Ivor J. Echols, DSW, made pioneering contributions as an educator, an activist for civil rights and social justice, and as a spokesperson for the social work profession. She inspired hundreds of students and as a leader, strengthened numerous community and national organizations, including NASW and the National Association of Black Social Workers. Throughout her professional and personal life, she worked tirelessly to combat racism and injustice, especially toward the African American community and those living in poverty. She was a leader in national, state, and local organizations.
Echols used her personal experiences with racism, her keen love of social work, and her firm but warm approach to reach students and steer them toward work for social justice. Among her many activities, she led efforts to promote professional civility and unity through her leadership in both NASW and the National Association of Black Social Workers, during the most turbulent years of the 1970s.
Prior to earning her MSW, Echols worked as a caseworker for the Red Cross and then for several years as a director of Neighborhood Clubs in Oklahoma City in an impoverished part of the city. This was an important experience and led to Echols’ commitment to working with groups. She sought a social work degree to enhance her skills. After earning her MSW, she joined the Merrill Palmer Institute in Detroit, Michigan where she was a faculty member from 1951-1970.
In 1970, Echols joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. She taught group work, courses on the Black experience, and served for several years as assistant dean for student affairs. She retired in 1989. She worked with students to establish the Organization of Black Social Work Students at the school and was important in recruiting minority students to the school.
She developed and taught content on the African American family and community and increased the sensitivity of her faculty colleagues to the importance of teaching about racism and oppression. Her gentle but firm and persistent style helped social work students understand and address the impact of racism in American society. Although she made important contributions to group work education and knowledge, it was Echols’ special ability to inspire students that made the biggest impact. She was seen as a unifier and was loved and inspired by Black and white students alike.
Echols was deeply engaged in the community and the profession and continued her activism after retirement. Even her scholarly efforts were heavily focused on community engagement. She presented numerous papers at national and local conferences and led workshops for a variety of social agencies. Echols was also interested in social work globally and participated in international conferences in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
She was a dedicated supporter of professional associations. She believed in their role in strengthening the profession. An active member of the Connecticut Chapter of NASW, she was the chairperson of the National Committee on Minority Affairs (NCOMA) from 1978-1980. Echols helped to develop and steer this body during its very early years. She also served as a delegate to the NASW Delegate Assembly in 1981. During this same period, she was active in the National Association of Black Social Workers and worked to bridge the relationship between the two professional organizations.
At the national level, Echols served the United Neighborhood Centers of America as Secretary, chairperson of Leadership Training and Development, and member of the Executive Committee. Echols was a member of the Advisory Committee on Aging of the National Urban League. In Connecticut, Echols served as president and vice-president of Hartford Neighborhood Centers, member of the Board of Directors of Child and Family Services, member of the Board of the Connecticut Association of Human Services, and a board member of the Capitol Region Council of Churches.
She was also appointed by the Governor to the Connecticut Historical Commission. As chairperson, Echols led the important State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and later decried the Commission’s diminished importance under conservative administrations.
Echols was president of the Greater Hartford Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and founder and first president of the Connecticut Caucus of Black Women for Political Action. She believed that political action was essential in advancing the rights of minorities and women.
The list of Echols service efforts is impressive, but more impressive is her reputation for leading fearlessly on contentious issues of racism and poverty and creating conditions for change through these diverse organizations.
Ivor Echols was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1919. She said that her father told her it would have been better if she had inherited good looks instead of a brilliant mind. But she put that mind to good use, excelling in school. As a Black teenager in a highly segregated state, she was denied admission to her own state university, the University of Oklahoma, which was totally segregated at the time. She was part of a group of Black students who sought admission to the university and worked with local lawyers to press the case. Thurgood Marshall visited Oklahoma to consult with the group, but they were unsuccessful. When her parents were threatened, she decided to give up and attended the University of Kansas instead. She went on to earn her MSW from Columbia University (1952) and a DSW from the University of Southern California (1968).
Recognition and Awards
Echols was recognized by numerous organizations for her contributions. These included social work professional organizations, national and local civil rights and community organizations, and government bodies. For example, during her work in Michigan, she received the National Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Aware from the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and a special citation from the Michigan House of Representatives for community service.
Among the many awards and honors Echols received during her years in Connecticut are: The Connecticut Chapter of 1979 NASW Social Worker of the Year. In 1975, she received a certificate of appreciation by the National Association of Black Social Workers; Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso recognized Echols as Connecticut Woman of the Year, 1978. Also, she was one of 81 Black women (including both historical figures and some still active) selected by the Connecticut Historical Society in 1984 for its exhibition and book, “Black Women of Connecticut: Achievements Against the Odds.”
Echols was honored in the category of civil leadership. Added to these are numerous citations from organizations where she served as well as from the office of the Mayor of Hartford and from the Connecticut State Legislature. A scholarship in her name was established upon her death in 2000. The Dr. Ivor J. Echols Memorial Scholarship is given to University of Connecticut social work students of color to provide financial assistance toward their education.