Remembering seldom recognized trailblazer Ada Sophia McKinley

Black History Month

Not much has been written about Ada Sophia McKinley, a pioneer in social work, who has devoted her life to helping the poor.

The early 1900s in Chicago was a difficult time for African-Americans, especially those migrating from the south. Among those migrants was McKinley, who in 1919 opened the South Side Settlement House in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. At the time, the settlement house was one of the largest of its kind and was fully staffed by Black people.

“Ada was both forward-thinking and humble and ahead of her time,” said Jamal Malone, CEO of Ada S. McKinley Community Services.

McKinley made the move to Chicago from Texas after losing three children to Diphtheria. What started out as a fresh start became a closer look at Blacks suffering from poverty, overcrowding and limited social services during the flu pandemic and the Chicago race riot.

“She saw a need and stood in the gap to fill the need,” Malone said. “She saw the need to provide services for men that couldn’t get services from Hull House or other settlement homes that were geared towards folks that didn’t look like her.”

Ada Sophia McKinley

North Carolina State University Assistant Professor Kangjae Lee says McKinley’s “persistency in terms of helping others, her altruism, volunteerism, serving others is really remarkable.”

Lee and Professor Rodney Dieser of the University of Northern Iowa recently published research that finds racial biases have kept McKinley’s story from being told.

“Our history is always written by the power, whether intentionally the dominate tend to marginalize certain perspectives,” Lee said.

Dieser adds “some of this is done consciously, some of this is done unconsciously. I think she just got forgotten because of white privilege that’s done by researchers.”

McKinley passed away at the age of 84.  But her mission has lived on in Ada S. McKinley Community Services. The organization, known for its work in education, job training and child welfare, has expanded to over 70 different locations across three states, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, to include early learning educational services, college placement, mental health services and outpatient clinics.

Ada S. McKinley Community House

“Our programs have evolved and grown but our core mission and what we were designed to do have not changed,” Malone said. “We’re still here because the need is still here.”

Malone, Lee and Dieser say it’s long overdue for a park, street, or statue to be erected in McKinley’s honor.  They say history books and school curriculums also need to be rewritten to include her work. There also needs to be more of an emphasis on research and writing, the trio adds, from a diversity perspective. 

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