The name Ada S. McKinley graces 70 sites across Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana under the banner of Ada S. McKinley Community Services Inc. According to CEO Jamal Malone, the agency serves more than 7,000 people annually within the arenas of child development, employment and mental health, and provides services that include: mentoring, college placement, foster care, housing support, family counseling and Head Start programs. And yet, McKinley has never received her proper due.
That’s according to Malone, KangJae Lee, assistant professor at North Carolina State University, and Rodney Dieser, a University of Northern Iowa professor. The two academics recently published a research paper that won honors from The Academy of Leisure Sciences about McKinley’s legacy and what they deem less than equal recognition of her compared with other social reformers, like Jane Addams, who founded Hull House. Chicago’s first settlement house in 1889, Hull House provided food, housing, education and child care for poor and working-class families.
Lee speculates that Addams’ upper class ties, writings and many awards may have overshadowed McKinley’s welfare work after she founded the South Side Settlement House (SSSH) in 1919. Among the dozens of settlement houses in the city at that time, SSSH was the only settlement house fully staffed by African Americans, per Lee and Dieser’s research. Since Addams was a white activist and McKinley a Black one, Dieser and Lee agree that race also factors into McKinley’s lack of renown.
“I say this as a white person: White people wrote these things, and I think consciously some of them and others unconsciously wrote a white privileged history,” Dieser said.
“We must understand that the dominant historical narrative is a product of certain viewpoints that usually suppresses or neglects other perspectives, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” Lee said. “Given that Blacks were barred from contributing to mainstream American progress, it’s more than reasonable to guess less research and public attention has been given to McKinley because of her race.”
The few published materials that document McKinley’s welfare work reveal her efforts to help Black Chicagoans after World War I, after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and during the Great Migration, the Great Depression and the 1919 Chicago race riots.
“Outside of a few articles by the Chicago Defender and the Chicago Tribune, very few media outlets reported on the work of McKinley,” Malone said. “This was not a situation where archives were lost; it was a situation where you had a thriving organization that was not recognized ... by mainstream media or history books. She literally walked arm in arm with Jane Addams and other people to promote peace among residents for the race riots. When photos were taken and names were listed, she would be listed as ‘and a Black woman’ next to Jane Addams — they didn’t even use her name.”
Lee and Dieser’s research notes that Jane Addams’ Hull-House (800 S. Halsted St.) and the South Side Settlement House (3201 S. Wabash Ave.) were approximately 4 miles apart. While the Jane Addams Hull House Association closed after 123 years, McKinley’s organization continues. Malone thinks that’s because many of the issues that the Black community faced in McKinley’s time are the same ones the community faces today.
“If you think about the work that Jane Addams did with Hull House, it’s almost exactly the same, just with a different population being served, a different demographic due to segregation,” Malone said. “Our services are needed just as much now.”
“When I was doing this research, I was constantly amazed by the dedication that she (had) for the welfare and well-being of the South Side community,” Lee said. “She started volunteering in the War Camp Community Service organization in 1918. At that point she was about 50 years old. At the age of 50, the desire for altruism and humanitarian value didn’t fade away.
“And she really struggled. She didn’t have enough money; the organization (SSSH) was always on the chopping board, but she somehow managed to help others. She is a true unsung hero that deserves more credit and more public attention.”
Malone agrees. He is challenging other researchers and academics to do research on the contributions of lesser-known folks and to include McKinley in their work.
Amid asking for donations to support the mission of the nonprofit, Malone is seeking letters and material from community members and elders who might have been active on the South Side during McKinley’s day. If they can share what they have with the Ada S. McKinley Community Services Inc. team, archives about McKinley will grow.
“The third ask is, from a recognition standpoint, we believe there should be a major street named after Ada Sophia McKinley, similar to Ida B. Wells,” Malone said. “We’re looking for local aldermen and city of Chicago officials to help us with this effort.”
Lee and Dieser said their work on McKinley will continue. They have a focus on parks and recreation — another issue that Jane Addams and McKinley both worked on. (McKinley Park on the city’s Southwest Side is not her namesake. It is named for President William McKinley.)
Dieser wants to delve more into the histories of settlement houses across the country. Lee said he was happy to discover McKinley’s involvement in the recreational movement and wants to do more research on it, since McKinley’s work on that front isn’t mentioned in textbooks either.
“We’re trying to tap into that and tell these counter-narratives that have been overlooked for whatever reason,” Dieser said.