Jane Addams, a name synonymous with the Settlement Movement in the West, pledged her life towards breaking all social barriers and creating an ecosystem where poor immigrants from across the globe could converge and thrive in harmony.
The Hull House, a landmark building that became a symbol of the movement, was converted into a settlement house by Addams herself. She presided as its head resident for almost half a century till her death in 1935. The Hull House still serves as the flagship property among the many settlement houses now running all across the US.
Addams was born into a wealthy family in Illinois in 1860. Her father, John Huy Addams, was a senator and, by virtue of his participation in the Civil War, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln (who referred to him as ‘My Dear Double D-‘ed Addams’).
After her graduation from Rockford Female Seminary, where she was a valedictorian, Addams wished to serve a greater purpose in life. She enrolled in a medical course with the intention of serving the poor; however, a congenital spinal defect forced her withdrawal.
Till that point, Addams’ life had been heavily dictated by her father, who she considered her idol. He was adamant that Addams get a good education, but he saw her no more than a faithful, domestic wife for a well-bred suitor, after her studies.
Despaired by her inability to put her mind to use, Addams decided to take a trip to Europe; however, she became further distraught with her career and slipped in and out of depression. After spending two years writing, Addams again planned a trip to London at the age of 27; little did she know how her life would change thereon.
An epiphany in London
The settlement movement was a growing wave of social reforms aimed at connecting the poor communities with their richer neighbours. It encouraged volunteers, primarily students, to reside in close proximity to nearby slums. The idea was to create a positive influence by increasing interactions between the communities, thereby developing a healthy relationship between them. Any settlement house was supposed to conduct classes on vocational courses and could house gymnasiums, libraries or recreational centres.
The Toynbee Hall fulfilled majority of the social needs of the poorer sections of the society and acted as a bridge between the poor and the rich. The settlement movement was expanding at that time, and settlement houses were akin to control rooms set up during war.
Realisation of a dream—the Hull House
Addams was struck by the concept of settlement houses and desired to set up something similar in the US. Back home, the deteriorating effects of Civil War had waned, and industrialisation was in full swing.
With higher wages for skilled labour, immigrants were flocking to the US for better jobs. However, skilled as they may be, they found it difficult to adjust to the American culture and had to face racism on various counts. Addams was acutely aware of the problem and wished to establish a settlement that could be a melting pot of sorts.
On her return home, she roamed around Illinois till she zeroed in on Hull House in Near West Side, which had plenty of European immigrants, as the first establishment in Chicago.
While the Toynbee Hall in the UK was like a “community for university men”, Addams’ Hull House was like a community for the fairer sex. She and Starr were its first residents, and they slowly started to gather support from wealthy donors to back the house’s activities.
In its initial days, the Hull House had about 25 residents, mostly female social workers. They were involved in imparting basic training in skills required to secure a job, face motherhood, and learn the English language. A few residents also took classes in music and arts.
Emboldened by the terrific response from the nearby immigrants, Addams pushed hard to get an art gallery inaugurated inside the Hull House. She also urged wealthy women to donate generously to the Hull House for its upkeep and expansion of its facilities.
Her canvassing for funds was successful and allowed the House to slowly build upon an impressive array of services—a public kitchen, gymnasium, circulating library, daycare nursery, and even a swimming pool.
At the height of its popularity, the Hull House had over 2,000 regular visitors every week. Not only that, but many prominent female social reformers also lent their services in running the Hull House. Over a period of three decades, the House was patronised by the likes of Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, and Grace and Edith Abbott.
Wielding global influence
By the turn of the 20th century, Addams wielded tremendous influence as a social reformer. The fame of the Hull House, easily the most recognised settlement house in the US, had catapulted her as one of the leading reformers in the country.
Addams used her popularity to spread the message of peace in wartime and raise awareness of the women’s suffrage movement. She played a crucial role at the state and municipal level, establishing the Juvenile Court and campaigning for playgrounds and parks for children.
Addams later assumed larger civic responsibilities—she was made the chair of Chicago’s School Management Committee.
At the national level, Addams was elected as the first woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1909, an organisation that addressed education of the insane, deaf or blind and prevention of pauperism among other issues.
She was also among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and participated actively in the women’s suffrage movement.
A pacifist by nature, Addams extolled the virtues of peace in the time of war to great extents. She spoke against US’ decision to fight in the World War, a declaration that was condemned by many public servants. She contributed to peace under Herbert Hoover’s presidency by providing relief and clothing to innocent civilians of enemy nations.
Addams was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her humanitarian efforts. She brought about a turnaround in how Americans perceived immigrants and was a key figure in creating a synergic ecosystem. Her life is a celebration of a person who fought for the good, the poor, the voiceless, and anyone who raised their hand for help.
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.
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