Sadly, the most famous anti-poverty institution created in the United States had to close–the very influential Hull House in Chicago (now a National Historic Landmark). This settlement house was founded in the late 1880s by Jane Addams, an American mostly known as a social worker but who was also a famous sociologist (much published in sociology journals) and leading social justice activist and author. (See the excellent books of sociologist Mary Jo. Deegan.)
Addams is one of only two sociologists to win a Nobel Prize (for peace activities in the World War I era). Numerous other women, white and black, helped set up Hull House and run it effectively in early decades. Eventually serving thousands weekly, it has continued to have an important impact locally and nationally to its closing this week.
Addams and the pathbreaking white and black women professionals at Hull House played an important role in supporting the research and career of the young Harvard Ph.D., W. E. B. Du Bois, the great sociologist, historian, and activist whose influence continues to impact critical theorists and analysts of U.S. racism. They helped him in his research for the first sociological book that detailed urban racial issues, The Philadelphia Negro, and invited him to Hull House for lectures and consultation. These women were very important in the development of the first important graduate department of sociology at the University of Chicago, where some taught for a time.
An associated press report noted that Hull House had a very high demand these days from poor Chicagoans, some 60,000 a year being served, but had to close and suddenly lay off hundreds because it could not get enough funding in this economic depression. Not surprisingly, they were devastated, as are many of their many clients:
“It’s been my life,” said Dianne Turner, who spent 25 years teaching families in Chicago housing projects how to break the cycle of poverty. “It wasn’t about the pay. It was about seeing a family go from feeling hopeless to being hopeful and feeling like they can do things. …[She] said the organization helped teach her the value of education, how to save money and how to be a leader.
. . . . Regina Boyd, who has been a housing case manager at Hull House … said. “But I love the legacy of Jane Addams, and I’m hoping that someone or something comes along,” to continue that legacy. I feel her spirit. Her legacy is not over in my heart and spirit. It’s not.”
This seems another major sign of our declining times in terms of social justice efforts, unfortunately. Many in this society, and especially much of the white elite that runs key sectors, seem to have lost their moral sense of what a healthy and just society should be. Serving the poor and troubled Americans with meaningful programs aimed at support, survival, and/or socioeconomic mobility are essential, in my view, to the future of any society committed to social justice. And the end of Hull House also marks the end of a key intellectual institution that fostered much early social science research on Chicago, helped to create modern sociology as a discipline, and stimulated much local and national thinking about social justice, including in regard to racism and sexism.