September 6th was the 150th birthday of writer, philosopher and political activist Jane Addams --the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and the founder of Chicago’s Hull House. I decided to require my honors students to meet me for class this week at the Hull House museum, where a block party birthday celebration was planned for the community (with free food...).
The museum is housed on campus at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), which has a comprehensive website detailing the history of Hull House with speeches, letters and tons of primary source documents from UIC’s archival collection as well as educational resources. It’s a great website, and I’ve assigned my students to read most of it.
Jane Addams is one of those female leaders whose name every student should know. Addams never married and did not have children. Her mother died when she was young. She had a curved spine and underwent numerous surgeries. She was a tireless advocate for better housing, health, education, fair labor practices and safe, public parks for children. Here’s an excerpt from a 1912 speech she made at the Conference of Charities and Correction — “The Child at the Greatest Point of Pressure”:
“If we could look at these children who are under the greatest pressure because they live in the worst houses, because they have the least nutritious food, because their parents are so harried and overworked by the long hours and the new conditions they find in America, that they can give them no sympathetic care and understanding, we will discover the beginnings of a new life, something much more positive, much more beautiful, much more all-embracing than anything we have yet dealt with, because our minds are fixed only upon preservation.”
As a young person, Addams’ father had prevented her from attending Smith College to receive the medical degree she so desperately wanted (at one of the few schools where she could receive one). In her frustration, Addams left for Europe and visited the Toynbee House in London, where she first became aware of the concept of “settlement houses” to address urban poverty. Upon returning to Illinois, Addams--with long-time female friend, Ellen Gates Starr--quickly opened “Hull House,” which soon became a national model for progressive neighborhood developments that included gyms, kindergartens and continuing education schools for adults.
Addams was a big believer in what the city could offer immigrant families, as well as how middle and upper class Americans (particularly women) could donate their free time and energy to improving the lives of families crowded into urban tenement housing. Addams’s Christian upbringing motivated her organizing efforts (and assisted her in negotiations with Chicago’s religious leadership), but Hull House welcomed faiths and backgrounds of all kinds—persecuted Jewish immigrants, Native Americans, Indian post-colonial activists —all frequented the house and met with Addams.
Hull House remains in a lower to middle income Chicago neighborhood that still does not have much access to grocery stores or fresh produce. Lisa Lee, the new Hull House museum director, has made it a point for the space to support an urban farmer’s market and soup cooking events, continuing the tradition of not just feeding the poor but helping them to feed themselves (particularly starving UIC students).
My students appeared enthused at the event, and not just by the free cupcakes. As an assignment I had asked my students to locate someone at the party to interview and to ask them about their interest in Hull House. Students talked with a graduate student in physics from India, a social worker who trained at the Hull House in the 1960's, a man who claimed that his great uncle had had a long term affair with Addams (and that she did not only have female companions). I spoke with Laurie Jo Reynolds, a prisoner’s advocate (and winner of a recent Soros fellowship) whose artistic work with prisoners was part of the museum’s exhibit on juvenile justice. (Addams helped to start the first juvenile justice court in the country).
My students and I were all a little overwhelmed by the event. There were so many personal stories to take in connected with Addams’s remarkable breadth of work.
I’ll let Jane Addams tell the last story:
"A few weeks ago a young girl who had grown up in a Hull House club came to see me. She was happily married; lived in a much more prosperous part of the city and was very proud to bring her six weeks' old baby to see us. As she was leaving I said "don't you find the baby rather heavy to carry so far?" and she turned to me and said, "my baby is not heavy; my baby carries me."
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