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Founding Dean of School of Social Work Inabel Burns Lindsay, a Social Justice Champion and Innovative Leader

A renowned champion of equity in social work, Lindsay was one of the first African American women to serve as an academic dean during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and the only female academic dean at a coeducational college in Washington, D.C.

Inabel Burns Lindsay

For Black History Month, Howard University is highlighting the founders of niche, specialized entities that make The Mecca special grounds of education, connection and excellence. 

Inabel Burns Lindsay, Ph.D., (B.A. '20) served as founding dean of the Howard University School of Social Work. Lindsay was a prominent advocate for social justice for all, a pioneer in the fields of social work and education through a sociocultural lens. 

She worked tirelessly to ensure that social workers entering the workforce reflected the world around her and that race and gender-based are at the forefront. Today, we can see the fruits of her labor in concepts like multiculturalism and cultural competence. 

Howard University School of Social Work Dean and Professor Sandra Crewe, Ph.D. shares, “[Dr. Lindsay] transformational leadership allowed for a social work program second to none,” she said.    

“Dr. Lindsay was a leader of leaders. When challenged by racism within the profession, she insisted that the profession of social work honor its social justice values.” 

Lindsay, born on February 13, 1900, in St. Joseph, Mo. The youngest of six siblings, Lindsay was born into a family that placed a great deal of emphasis on ensuring children had access to an education considering the societal issues African Americans faced during the early 1900s.  

At a time in American history where Jim Crow laws were rampant, her mother, Margaret Hawkins Burns, served as a catalyst in Lindsay’s passion to seek knowledge and pursue higher education. In 1916, at the age of 16, Lindsay enrolled at Howard University. Her passion for social justice soon followed. 

Culture is sometimes explained as the structures and processes designed by a society to meet and solve its problems.” 

New Beginnings in Social Work

While attending Howard University, Burns began her studies in the social work field and then went on to attend the New York School of Social Work. After graduating, she entered the public-school system.  

It was clear that her career “centered around a great desire to create cultural awareness in the provision of social services,” according to the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. Lindsay believed that school curriculums should reflect the world we live in and how the nuances of culture, race, and social status play into the field of social work.  

In a 1967 article Lindsay stated, “understanding of the socio-cultural component in social change is essential if social workers are to cope with it most effectively.” 

“When we speak of culture, we are referring to the total life way of a people. It includes walking, talking, eating and dressing, as well as attitudes, standards, values, and beliefs. Culture is sometimes explained as the structures and processes designed by a society to meet and solve its problems.” 

Shortly after obtaining her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Lindsay became the acting dean of the School of Social Work when it was established in 1940 and remained dean until her retirement in 1967. 

Almost 57 years after its creation, the Howard University School of Social Work describes its vision as one that “serves to enhance human well-being and transform those human, organizational, social and economic conditions which impact African Americans, Africans in the Diaspora, other people of color, and the global community.” 

“Today, I continue this legacy by advocating that the profession engages in self-examination to ensure that we are agents of change and not the status quo. This is especially true as we face the pernicious effects of poverty and other disparities in our communities,” said Crewe. 

In her final annual report to the University under President James Nabrit. Jr., Lindsay stated, “I acknowledge with the deepest gratitude the loyalty and dedication of the faculty and staff in building a school which has achieved an excellent reputation. The continuation of such commitment can only result in impressive advances for the school, for the University, and for the profession.” 

After her passing in 1983, the former School of Social Work building was renamed as the Inabel Burns Lindsay Hall in honor of her legacy and contributions to the field of social work. 

Crewe adds, “We honor her guidance to focus on the inextricable link between our School, our University, and our profession--- [as] all three contribute to our excellence.” 


Brown, Annie Woodley; Gourdine, Ruby Morton; and Crewe, Sandra Edmonds (2011) "Inabel Burns Lindsay: Social Work Pioneer Contributor to Practice and Education through a Socio-cultural Perspective," The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 38: Iss. 1, Article 8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15453/0191-5096.3588 
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jssw/vol38/iss1/8 

Brown, A. W., Gourdine, R. M., & Crewe, S. E. (2011). Inabel Burns Lindsay: Social work pioneer contributor to practice and education through a socio-cultural perspective. The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 38(1). https://doi.org/10.15453/0191-5096.3588  

Inabel Burns Lindsay. Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. (n.d.). https://crownschool.uchicago.edu/alumni/success-stories/inabel-burns-lindsay