NASW Pioneers Biography Index

The National Association of Social Workers Foundation is pleased to present the NASW Social Work Pioneers®. NASW Pioneers are social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers. Some are well known, while others are less famous outside their immediate colleagues, and the region where they live and work. But each one has made an important contribution to the social work profession, and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, or legislation.

The NASW Pioneers have paved the way for thousands of other social workers to contribute to the betterment of the human condition; and they are are role models for future generations of social workers. The NASW Foundation has made every effort to provide accurate Pioneer biographies.  Please contact us at to provide missing information, or to correct inaccurate information. It is very important to us to correctly tell these important stories and preserve our history.  Please note, an asterisk attached to a name reflects Pioneers who have passed away. All NASW Social Work Pioneers® Bios are Copyright © 2019 National Association of Social Workers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

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Cernoria McGowan Johnson* (1909-1990)

Cernoria McGowan Johnson's pioneer work spanned the years from the Works Project Administration in Oklahoma to the implementation of the National Nursing Home Ombudsman Program for the Administration on Aging in the 1970's. She was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma at a time when most activities in that state were segregated. In fact, during the infamous Tulsa race riots of 1921, she and her family were incarcerated briefly in the state fairgrounds. They were rescued from there by her mother's employer. She went to Langston University and became a school teacher.

With the establishment of the Works Project Administration in the 1930s she became a supervisor of the Negro sewing rooms. She was later employed by the Olsen State Department of Public Welfare in Welfare Services and worked with the Oklahoma City YWCA in its efforts to develop more integrated groups. She received her master's degree in social work from the Atlanta School of Social Work in the 1940s and in the 1950s worked on a PhD at Columbia University School of Social Work. Her husband, William Johnson, was also a school teacher and then was with the U.S. Office of Education.

Cernoria was the director of the Washington office of the Urban League from the late 1950s to the early 1970s where she was a close colleague of Whitney Young, Jr.'s. During her years with the Urban League, she was involved with the development and passage of the "Great Society Legislation". She served on the first advisory committee to the Medicaid Program.

She retired from the Urban League in the early 1970s, but then in 1974 was appointed as a special consultant to the Commissioner of Aging, Arthur Fleming, with the responsibility of implementing the National Program of Nursing Home Ombudsmen. It was her responsibility to develop policy and program guides based upon the nursing home ombudsmen demonstrations that had been supported through the Public Health Service and to establish in each state an Office of Aging, a nursing home ombudsmen program. Within a short span of about three years, she had established this program throughout the country. Cernoria retired from the Office of Aging in 1977, but continued her work in informal advocacy until her death in 1990.

Newly Inducted NASW Social Work Pioneer Hortense McClinton 2015

Nominate A New NASW Pioneer

Completed NASW Pioneer nominations can be submitted throughout the year and are reviewed at the June 2021 Pioneer Steering Committee Meeting. To be considered at the June meeting, submit your nomination package by March 31, 2021. To learn more, visit our Pioneer nomination guidelines.