In their new book, Rad American History A-Z, author Kate Schatz and illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl provide examples of resilience, creation, and hope from our nation’s past. Written specifically for young people, the book is a reminder for Americans of any age of our collective progressive heritage and its lessons for building a better, more sustainable and egalitarian future.
During the second half of the 19th century, Chicago, like many large American cities, experienced a major population boom. The first waves of European immigrants came from Germany, Ireland, and Sweden; by the 1880s, they were coming from all over eastern and southern Europe, seeking the American dream of freedom and prosperity. Many were fleeing poverty; others, especially Jewish families from Eastern Europe, were fleeing violence and persecution. Chicago was a hub for railroads, and there were jobs in lumberyards, stockyards, and hundreds of factories. But it was not an easy life. The workers had almost no protections, and worked grueling hours for low pay.
By 1890, more than 40 percent of Chicago’s residents were recent immigrants, and nearly all lived in cramped, unsanitary slums on the city’s West Side. City officials mostly ignored these communities, and it showed: streets were unpaved and filthy, and most of the buildings lacked plumbing and electricity. There weren’t enough schools or doctors for the children, and preventable diseases spread fast. This is where Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found their new home, located at 800 South Halsted Street.
Jane and Ellen’s vision was to create a spacious home that would feel welcoming to any person, no matter how much money they had, what language they spoke, or what country they came from. This was important, because Jane and Ellen’s new neighbors were almost all recently arrived immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, Sweden, England, Ireland, France, Russia, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, and the country then known as Czechoslovakia.
After moving in, Jane and Ellen began reaching out to women they knew, inviting them to join the new venture. Hull House soon had a team of eager residents who paid room and board and gave their time to run programs for people in the neighborhood. They taught classes, cared for children, served meals, and helped run the day-to-day operations. They weren’t paid—living as a Hull House resident was about being of service.
Jane and Ellen started a kindergarten, then added a day nursery for babies, and sent teachers to the homes of children who were too ill or disabled to attend school. With their youngest children safe and cared for, neighborhood women were able to work. Eventually Hull House built an entire Children’s House that included laundry and sewing facilities for mothers who didn’t have access to them at home. For the next several decades, the residents and leaders of Hull House listened to the needs of the community members, then adapted and expanded to serve the diverse population. They worked to understand the challenges facing immigrants, especially the women, who were often young and uneducated. They also recognized and honored the emotional challenges of living in a new country, including homesickness. Hull House hosted “ethnic nights” devoted to celebrating the food, music, and traditions of different immigrant communities. There were Greek nights, Italian nights, Polish nights, Jewish nights—and all were welcome to attend.
By the first decade of the 20th century, Hull House had expanded beyond the once-abandoned mansion: it consisted of 13 buildings that served thousands of people each week. You could go to the gymnasium and try wrestling, boxing, or bowling. You could learn English, Italian, French, or Spanish. You could join a choir or a brass band, or Chicago’s first women’s basketball team. You could meet with a lawyer, take a shower, or get a hot meal and cup of coffee.
You could visit the Labor Museum on a Saturday afternoon and learn traditional old-world crafts from elderly immigrants: Irish women weaving blankets, Syrian grandmothers spinning flax into cloth. There was an art gallery, a theater, a coffeehouse, an employment bureau, and several libraries. There were lectures by leading thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois. And you could even go to Chicago’s first and only playground, a beloved oasis that was the result of Jane’s research into child development and her then-radical belief in the importance of play.
Jane lived at Hull House until her death in 1935. Over the years, she helped expand the settlement house movement, and by 1920 the U.S. had nearly 500 Hull House–inspired facilities. Encouraged by journalist and leader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Jane took a public stance against the horrors of lynching, and supported Ida’s effort to stop the creation of segregated public schools in Chicago. Both women were founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Jane was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union as well.
Excerpt adapted with permission from Rad American History A-Z. Copyright © 2020 by Kate Schatz. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Miriam Klein Stahl. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Kate Schatz is a feminist writer, activist, and educator. She is the author of The New York Times Best Sellers list Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide, and the accompanying journal, My Rad Life. Kate is the co-founder of Solidarity Sundays, a nationwide network of feminist activist groups, and she speaks often about politics, resistance, feminism, race, parenting, and more.