Jane Addams: Taking a Stand

This spring, the Jane Addams Papers Project was delighted to help fund two eighth grade students, Lucy Roberts and Lindsey Alexander, from Chamblee Middle School in Georgia present their ten-minute performance on Jane Addams at the National History Day competition.  The students advanced through their regional and state competitions and needed some help funding their trip to Maryland and the national contest.  When preparing for the competition, they relied on the Jane Addams Digital Edition to provide primary source materials.

“National History Day requires projects to have a variety of sources, both primary and secondary,” said Lucy Roberts, who portrayed Jane Addams in the performance. “The Jane Addams Papers was so organized and helpful to help with primary sources. As far as the actual sources themselves, we used her letters and speeches to learn about her thoughts and political views.”  The girls used excerpts from Addams’s autobiographies, which they found on the digital edition, as well as her opinions on immigration and labor to make their performance more historically accurate.

“What I think was the most interesting thing about Addams was her work as the city’s garbage collector. To me that was not only pretty surprising but admirable as well,” added Lucy.

National History Day invites students between sixth and twelfth grade to research a historical topic based on an annual theme and present their findings in a creative style manner as documentaries, research papers, exhibits, performances, or websites.  With this year’s theme called “Taking a Stand in History,” Lucy and Lindsey were assigned to research Addams in class.

Lucy and Lindsey’s performance, “Jane Addams: Taking a Stand,”  opened at Addams’s funeral in Hull-House in 1935.  Lindsey, portraying a resident, passionately recited a eulogy about Addams and her life.  Then, the play took the audience back in time by dramatically portraying Addams’s most significant accomplishments, such as becoming valedictorian at Rockford Seminary, co-founding the Hull-House, opposing World War I, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  As Addams, Lucy used direct quotes from Addams’s letters and speeches, and Lindsey acted as a variety of Addams’s associates, such as Ellen Gates Starr, a Chicago Tribune reporter, and a poor immigrant, providing context for Addams’ views.

“Performing was much more difficult than I expected,” said Lucy. “There are a billion things you need to think about: facing the audience, speaking clearly, remembering your lines, blocking, props, etc. That’s why I enjoyed it so much. Not only do I love a challenge, but I got to see an idea turn into something tangible and real.”

Lucy enjoying time in Baltimore

Lucy and Lindsey did not win the national award, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience and their sightseeing in Baltimore. They visited Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium, and Hard Rock Café. “I really enjoyed that because the hard work was over and we could finally relax and enjoy the city,” said Lucy.

We are glad to have been able to help the girls have such a rewarding experience and congratulate them on their success.

The theme for 2018 is: Conflict and Compromise in History.

Battling a Ward Boss: Addams vs. Powers

Alderman of the Nineteenth Ward Johnny Powers

To better the lives of poor immigrants and children through Hull-House, Jane Addams often had to involve herself in the issues her residents cared about, such as child labor regulation, establishments of juvenile courts, overpopulated schools, and sanitation.  To ensure that the government’s laws heard the voice of the poor, Addams often challenged the status quo, which made political leaders uneasy.  Addams specifically butted heads with the corrupt alderman of the Nineteenth Ward, Johnny Powers.  Born in Ireland in 1852, Powers moved to America at age 20 and settled in Chicago.  He became a politician for the Democratic Party and served as alderman almost until his death in 1930.  Since 1892, Hull-House fought Powers to build a new school for neighborhood children, which he opposed.  Although ultimately victorious in that fight, Addams tried to get Powers to clean up the garbage in Chicago streets by collecting 1,000 complaints but failed.

This was the start of a political battle between the two.  When Addams supported his 1896 opponent, Powers fought back by eliminating the garbage inspector position held by Addams and placing supervision of these activities under the Ward superintendent.  This angered Addams because she had previously succeeded in surveying the streets each morning and decreasing Chicago’s litter.

Powers maintained his political influence by purchasing votes.  In 1898, Addams wrote: “Last Christmas our Alderman distributed six tons of turkeys, and four or more tons of ducks and geese . . . It is easiest to reach people in the holiday mood of expansive good will, but on their side it seems natural and kindly that he should do it.”  Powers often financed and appeared at funerals as well to gain support, earning him the nickname, “The Mourner.”  Addams wrote: “If the Alderman seizes upon festivities for expressions of his good will, much more does he seize upon periods of sorrow.  At a funeral he has double advantage of ministering a genuine craving for comfort and solace, and at the same time of assisting at an important social function” (1898).  Addams argued that this made him seem like a man with virtue; however, he did not strive to help individuals.  At the end of the day, the streets were unclean, schools were overcrowded, and parks were unusable.

Addams in 1896

In addition to owning two saloons, a gambling establishment, and a nice house, Powers sold city franchises and bought friends in the Council and courts.  Addams demanded to know where he got his money from. “To their simple minds he gets it ‘from the rich,'” Addams wrote, “and so as long as he again gives it out to the poor, as a true Robin Hood, with open hand, they have no objections to offer” (1898).

In the 1898 elections, Addams supported Powers’s opponent, Simeon Armstrong.  Because one-fifth of the voters’ jobs in the Nineteenth Ward depended on Powers’s largesse, it was a challenge for Addams to sway people’s self-interest towards a vote for Armstrong.  She wrote, “If the so-called more enlightened members of the community accept public gifts from the man who buys up the Council, and the so-called less enlightened members accept individual gifts from the man who sells out the Council, we surely must take our punishment together” (1898).

Powers hit back against Addams in Chicago Tribune: “I am what my people like, and neither Hull House nor all the reformers in town can turn them against me,” he boasted.  Powers claimed that Hull-House maligned the Ward, threatening, “Mark my word, a year from today there will be no such institution in the Nineteenth Ward.”  Anonymous supporters of Powers sent violent letters to Addams during the election; but, others, like Professor William Hill, supported Hull-House, writing, “Those who make that institution their home have always regarded the people of the Nineteenth Ward as honest, hard-working citizens.  Instead of standing on his own record, Powers is trying to shift the responsibility for neglected streets and empty houses upon somebody else” (1898).

Addams seated with Hull-House residents, 1934

Powers won the 1898 election.  Despite Addams’s support for his opponents, Powers won re-election for the next 30 years. Though she failed to remove Powers from office, Addams learned through the experience.  She realized that she needed to better understand and help her neighbors’ lives before wading in.  Entering the political world interfered with her connections with Hull-House’s neighbors and made it more difficult for her to assist them and form relationships with them.  After the election, she returned to helping her neighbors directly as well as working with the Chicago Bureau of Charities, which began development in 1894.

Addams’s short-lived success in keeping the Ward’s streets clean also taught Chicago residents to understand how their political leaders should work, challenging Powers and his patronage system in a more indirect way.  As Ray Stannard Baker wrote in “Hull House and the Ward Boss” in 1898, “If it does not succeed, at least the residents of the ward will have had a stirring lesson in political morality, which will clear a way for success at another time.”

Sources:

“Defi to John Powers: Antis Accept the Hull House as the Campaign Issue. ” Chicago Tribune, 3 Mar. 1898, p. 7.; Jane Addams, “Why the Ward Boss Rules,” Outlook 58, no.14 (April 2, 1898): 879-82.; Kendall. “Alderman John Powers’ Home Bombed by Political Rivals.” The Chicago Crime Scenes Project, 17 May 2009, Blogger.com, http://chicagocrimescenes.blogspot.com/2009/05/alderman-john-powers-home-bombed-by.html.  Accessed 21 Jun. 2017.; “Powers and Cullerton Talk.” Chicago Tribune, 6 Apr. 1898, p. 10.; Ray Stannard Baker, “Hull House and the Ward Boss,” Outlook (March 26 1898): 769-771.; Schneiderhan, Erik. The Size of Others’ Burdens: Barack Obama, Jane Addams, and the Politics of Helping Others. Stanford University Press, 2015.; Scott, Anne Firor. “Saint Jane And The Ward Boss.” American Heritage, Dec. 1960, http://www.americanheritage.com/content/saint-jane-and-ward-boss. Accessed 28 Jun. 2017.; “War on Hull House” Chicago Tribune, 2 Mar. 1898, p. 12.

Addams as Inspiration for Modern Students

A lot of times, college students sit at their desks, tapping their pens against their notepads during the middle of a three hour lecture and begin to think, “This relates nothing to my major; why do I need to sit through this?”  Although initially eager to begin the college experience that opens up the doorway for a diverse range of opportunities, students are pummeled by essays and group assignments that heavily decrease their enthusiasm for a college degree.  It’s especially frustrating to heave through the general education requirements, like math, English, and science, when they do not relate to the student’s major.  How am I going to impact the world by sitting in Critical Reading and Writing 102, or First Year Seminar?  Are all these classes I’m taking even going to lead me anywhere?

Addams’s graduation picture from Rockford Seminary, 1881

Like most college students, Addams had a lot of ambition entering Rockford Seminary at the age of 17.  She, too, wanted to impact the world by pursing an education; however, Addams had many barriers and limitations that would delay her successes like the Hull House or recognition for her speeches on women suffrage, child labor, etc.  As New York Times writer David Brooks writes in his article, “The Jane Addams Model,” Addams was a “morally ambitious young woman who dreamed of some epic life service without much idea about how it might come about… In her twenties she was one of those young people who don’t get to themselves quickly.”

During Addams’s education she desired to pursue a degree in medicine, but Rockford, which was a seminary at the time, encouraged careers associated with religion.  Like many college students who are indecisive in choosing their own majors, Addams considered transferring to Smith College in Massachusetts, but never followed through with it.  After finishing school at Rockford, Addams felt limited in her education because there weren’t many career paths options for women in additional education.

Addams faced a range of personal problems that affected her education as well.  After graduating Rockford, her father, whom she viewed as one of her closest friends, died.  She wrote two weeks after his funeral, “how purposeless and without ambition am I.” Any motivation she had about pursuing another degree disappeared with the death of her father.  When Addams did eventually enroll in medical school, she suffered from severe back pains and psychological problems and chose to admit herself into a hospital instead.  In addition to these issues, she felt pressure from her family to focus inward on them rather than pursue her education.

Addams standing with parasol in her class picture at Rockford, 1881

Her life filled with the same uncertainties that many of us students have, Addams chose to leave these pressures and travel outside her comfort zone.  Seeing London’s streets of poverty rekindled the desire to connect with people personally.  Addams recognized the contrast between the way she lived her life and the streets of Chicago and felt inspired to not only provide effective services, but also protect the dignity of those she helped.  In order to do this, she thought about who she ought to be and started changing her life in small ways.  With these small changes, she was able provide comfort and safety to thousands of immigrants through the Hull-House.

Students may not always know where they are headed; but the truth is Addams didn’t know either.  Changing a lifestyle and becoming uncomfortable to do what’s good for others are small steps for big achievements.  A three hour lecture in Math for the Modern World may be boring, or writing an essay on a topic unrelated to a major may seem useless, but they may lead to opportunities or spark a buried passion.  For students, making an impact can be a simple as joining clubs on campus that they are interested in.  If Addams were alive today to speak to these students, she would encourage them to vocalize their desires on a club’s executive board.

Sources: Brooks, David. “The Jane Addams Model.” New York Times, 25 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/opinion/the-jane-addams-model.html?_r=1 Accessed 6 Jun. 2017. Schneiderhan, Erik. The Size of Others’ Burdens: Barack Obama, Jane Addams, and the Politics of Helping Others. Stanford University Press, 2015.