A Look Back: NPHM Research Reveals a Progressive Partnership that Built Real Change

For the last seven months I have worked as a research resident for NPHM. One of my most rewarding tasks involved researching the relationship between Jane Addams–namesake of the community the museum commemorates–and Harold Ickes, the federal official most instrumental in bringing public housing to Chicago during the New Deal. Their three-decade association illuminates the history of public housing at the neighborhood-, city-, and national level, reminding us of the rich story the NPHM will tell. 
 
Addams, of course, founded and directed Hull House, which provided education, arts and cultural programming, and social services to the immigrant neighborhoods of the Near West Side. Ickes served as U.S. Interior Secretary and director of the Public Works Administration (PWA), the agency that built the Jane Addams Homes near Hull House in 1938. The name of the new housing project honored the recently deceased Addams, also representing a culmination of a long-standing partnership between Addams and Ickes. 

The pair first met in the early 1900s. Ickes was a young lawyer and former newspaper reporter, in many ways Addams’s polar opposite. Ickes hailed from a modest railroad town in western Pennsylvania and carried a famously sour disposition titling his memoir, Autobiography of a Curmudgeon. In contrast, the very proper Addams grew up in a middle-class Iowa family. Their friendship grew out of a common commitment to social justice and willingness to challenge Chicago’s plight of the poor.   
 
Ickes began providing legal assistance to Hull House. When the Chicago police chief shot to death a young Russian immigrant in 1908, Addams persuaded Ickes to aid the boy’s sister at the inquest. In 1911, Ickes defended Hull House co-founder Ellen Gates Star following her arrest for picketing with striking workers.
 
Ickes eventually left Chicago, but he and his wife, Ann, remained close friends with Addams and financial supporters of Hull House. In their correspondence, Addams and Ickes discussed the political reform campaigns they embraced during the 1900s and 1910s. “Progressivism” advocated more efficient and honest government that would better serve the most vulnerable citizens and solve the country’s most pressing problems, with Ickes representing Addams at the 1914 Progressive Party convention.
 
Many ideas from the progressive movement enjoyed a second life in the 1930s through President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, however Addams and Ickes initially disagreed over Roosevelt. Ickes supported Roosevelt in the election of 1932 and agreed to become his Interior Secretary. Addams voted for the new president’s Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover. Yet, Addams–like Ickes–valued principles above parties. She soon recognized that Roosevelt planned an aggressive response to suffering caused by the Great Depression and became an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal.
 
When the federal government decided to build low-cost public housing, the task fell to the PWA, which Ickes also helmed, consulting Addams during the site selection process. "I would like to have a slum clearance project as near Hull House as possible” Ickes informed her in 1933, “because that would give the fullest opportunity of cooperation between your institution and the federal government." Addams enthusiastically agreed. "We have tried so long and so ineffectually to have something done in Chicago on housing,” she wrote to Ickes three months before her death. "We always decided that nothing could be done.” 
 
By 1938, something had finally been done about housing in Chicago, although Addams did not live to see it. Many of the people she served at Hull House became the first residents of the Jane Addams Homes, the relationship between Addams and Ickes had coming full circle. What began as a partnership to improve the lives of ordinary people in Chicago’s neighborhoods became a dialogue about the direction of national policies with the efforts of federal action filtering to streets of the Near West Side.

by Richard Anderson, NPHM Research Resident, Princeton University Ph.D. Candidate