will change from time to time and you don't want to have to go back and get your basic law changed. Well, we began to move out in a great many directions. We were concerned about improving qualifications for personnel, and we were able to do a great deal about that, to write in more qualifications for people in our county Departments of Public Welfare and, indeed, on the state staff. This meant improving the compensation plan and as I look back over those years, we were always trying to improve the compensation and classification plans so that we would have better staff, better renumerated staff. We began very early to develop a program in services for the aging. This was new in those days because in the last half of the 1940's, people had not yet waked up generally to the fact that we were going to have a large number and percentage of people in the older age brackets. That got under way. There were many parallels in the kinds of services that we were beginning to develop for older people and for children. We began to experiment with foster homes for older people. We developed a program of homes for the aged, some of which gradually became nursing homes. We developed a marvelous program, and people came from all over the country to look at it, of helping people leave state hospitals. At that time, people were committed to state hopsitals and stayed there the rest of their lives. We had a fine program going. Mrs. Annie Mae Pemberton headed up these various activities for the aged, in helping people return to their own families or at least to their own communities. That has been written up in various places. We were moving as fast and as well as we could, and I soon brought in Myrtle Wolff to head up our child welfare program, to expand child welfare services. We were vitally concerned, even at that early stage, in helping children remain in their own homes, or if they did go out into foster care, at least to see that the homes met standards. We had some state money that we could use for foster care. We had very good standards for foster homes. We had some counties that wanted to use the state money to pay for the care of children in homes that met standards and operate some other homes that didn't meet standards, paying for the care of children out of county funds. We just made a little policy that if they used any homes that didn't meet standards, they weren't eligible for state funds. This had a great effect on improving the standards of care.
ANNETTE SMITH:
In Doblestein's dissertation on your years as Welfare Commissioner, it seems to be one of the major thrusts of your years, is raising standards . . .
ELLEN WINSTON:
Right, and assisting . . .
ANNETTE SMITH:
And particularly on the county level.
ELLEN WINSTON:
And it is still one of my great concerns, because we have been so derelict in terms of standards for the various types of services for vulnerable people.