Jane Addams: Advocate for Immigrants

Jane Addams was only 29 when she opened the Hull House Settlement in 1889 on Chicago’s tough west side with two friends, Miss Ellen Gates Starr and Miss Mary Keyser. All three were so naive they didn’t even lock the door the day they moved in. But they quickly learned the challenges facing their immigrant neighbors.

Addams opposed laws that would restrict immigration and push Americanization programs that were designed to delete the cultures of new immigrants. Instead Hull House welcomed folk dancers, singers, weavers, artists, book clubs, and political oratory from all political stripes. They hosted dozens of different ethnic clubs for adults and children, most for only one nationality, but a few mixed such as the Italians and Greeks, the Italians and Jews, and the Mexicans and Greeks.

Knowing new immigrants inspired Jane Addams to become an aggressive advocate for their work. In 1882, Hilda Satt Polacheck came from Poland to find factory work. In her memoir, Polacheck reports: “The American people still do not quite realize that it was Jane Addams who woke the conscience of America to the debt that it owed to the great masses of people who were pouring into America. It was Jane Addams who pointed out that these immigrants were making the clothing that Americans wore. They knitted the mittens and sweaters to keep American children warm. ..There was almost no phase of American life in which these immigrants did not serve.” Replace “making the clothing” with “preparing the food that Americans eat” and the same statement would hold in 2008.

We are still struggling with the same human rights issues facing Jane Addams and her neighbors in 1889, issues like wage theft, access to medical care, and a pathway to citizenship. Like Jane Addams, can we recognize that immigrants, the work that they do, and the cultures they bring, make our lives fuller and richer? As she wrote,

“…the things that make men alike are finer and better than the things that keep them apart, and that these basic likenesses, if they are properly accentuated, easily transcend the less essential differences of race, language, creed, and tradition.”

-Jane Addams: Twenty Years at Hull House (1910.)

See more about Jane Addams at http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/urbanexp/. Read about Hilda Satt Polacheck in I Came A Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl.

Jane Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 1931. Work for peace tomorrow and every day.

Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago library.