Students of the Red Cross Institute of the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health, Virginia State Capitol, 1918

Students of the Red Cross Institute of the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health, along with school founder Dr. Henry H. Hibbs Jr., stand at the Virginia State Capitol in 1918.

In the midst of World War I, as the nation’s eyes were turned toward Europe, community leaders in Richmond set their sights on the social, economic and health concerns they were witnessing at home.

They knew it wasn’t enough simply to alleviate these concerns through single programs or initiatives. They recognized that a highly skilled, nurtured and dedicated workforce could reach more people and effect more meaningful change.

In 1917, this vision took root as the Richmond School of Social Economy, the first social work program in the South and the nucleus of what would later become Virginia Commonwealth University.

From the outset, the school’s leaders began developing partnerships with local public and private organizations — groups that could not only lend insight into curriculum development and instruction, but also could provide a range of hands-on environments in which students could work and learn.

In the following decades, the school’s scope of influence grew to match its vision. By providing opportunities that were genuine and truly needed to the people of Virginia, the school eventually became VCU, helped to found what is now the Council on Social Work Education and evolved into one of the premier centers for social work education in the nation.

Historical highlights

“We recognize that we have far to go, but we also recognize and proudly acknowledge those before us who have contributed to this progress to date.”

– Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.


Exterior of the 1112 Capitol Street Building

Henry H. Hibbs Jr., Ph.D., founds the Richmond School of Social Economy. The first session begins in October, held in two small rooms on the third floor of 1112 Capitol Street (above), across from the governor’s mansion. The first class includes 12 full-time students and 50 auditors, or part-time students, and tuition costs only $40 per year.


The school is placed under direction of the Extension Division of the College of William & Mary, which enables students to earn a bachelor’s degree. Under this agreement, the first two years of the social work program are completed at William & Mary, and the last two years in Richmond. Majors included social casework and community social work. The school also becomes one of the eight charter members of the American Association of Schools of Social Work.


The school purchases a Model T in order to reach rural communities with social and public health fieldwork.


The school becomes part of the Richmond Professional Institute of the College of William & Mary, joining with the Richmond School of Art, the School of Store Services Education and the college’s vocational departments.


The school reorganizes its curriculum in the face of huge social change, implementing courses in research, human growth and development, social welfare policies and services, and practice methods, along with supervised field work. Over the next decade, it also will add social group work, community organization and social work administration courses to the curriculum.


In July, the General Assembly votes to combine the resources of the Richmond Professional Institute with the Medical College of Virginia to create Virginia Commonwealth University.


The school introduces the first of a growing number of interdisciplinary options through a partnership with the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Over the decade and beyond, these offerings grow to include a school social worker certification program, a dual-degree program with the T.C. Williams Law School at the University of Richmond, and a combined M.S.W. and Certificate of Aging Studies program.


The Advanced Standing Program, in which B.S.W. students can complete an M.S.W. in one summer semester and one full academic year, is developed to accommodate large classes and students who want to receive credit for previous training. Students immediately gravitate toward this program, as well as expanded course time options and evening classes — all efforts to offer a wide array of options for growing student needs.


The doctoral program is established, making VCU one of the few schools in the nation to offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels of social work education.