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A casual observer would have seen Jane Addams speaking to a rapt crowd at the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave., on April 9, courtesy of a performance by Annette Baldwin funded by the Levy Senior Center Foundation. For nearly an hour, Ms. Baldwin, outfitted in a period costume, became Miss Addams, delivering a first-person monologue to the audience as if each person were an impromptu visitor to Hull House, the renowned social settlement she co-founded with Ellen Gates Starr in 1889 on Chicago’s Near West Side.
Miss Addams spoke of her need to live a life of purpose and her lifelong quest to find solutions to society’s ills. She spoke of how her mother died before her third birthday, and how much she adored and idolized her father, John, a wealthy and successful businessman, one of the founding members of the Illinois Republican Party and an Illinois State Senator (1855-1870). She spoke of her love of reading, her desire to attend Smith College in Massachusetts, and of her father’s insistence that she attend Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University), from which she graduated as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1881.
Inspired by stories of her mother’s helping the poor in their community and her father’s egalitarian principles and ethical reputation in the Illinois legislature, Miss Adams always intended a life of service. It was in London, England, that she was introduced to the concept of a settlement house to help those less fortunate than she. The settlement house idea meshed with her social-reformer philosophy and democratic ideals.
She and Miss Starr, a fellow Rockford Female Seminary student, created Hull House as a center for improving the quality of life among the city’s immigrants by offering social interaction through job training, book clubs and classes in the arts (music, art and theater), English and citizenship. They also worked to bring legislation for improved housing and factory-work conditions. Hull House became an integral part of the multi-ethnic immigrant community and within a few years it was providing services to 2,000 people each week.
Miss Addams’ accomplishments are legendary. In addition to authoring 11 books, she was a community organizer, lecturer, fundraiser and political leader for women’s suffrage. She oversaw the growth of Hull House as a center for research on disease, sanitation practices, tenement housing, and is credited as the founder of social work as a profession.
With other members of Hull House, she helped establish the first juvenile court in the United States and the Immigrants’ Protective League.
She was instrumental in helping to establish sociology as a field of study in the United States, and in inspiring scores of women to volunteer at Hull House and work with reform-minded organizations to help uplift their communities. She was co-founder of the Women’s Peace Party and the International League for Peace and Freedom. Her pacifism in the years leading up to and during World War I led to her being awarded the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to receive this honor. She was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
At the performance’s conclusion, as Miss Addams left the room and Ms. Baldwin returned, to several minutes of sustained applause. The questions and comments that followed were personal and inspiring. People shared family lore handed down by long-deceased relatives of how Jane Addams or Hull House had helped their family in some way. To this audience, Jane Addams was much more than a historical figure: She was a true heroine and a role model whose work is still relevant today.