Twenty Years at Hull House

Twenty Years at Hull House


In spite of the success of these Sunday evening courses, it has never been an easy undertaking to find acceptable lectures. A course of lectures on astronomy illustrated by stereopticon slides will attract a large audience the first week, who hope to hear of the wonders of the heavens and the relation of our earth thereto, but instead are treated to spectrum analyses of star dust, or the latest theory concerning the milky way. The habit of research and the desire to say the latest word upon any subject often overcomes the sympathetic understanding of his audience which the lecturer might otherwise develop, and he insensibly drops into the dull terminology of the classroom. There are, of course, notable exceptions; we had twelve gloriously popular talks on organic evolution, but the lecturer was not yet a professor--merely a university instructor--and his mind was still eager over the marvel of it all. Fortunately there is an increasing number of lecturers whose matter is so real, so definite, and so valuable, that in an attempt to give it an exact equivalence in words, they utilize the most direct forms of expression.

It sometimes seems as if the men of substantial scholarship were content to leave to the charletan the teaching of those things which deeply concern the welfare of mankind, and that the mass of men get their intellectual food from the outcasts of scholarship, who provide millions of books, pictures, and shows, not to instruct and guide, but for the sake of their own financial profit. A Settlement soon discovers that simple people are interested in large and vital subjects, and the Hull-House residents themselves at one time, with only partial success, undertook to give a series of lectures on the history of the world, beginning with the nebular hypothesis and reaching Chicago itself in the twenty-fifth lecture! Absurd as the hasty review appears, there is no doubt that the beginner in knowledge is always eager for the general statement, as those wise old teachers of the people well knew, when they put the history of creation on the stage and the monks themselves became the actors. I recall that in planning my first European journey I had soberly hoped in two years to trace the entire pattern of human excellence as we passed from one country to another, in the shrines popular affection had consecrated to the saints, in the frequented statues erected to heroes, and in the "worn blasonry of funeral brasses"--an illustration that when we are young we all long for those mountaintops upon which we may soberly stand and dream of our own ephemeral and uncertain attempts at righteousness. I have had many other illustrations of this; a statement was recently made to me by a member of the Hull-House Boys' club, who had been unjustly arrested as an accomplice to a young thief and held in the police station for three days, that during his detention he "had remembered the way Jean Valjean behaved when he was everlastingly pursued by that policeman who was only trying to do right"; "I kept seeing the pictures in that illustrated lecture you gave about him, and I thought it would be queer if I couldn't behave well for three days when he had kept it up for years."

The power of dramatic action may unfortunately be illustrated in other ways. During the weeks when all the daily papers were full of the details of a notorious murder trial in New York and all the hideous events which preceded the crime, one evening I saw in the street a knot of working girls leaning over a newspaper, admiring the clothes, the beauty, and "sorrowful expression" of the unhappy heroine. In the midst of the trial a woman whom I had known for years came to talk to me about her daughter, shamefacedly confessing that the girl was trying to dress and look like the notorious girl in New York, and that she had even said to her mother in a moment of defiance, "Some day I shall be taken into court and then I shall dress just as Evelyn did and face my accusers as she did in innocence and beauty."

If one makes calls on a Sunday afternoon in the homes of the immigrant colonies near Hull-House, one finds the family absorbed in the Sunday edition of a sensational daily newspaper, even those who cannot read, quite easily following the comic adventures portrayed in the colored pictures of the supplement or tracing the clew of a murderer carefully depicted by a black line drawn through a plan of the houses and streets.

Sometimes lessons in the great loyalties and group affections come through life itself and yet in such a manner that one cannot but deplore it. During the teamsters' strike in Chicago several years ago when class bitterness rose to a dramatic climax, I remember going to visit a neighborhood boy who had been severely injured when he had taken the place of a union driver upon a coal wagon.

As I approached the house in which he lived, a large group of boys and girls, some of them very little children, surrounded me to convey the exciting information that "Jack T. was a 'scab'," and that I couldn't go in there. I explained to the excited children that his mother, who was a friend of mine, was in trouble, quite irrespective of the way her boy had been hurt. The crowd around me outside of the house of the "scab" constantly grew larger and I, finally abandoning my attempt at explanation, walked in only to have the mother say: "Please don't come here. You will only get hurt, too." Of course I did not get hurt, but the episode left upon my mind one of the most painful impressions I have ever received in connection with the children of the neighborhood. In addition to all else are the lessons of loyalty and comradeship to come to them as the mere reversals of class antagonism? And yet it was but a trifling incident out of the general spirit of bitterness and strife which filled the city.

Jane Addams