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Urban revolutionary

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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Jane Addams created Settlement Houses for America’s new citizens.

Jane Addams exemplifies the generous donor of the past who saw society’s problems in revolutionary ways and changed the world around them through their new vision.

Facing the daunting horror of human calamity in America’s cities in the late 1800’s, Jane Addams could have started teams to pick up bodies of deceased poor people abandoned in the tuberculosis-ravaged tenements.  No payroll tax existed. No government programs supported the living or removed the dead.

But Jane Addams did something no one had ever done.

She, and teams she developed, opened support houses in slum that were known as Settlement Houses.

Throughout the U.S., between 1890 and 1910, these women and the men who worked with them established 400 settlement houses.

That was one way to clean up the streets and tenements.

The Settlement Houses in urban slum areas contained bathing facilities for the millions who had no indoor plumbing and no way to keep themselves and their families clean.

They offered sanitation and health care, too.

Addams’ settlement houses and community centers provided libraries, vocational training, child care and kindergartens, employment bureaus and English classes.

And they organized penny savings clubs and gave scholarships.

The healthier, stronger families emerged as a crucial part of America’s manufacturing work force.

In Detroit, they made cars; in Pittsburgh, steel.

They demanded their rights and helped form and joined unions.

Their children went to work or to college and to the professions.

Immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and migrant Blacks escaping horrific Jim Crow laws in the South developed into the backbone of America — with a little help from the donors and volunteers in the Settlement House movement.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

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