By Seth Daniel
Few things are enduring in the ever-changing landscape of the South End, where the neighborhood has made and re-made itself over time and again.
One thing from that storied past that has endured, however, is the Settlement House movement and it’s modern day ancestor United South End Settlements (USES), which is celebrating its 125th birthday party this coming Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Harriet Tubman House on the corner of Mass Avenue and Columbus.
“Our 125th Anniversary was actually Jan. 1, and that marked the beginning of Andover House in 1892,” said Nikki Stewart, vice president of development. “We will be kicking off three events for that anniversary with a traditional birthday party this weekend on Jan. 28. We wanted to do an event that was exciting and fun and open to families and everyone. We want it to be a birthday party and so it will have the feel of that kind of party.”
There will be a big birthday cake, food, games, an audio booth from Zumix of Eastie, party hat decorating, a dance performance by Urbanity, and games.
The co-chairs of the event include Frieda Garcia, former executive director, Yalem Ayalew, board member, and Al Desta, owner of South End Food Emporium. The sponsor is Randolph Fuller.
Beyond the party, though, will be a soul searching for the organization, Stewart said. Part of that soul searching is looking at the past, and the second event will be a far-ranging historical exhibit unveiled on April 6 at USES. Steward said the closing of the Hull House in Chicago, a famous Settlement House, about 10 years ago really opened up their eyes.
“While we are celebrating our legacy, we are diving deep down to do substantive planning for our future,” she said. “By April 6, we’ll be sharing those plans…We started at a time when there wasn’t a social services sector at all and when the neighborhood was predominately low-income and immigrant. Neither of those situations are true of the South End today. In fact, it’s radically different. We began operating under a 19th Century model and we need to be working in the 21st Century…It’s comforting and a testament to the organization that we have continued over 125 years because that means we have transformed and can make dramatic changes when we need to.”
The history exhibit will be focused through the lens of the Settlement House movement, Steward said.
That, in itself, is a lesson in rich history for the South End.
The Settlement House movement became popular in London with Toynbee Hall in the late 19th Century, and it was a way of providing critical services to the poor and immigrant neighborhoods at a time when there weren’t hundreds of non-profits, nor were there government-funded social service programs. The idea was that wealthy young people would forego their status and move into the poor neighborhoods to serve them in Settlement Houses. They wouldn’t just go there and leave, though, they would live in the houses alongside the population they served – making the homes the center of their small neighborhoods and a 24/7 refuge for trying to solve just about any problem.
In the South End, the first Settlement House appeared in 1892 with Andover House on Rollins Street. It changed it’s name to South End House two years later and moved to Rutland Street, where it still exists today. Other Settlement Houses that served specific areas of the South End included Hale House, Lincoln House, Harriet Tubman House and the Children’s Art Centre. In 1960, those five Settlement Houses merged into one organization, forming USES. They were based at the Harriet Tubman House on Holyoke Street. In 1976, the Tubman House relocated with USES to the current building at the corner of Mass Avenue and Columbus.
The Tubman House, she said, has a unique history in that it was run by African American women to house and protect African Americans coming up from the South after the Civil War. Many at the time faced extreme discrimination and segregation from the rest of Boston. The Tubman House offered them a refuge to live and get training for jobs in their new, northern home.
“The House was conceived by and run by women – African American women – who were not set up to have positions of power to lead and organize,” she said. “That’s a special part of our history…You see over time with these Houses how the organization has gone through several different crossroads by how the neighborhood has changed drastically several different times.”
And right now is just another one of those crossroads.
The organization right now provides education and enrichment through full-day early childhood education, after school programs, the Camp Hale summer camp, and the Children’s Art Centre. For adults, they do workforce readiness, economic mobility classes, ESOL, adult basic education and workforce training for administrative roles. Finally, they have a very active senior citizen program with health and wellness, daily hot lunches on site and a home repair program in contract with the City.
Finally, the celebration will conclude with the third event, a Neighborhood Gala Fundraiser. That will take place on Weds., May 24, and will be meant to unveil a new direction and call for support from the community and supporters of USES.