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  • Addams on Cultural Pluralism, European Immigrants, and African Americans
  • Marilyn Fischer

addams wrote movingly about how significant her immigrant neighbors’ cultures were, both to the immigrants and to non-immigrant Americans. She lived in one of Chicago’s many densely populated immigrant districts, with Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, Bohemians, and Eastern European Jews in the immediate vicinity of Hull House.1 Through countless interactions with these neighbors, Addams developed the empirical knowledge base and the perceptual sensitivities with which to reflect on the role of culture in sustaining and enriching human and community life. Addams spoke and wrote extensively on these issues.

Addams had fewer interactions with African Americans. When Hull House opened in 1889, immigrants and their children made up 78% of Chicago’s population; blacks made up only 1.3%. By 1910, only 2% of Chicago’s 2.2 million people were black. Housing and employment patterns were less rigidly segregated than they would become in the next few decades (Spear 4, 11–15, 20–21). Nonetheless, Addams was consistently engaged with African American communities and issues. She criticized white racist attitudes, practices, and policies in the strongest terms.2 She was a founder of the NAACP and an early leader of the Chicago branch (Reed 10, 17, 20–21, 32, 38–39; Knight, Jane Addams: Spirit 151–53). Du Bois spoke at Hull House, and Addams and Du Bois shared the stage at events.3 With Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Addams fought to keep the Chicago public schools integrated (Giddings 444–45). She helped found and raised funds for several settlements in Chicago that served black populations,4 and she mentored and inspired African American settlement workers.5 Thus, while not immersed in black communities, Addams had enough interactions with African Americans to speak with some credibility. However, she wrote very little about race relations between African Americans and whites in the United States. In two essays on culture [End Page 38] addressed to African American audiences, Addams did not extend her theorizing on cultural pluralism to African Americans.

In this paper, I will restrict the discussion to Addams’s writings during the twentieth century’s first decade, when she developed most of her thinking on cultural pluralism. By 1910, Dewey had not yet moved to cultural pluralism, Boas’s cultural relativism had not yet penetrated the intellectual world, and Mendelian genetics had not yet replaced Lamarckian assumptions regarding heredity.6 The Great War was yet to shatter illusions about Western civilization’s strength and rightness.

During these years, social evolution provided the reigning paradigm within which intellectuals worked. Using what was called the historical method, theorists charted humanity’s progress from savagery to civilization, tracing the evolution of mind, morality, religion, cultures, and forms of social organization. Within this paradigm, they debated whether there was one path to civilization or many, and whether competition and violence were constant drivers of human evolution or whether they were gradually being replaced by peaceful methods of cooperation. While most versions privileged Anglo-Saxon civilization, some theorists used the paradigm to fiercely critique Western imperialism and materialism.7 While the paradigm itself was not benign, the toxicity of theories produced within it varied considerably. James, Royce, and Dewey, as well as Addams, worked within it.8

The structure of the paper is as follows: After briefly discussing how prominent white intellectuals at the time regarded recent European immigrants, I will describe the conception of culture Addams used during those years, and discuss how she thought immigrants’ cultures of origin functioned for immigrants in the United States. I then describe the many ways Addams thought non-immigrant Americans could benefit from immigrant cultures. This constitutes Addams’s theory of cultural pluralism as democratic and cosmopolitan. Then, after summarizing her two essays on culture and African Americans, I point out resources in her theory of cultural pluralism that could have been extended to include African American culture and identify the stubborn barriers in her theorizing to doing so.

The Value of Immigrant Cultures of Origin in the United States

Addams’s first two decades at Hull House corresponded to the height of immigration from non-Anglo-Saxon Europe. Numbers of immigrants from...


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pp. 38-58
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