I was first introduced to Jane Addams during my junior year of college when my professor assigned Twenty
Years at Hull House. It was not until several years later when I used the book with students in a course of my own, however, that I was truly impacted by Addams’s work. Today I teach at a community college where some of my students are immigrants for whom English is not their native language and many more are first-generation Americans seeking to bridge the vast cultural divide between the country of their parents’ birth and their lives in the United States. Addams’s work, for me, is more relevant than ever.
My interest in Addams was renewed last week when I visited the Hull House Museum in Chicago. Addams established Hull House in 1889 with fellow activist Ellen Gates Starr. The settlement would serve as her personal and professional home until 1935. According to the museum’s web site, Hull House “residents” -- educated women (and occasionally men) recruited by Addams and Starr -- “provided kindergarten and day care facilities for the children of working mothers; an employment bureau; an art gallery; libraries; English and citizenship classes; and theater, music and art classes.” Their work intimately connected them with the diverse people of their South Halsted Street neighborhood: Greeks, Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Russians, Polish, African Americans and Mexicans.
Although the settlement at Hull House would eventually encompass several buildings the museum as it stands today consists of only the main home at 800 S. Halsted Street on the edge of the University of Illinois Chicago campus. College students from UIC guide guests through rooms that display documents, images, and other artifacts from Addams’s life work. Visitors learn that art and music were prominent in the lives of Hull House residents and visitors, no doubt a welcome distraction from the long hours many immigrant men and women spent in Chicago’s factories. The simplicity of Addams’s upstairs bedroom with its twin bed, desk and fireplace is in sharp contrast with museum pieces that remind us that Addams was once considered by the FBI to be “the most dangerous woman in America.” (Social Work & Society International Online Journal).
More than a century after Addams and Starr founded Hull House the challenges facing immigrants in the United States remain wrought with fear and uncertainty. In her commencement address at the University of Chicago in 1905 Addams cautioned her audience that Americans “refuse to see how largely the question [of immigration] has become an economic one.” Addams’s many years of direct involvement in the lives of immigrants remains relevant today as we address similar questions of citizenship and assimilation, standards of living and economic progress. If you’re not already sharing Addams’s story with your students, I encourage you to revisit turn-of-the-century immigration questions through her writings.