6. A Voice for Immigrants: Grace Abbott
Grace Abbott was born in 1878 and was the younger sister of Edith Abbott. From an early age Grace advocated for social reform and insisted that research support reasons for change. She grew to become an advocate for immigrants after she moved into Hull-House in 1908. One evening, Grace returned from visiting a dying Russian-Jewish girl in the old Ghetto. She listened to the girl’s final words on how she spent her days sewing “men’s pants all day” in a crowded and noisy tailor shop that was too cold in winter and too hot in summer. In her final hours, the girl spoke of herself as being a failure because she would never be able to send for her family. The girl continued to state that she would die never being able to send for her family.
Touched by the young girl, Grace began to uncover the exploitation of immigrant labor. Private employment agencies told Greek, Italian, Bohemian, and Russian immigrants that they would give them a good-paying job for a small fee. After money was exchanged, the immigrants were loaded onto trains and taken to remote areas where jobs awaited. Often, there was no job or the job only lasted a few days. The immigrants were simply left stranded far away from urban centers and left to find their own way back home without money.
Grace wrote weekly articles that were published in the Chicago Evening Post. For a year her “Within the City’s Gates” informed the public of the plight of immigrant laborers and the exploitation that adversely impacted them. As part of her advocacy work for immigrants, she also stressed the importance of eliminating child labor. She was crucial in promoting the passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 that prohibited goods made with child labor to be transported across state lines. Grace died of cancer in 1939. The school of social work is named in her honor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.