DESCRIPTION: In this excerpt from The House on Henry Street, Lillian Wald describes the moment that sparked the creation of Henry Street Settlement House in 1893. TEXT: From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed-making, a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed-making lesson and carried it with me. The child led me over broken roadways — there was no asphalt, although its use was well established in other parts of the city, — over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse... between tall, reeking houses whose laden fire-escapes, useless for their appointed [intended] purpose, bulged with household goods of every description. The rain added to the dismal appearance of the streets and to the discomfort of the crowds which thronged them, intensifying the odors which assailed me from every side... The child led me on through a tenement hallway... up into a rear tenement, by slimy steps whose accumulated dirt was augmented that day by the mud of the streets, and finally into the sickroom. All the maladjustments of our social and economic relations seemed epitomized in this brief journey and what was found at the end of it. The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, one of those who stand on street corners exhibiting deformities to enlist compassion, and masking the begging of alms by a pretense at selling; although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarders — who were literally boarders since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on — and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean bed, soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings, judged by any measure of moral values. In fact, it was very plain that they were sensitive to their condition, and when at the end of my ministrations they kissed my hands (those who have undergone similar experiences will, I am sure, understand), it would have been some solace if by any conviction of the moral unworthiness of the family I could have defended myself as a part of a society which permitted such conditions to exist. Indeed, my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life and for society of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part. That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire. Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of the college. I never returned to them. On my way from the sickroom to my comfortable student quarters my mind was intent on my own responsibility. To my inexperience it seemed certain that conditions such as these were allowed because people did not know, and for me there was a challenge to know and to tell. When early morning found me still awake, my naïve conviction remained that, if people knew things — and “things” meant everything implied in the condition of this family — such horrors would cease to exist, and I rejoiced that I had had a training in the care of the sick that in itself would give me an organic relationship to the neighborhood in which this awakening had come... Within a day or two a comrade from the training-school, Mary Brewster, agreed to share in the venture. We were to live in the neighborhood as nurses, identify with it socially, and, in brief, contribute to it our citizenship. That plan contained in embryo all the extended and diversified social interests of our settlement group to-day. Lillian Wald, The House on Henry Street. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915), 4-9.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
For discussion questions and related lesson plan, see http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/workers-and-their-allies-then-and-now
Time Period: Modern (Spinoza through post-WWII)