A century ago, impoverished European immigrants got health care and practical help from the settlement house movement.

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.

Jane Addams, co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, Illinois, at her desk. Circa late twentieth century. Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images.
Ellen Gates Starr, co-founder of Hull House. Circa 1914. Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images.

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.

The Hull House complex at 800 South Halsted Street included a kindergarten, daycare facility, classrooms, libraries, and meeting spaces for neighborhood residents. Circa 1910. Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images.

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 Addams reading to children. Date unknown. Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images.

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.

This article is a repost from Yes! Journalism Solutions