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Dr. James R. Dumpson, noted for his social work and social justice, dead at 103

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 1/3/2013, 4:09 p.m.

Three years ago at the Schomburg Center, there was a centennial celebration for Dr. James Russell Dumpson. Even at 100, he was just as spry and alert as ever.

The energetic and productive life of a man who made such a mark among the dispossessed came to an end Nov. 5 at a hospice in Manhattan, following a stroke. He was 103.

Social work and social justice were inextricably linked in Dumpson's long and productive life, and civic leaders in this city--particularly Mayors Abe Beame, Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, Ed Koch and David Dinkins--all benefited from his formidable insight, his unflinching dedication to the plight of the downtrodden.

Among his remarkable milestones was his tenure as commissioner of the city's Department of Public Welfare, where his leadership was instrumental in desegregating the city's child welfare system, as well as his guidance in the redirection of a program essential to the Public Welfare Amendments. He also was a force of reason in the creation of the Human Resources Administration and spearheaded the centralizing of social services into one governmental office.

He will always be remembered for the yeoman stance and devotion his took in reforming the city's child welfare system--a task that was intimately bound with his career aspirations almost from the very inception of his odyssey of commitment. A cursory glance at his impressive bio in the funeral program offers a vivid indication of his promising beginning, coming of age in Philadelphia, the first of five children: "The family moved from Hutchinson Street, where he spent his early childhood years on Delaney Street, attended O.V. Catto and Newton Elementary School and the West Philadelphia High School for Boys. He graduated from Cheyney Normal School in 1932, and went on to enroll in Temple University and Cheyney State University to earn his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

"He earned a doctorate of philosophy degree from the University of Dacca in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), while on assignment as an advisor to the United Nations on Child and Family Welfare and Institutional Development, and has been awarded a number of honorary degrees for his outstanding contributions and achievements in a distinguished career of public service."

During his celebration at the Schomburg that featured an exhibition of his life and work, a reporter was reminded of W.E.B. Du Bois' classic study "The Philadelphia Negro," but there was such a conglomeration of well-wishers surrounding Dumpson that he never had a chance to ask him if he had lived in the Seventh Ward and had heard of O.V. Catto School on Lombard Street. Even if Dumpson didn't know of Du Bois' work, his own method, training and sensitivity embodied much of the genius of the great thinker.

Launching his career journey in the wake of the Great Depression, Dumpson touched on practically every facet of human services in his native Philadelphia: caseworker, public servant, educator, administrator, advocate, activist, humanitarian and, by all means, a scholar. Many of the social programs today that comprise the so-called safety net were just coming into existence when Dumpson began, and each one of these elements, during his stewardship, was dramatically improved and expanded. Dumpson's academic tenure is almost as abundant and astonishing as his publications and awards, including appointments at NYU and Hunter College and working as the dean of the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Work and president of the Council on Social Work Education.