Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and Racial Injustice in America

Jane Addams made the acquaintance of renown African-American journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells in the summer of 1899. The circumstance of these two extraordinary women in Chicago engaged in different but overlapping endeavors to make the world a better place is one of those remarkable and inspirational historical coincidences that reinforces my fascination with the past. I can only imagine the conversations that took place between such formidable activists as Addams and Wells, but I can feel the power of their connection to each other and their mutual respect for each other’s work. Wells regarded Addams “as the greatest woman in the United States,” and Addams admired Wells’ exposés on lynching and considered the controversial woman a friend.

It was Wells who inspired Addams to take a public stand against lynching. After a mob in Maysville, Kentucky, burned alive an African-American man on Dec. 6, 1899, Wells organized a mass meeting in Chicago to protest the violence, and she invited Addams to participate. After the meeting attendees passed resolutions of protest to send to President William McKinley, Addams delivered a speech. She condemned the mob’s murderous actions and argued that such violence “further runs a certain risk of brutalizing each spectator, of shaking his belief in law and order, of sowing seed for future violence.” It was a simple truth, she argued, “Brutality begets brutality.” The speech was an important public assertion of her support for African-American civil rights, and it was her first significant connection to the movement for racial justice.

Jane Addams, ca. 1910

Addams’ 1899 speech formed the basis of her argument for an article published in January 1901 in The Independent, a popular weekly magazine dedicated to social justice and reform. In 1900, there had been 101 reported lynchings in the United States, and the press coverage of these murders in all of their horrifying detail outraged many Americans, particularly reformers like Addams. In the article “Respect for the Law,” Addams again condemned mob violence and argued that it jeopardized due process of law and legal justice in any society that allowed it. However, in making her arguments, she assumed that African-American victims of lynching might be guilty of the crimes of which white lynch mobs accused them. In the early twentieth century, many whites, particularly in the South, argued that lynching preserved the legal and social order by deterring crimes committed by African Americans. Yet in truth, whites deliberately employed such violence to counter African-American resistance and to reinforce white supremacy. Lynching functioned as a terrifying message to African-Americans who dared step outside the boundaries of the proscribed racial hierarchy. Ida B. Wells had spent her entire career exposing the myth of African-American criminality, and she was disappointed in her friend for lapsing into this old “thread bare” argument.

Four months after Addams’ article appeared, Wells published a rebuttal in The Independent. While she did not necessarily disagree with the power and value of her friend’s “dispassionate and logical argument” against lynching, she did object to the critical and “unfortunate presumption” upon which the argument rested. Wells objected to the assumption that black men were “bestial” and “uncontrolled,” and she believed that Addams’ presumption reinforced the stereotype of African-American inferiority. For Wells, the sole purpose of the lynch mob was to strip African Americans of their civil rights and their humanity. She also argued that any assertions of a lynch victim’s alleged crimes were only “excuses” for violence and “that the figures of the lynching record should be allowed to plead, trumpet tongued, in defense of the slandered dead, that the silence of concession be broken, and that truth, swift-winged and courageous, summon this nation to do its duty to exalt justice and preserve inviolate the sacredness of human life.”

Addams and Wells were both brilliant writers, but they approached the serious problem of lynching from very different experiences and perspectives. It is not surprising that Wells, who had been born a slave and who had personally faced the threat of violence as a journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, more keenly understood the underlying racism that informed the violence. Regardless, every single lynching that occurred in America was abhorrent to both women. Even though the number of reported lynchings were in general decline from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, mobs murdered 4,761 human beings by lynching from 1882-1930, nearly all of the years spanning Jane Addams’ adulthood, and 3,386 of them were African Americans.

Thinking and writing about lynching and interacting with the brave and brilliant Ida B. Wells, solidified in Addams’ mind the significance of racism in America. As a result, Addams became a strong proponent of African-American civil rights. Although racial justice was not directly central to her social work, her efforts for child labor restrictions and pure milk, for example, were meant for the benefit of all children. Jane Addams was an important figure in the movement for racial equality, and her name in connection with the movement no doubt inspired others to come along, as well. With Ida B. Wells, Addams spoke out against an effort to racially segregate the Chicago schools and was, in 1909, a founding member of the NAACP. She supported the establishment of an African-American settlement house in Chicago, promoted the work of Professor W. E. B. Du Bois, stood up for African-American delegates denied a role in new Progressive Party in 1912, and protested against racial segregation in the federal government under President Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

As with all people and cultural groups, Jane Addams viewed African Americans as deserving of social justice, as intelligent and capable, as possessed of a rich and beautiful culture, and as worthy of a voice in the political process. She was not a perfect ally, and she stumbled at times to fully understand the depths of the racism of her era, but her mind was open and she understood as least as well as any other American of her generation that the promise of America depended on equality for all Americans. She was absolutely convinced that respectful interactions of all groups of people within a society was possible, that there was mutual benefit in those relationships, and that every American—including every working-class man, woman, immigrant, child, and African American—was entitled to social, economic, and political justice.

by Stacy Pratt McDermott

Jane Addams Documents for Further Reading:

Respect for Law, January 3, 1901

The Progressive Party and the Negro, November 1912

Has the Emancipation Act Been Nullified by National Indifference, February 1, 1913

Jane Addams, Thomas William Allinson, Cyrus Bentley, et al. to Woodrow Wilson, August 26, 1913

Sources: Jane Addams, Anti-Lynching Address, Dec. 12, 1899, Jane Addams Papers, 1860-1960 (microfilm), 46:965-68; Call for a Lincoln Conference on the Negro Question, February 13, 1909, Jane Addams Digital Edition; Ida B. Wells, “Lynching and the Excuse for It,” The Independent, 53 (May 16, 1901): 1133-36; Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Kristina DuRocher, Ida B. Wells: Social Reformer and Activist (New York: Routledge, 2017); Alfreda M. Duster, ed., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979); Katherine Joslin, Jane Addams: A Writer’s Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Louise W. Knight, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010; Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York: Palgrave, 2002); Thirty Years of Lynching, 1889-1918 (New York: NAACP, 1919).

Facing Death Twice: Lawyer Francis J. Heney

This is the last in Sara Catherine Lichon’s series of blog posts about interesting characters that she came across while working as a co-operative education student for the Project this semester. Her work involves identifying and describing the over 5,000 unique individuals mentioned in Addams’ correspondence.

Francis J. Heney, a lawyer and politician whose life was threatened twice during his career.

Life in law can often be exciting, especially when cases take a dramatic turn. For Francis Joseph Heney, a lawyer and politician from California, drama and excitement was part of the job — and sometimes his job even became a matter of life and death. Heney was known for many cases throughout his career, but he was most famous for killing an opposing plaintiff and for being shot in the head by a juror.

As a member of the National Committee of the Progressive Party, Heney’s name appeared numerous times in letters to and from Jane Addams that discussed the National Committee. Heney was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912 and ran for U.S. Senator from California as a Progressive in 1914. Outside of politics, he was a lawyer in both Arizona and California, and owned a cattle business in Arizona with his brother. From 1893 to 1895 he was Attorney General of the Arizona Territory, and he also served as the U.S. District Attorney for the District of Oregon. Heney was a well-known lawyer, having worked as a prosecutor on famous cases such as the Oregon Land Fraud scandal, where U.S. government land grants were being obtained illegally by public officials, and the San Francisco gaft trials, where members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors were prosecuted for corruption.

Dr. John C. Handy and Mary Ann Page Handy

In 1889, Heney defended Mary Ann Page Handy, the abused wife of Dr. John Christopher Handy, in a divorce case. Handy was known for being violent and aggressive, having abused his wife throughout their marriage, threatening to kill her when she wanted to file for divorce, and causing her to become addicted to morphine. In July 1889, Handy filed for divorce himself and sent their children to live with his mother. Handy threatened to kill anyone who dared to defend Mary, scaring away most attorneys. Originally, C. W. Wright was to defend Mary, and he asked Heney to assist him. After Heney agreed, Wright withdrew from the case, and Heney decided to do the same. After some reconsideration, though, Heney decided to defend Mary, despite the anger of Handy.

Throughout the case, Handy threatened Heney numerous times, even trying to run him over with his buggy. Ultimately, Handy won the case and received custody of the children, which Heney was quick to appeal, and a new case soon started – and the threats continued. On September 24, 1891, Handy attacked Heney outside his office, grabbing his neck and pinning him to a wall. It’s here where there are different accounts of what happened next; some newspapers say Heney broke free, ran, and drew a revolver, which Handy tried to grab. During the struggle, Heney shot Handy in the abdomen. Other papers say Heney shot Handy while running from him. After the encounter, Handy was taken to Dr. George Goodfellow for an operation but died during the procedure. Heney surrendered to the police but was bailed out by three of his friends. In a hearing two days later, the court ruled Heney acted in self-defense and he wasn’t charged.

The San Francisco Call, Nov. 15, 1908

This was not the end of Heney’s exciting cases. During the San Francisco graft prosecution, Heney pointed out that one juror, Morris Haas, was ineligible to be a juror because he was an ex-convict. Heney also believed that Haas was planted by political boss Abe Ruef, who was being prosecuted by Heney at that time. Angered and resentful, Haas came into the courtroom a few weeks later while the trial was in recess and shot Heney in the head. Haas was then arrested, but found dead in his cell shortly after, leading some to believe he had been killed by one of Ruef’s gangsters. Others thought he committed suicide. Heney was expected to die, but he survived the attack. The newspapers of the time reveal how loved Heney was by the public; The San Francisco Call had an entire page dedicated to the story, describing how three thousand people gathered at Oakland’s town hall in support of Heney and how President Theodore Roosevelt sent Heney’s wife a telegram of sympathy.

Heney continued to be involved in law and politics after these incidents, and lived a fulfilling life. In 1906, he married Rebecca Wentworth McMullin. She died in 1911. Heney married to Edna I. Van Winckle in 1915, who managed his U.S. Senate campaign. Heney  died in 1937.

Heney’s work with the Progressive Party and in law have gone down in history, especially the stories of his near-death encounters. And he is yet another fascinating person who has appeared in Jane Addams’ papers!

 

Sources:

Dexter Marshall. “Thrilling Chapters in Lives of Public Men.” The Washington Herald. April 19, 1908, p. 36.

“Hand to Hand.” Tombstone Epitaph. September 27, 1891.

C. Martin. “Territorial Divorce – as Turbulent as the Times.” Arizona Daily Star. November 12, 1972, p. 57.

Oliver Tatom, “Francis J. Heney (1859-1937),” The Oregon Encyclopedia.

“Roosevelt Wires Tribute to Heney: Messages of Sorrow from Friends Abroad: Leading Citizens of Country Praise Prosecutor.” The San Francisco Call. November 15, 1908, p. 23.

“When Francis J. Heney Shot His Man, Too.” The Des Moines Register. December 6, 1908, p. 10.

“Francis J. Heney,” Wikipedia.

Poet and Con-Artist: The Story of Scharmel Iris

Scharmel Iris (Lyrics of a Lad (1914)

Sara Catherine Lichon is writing a series of blog posts about interesting characters that she comes across while working as a co-operative education student for the Project this semester. Her work involves identifying and describing the over 5,000 unique individuals mentioned in Addams’ correspondence.

As a student, I’ve heard many a time that academic honesty is of the utmost importance, and that plagiarism can end one’s academic career. But back in the early 1900s, plagiarism was responsible for the rise of poet Scharmel Iris’s career, who made a living by fooling others.

Iris was born in 1889 with the name Frederico Scaramella in Castelcivita, Italy. When he was three years old, his mother married a man who helped them immigrate to the United States where they settled in Chicago. Iris changed his name and in 1905, when he was sixteen years old, his first poem was published in a Chicago Catholic newspaper. Soon his career skyrocketed as he was published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, received positive reviews from Chicago newspapers, and published his own collections of poems. He received most of his funding and notoriety with the help of other famous poets and artists, such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Salvatore Dali, and Picasso, who wrote praise-filled letters to Iris’s patrons.

There was one major problem with Iris’s success, though…it was based entirely on lies. Rather than being a great poet, Iris was simply a con-artist. Letters and praise from Eliot, Yeats, and Picasso were forged by Iris himself, and Iris even wrote about himself to publishers and patrons under the pseudonym Vincent Holme. Forgery and plagiarism, rather than talent, provided the base for Iris’s career and fame.

Jane Addams’ letter to Harriet Monroe, Jan. 20, 1913. Addams stated that Iris had “no right” to claim she advised him to reach out to different poets.

Jane Addams herself was a victim of Iris’s scams. Iris spent part of his life as a Hull-House resident, and when he published Lyrics of a Lad in 1914, he supposedly received praise from art critic John Ruskin and poets Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edmund Gosse. In January 1913, Addams wrote a letter to Harriet Monroe describing how Iris claimed she had told him to reach out to Gosse and even Yeats. Addams stated, “Poor Scharmel Iris really has no right to say that I advised him to write to Miss Guiney, or to Edmund Gosse, or to Mr. Yeats.” Words had been put in Addams’ mouth by Iris, and she was only one of many.

Iris’s scams even extended to his living situation. He lived at Lewis College, a Catholic school near Joliet, despite not working or teaching there. He stayed there until he was asked to leave in 1966, and he spent the remainder of his life at St. Patrick Retirement Hotel. He died in 1967.

A poem by Scharmel Iris, published in Poetry in December 1914.

Regardless of Iris’s talent as a poet, it’s hard to deny that he had a talent for fooling others. Iris’s entire life and career was built on plagiarism, yet he lived the life he had always dreamed of — that of a successful, well-known poet . . . even if it was actually a lie.

 

 


Sources:
Announcement of Lyrics of a Lad by Scharmel Iris, 1914.
Inventory of the Scharmel Iris Papers, 1911-1964, The Newberry Library.
Jane Addams to Harriet Monroe, January 20, 1913.
Nina C. Ayoub, “Forging Fame: The Strange Career of Scharmel Iris,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 17, 2007.