by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as currently and in our own recent past, enormous demographic changes were transforming America. Massive waves of immigration from Asia and southern and eastern Europe, in particular, yielded ethnic shifts that fundamentally altered much of the human landscape, especially in larger cities.
This phenomenon often yielded significant levels of tension, legal and other forms of discrimination, and, occasionally, violence as white Americans struggled to come to terms with the evolving demography of the country. In Los Angeles, people of color experienced many hostile attitudes and actions, whether it be restrictive covenants keeping them only in certain parts of the city, denial of land ownership, or, in one of the most shameful moments in regional history, the horrors of the massacre of 19 Chinese males in October 1871.
There were also efforts by social workers, religious groups and others to assist immigrants as they sought to get established in their new homes in America. While some of these programs would be considered by many now to be paternalistic or based on ethnic stereotyping about how migrants assimilate, it is also the case that much of the work done was sincere.
One major element of outreach to migrant communities was through the “settlement house” movement, best known and exemplified through Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams’ Hull House, established in Chicago in 1889, to help immigrants adjust to American life through a variety of programs.
Influenced by the work of Addams and others, people in Los Angeles adapted the settlement house to local conditions by the end of the 19th century. One example was the Brownson Settlement House, established by what was then the Diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles of the Roman Catholic Church in 1901. The institution was named for Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), a convert to the church and a frequent contributor to Catholic journals.
In 1904, the Brownson Settlement House moved to Jackson Street, now part of a gritty and aging industrial section of Los Angeles, southeast of the Plaza. An association was formed to oversee its operations and today’s highlighted artifact is the 1915 yearbook for the association.
The publication includes a statement about the purpose of the institution, namely that it was
a center for personal service and mutual helpfulness, for civic, social, and religious betterment in sections of Los Angeles where conditions of living are difficult, and where Catholics of poor circumstances and foreign birth abound.
The overwhelming number of those served by the facility were Mexicans, of whom greater numbers came to Los Angeles after the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It was stated, however, that “there is absolute respect for the religious rights of all and all are welcome.”
Staffing included four full time or part time employees and many volunteers, as well as benefactors providing monetary and in-kind donations to the organization. Program elements were numerous, including a boys’ work shop; a girls’ sewing club and another for women; a Boy Scouts troop; a singing club for children; social clubs for women; regularly scheduled entertainment; and more. There was an outdoor playground and there were off-site activities including a picnic and mountain excursions.
A new offering, as of October 1914, was a “Dispensary for the Crippled and Deformed,” with 310 persons treated in the nine months since it opened, including those with hip, spine, foot, and cognitive issues. The work was provided free and was done under the auspices of two doctors and four nurses. X-rays and braces and other material were donated, as well. A new addition was the provision of a bed at the city’s Children’s Hospital for a settlement patient, with a girl with congenital hip problems being treated there.
The City operated a child welfare station at Brownson House and there was a clothing department, with items collected from local residents. Clementina de Forest Griffin, a paid employee, reported on 1000 visits in the field, the work of two sewing clubs numbering about 50 women, talks provided to the clubs, the twice monthly entertaiments, and other work. What was not successful was an employment bureau, though she noted a local manufacturing concern “donated” a position to “a deserving man we were trying to help.”
Another section concerned “Social Study,” comprising lectures by a Jesuit priest visiting Los Angeles in summer 1914 with topics including labor issues, a living wage, immigration, women’s issues, poverty, crime, and religion. Clearly, all of these are matters of importance today and it’d be interesting to know what the content was for these presentations. From October to June, another series of weekly talks was held in the attractive Assembly Room, with its open-beam ceilings, large brick fireplace, plethora of windows and other amenities.
The Association’s officers and directors were led by Mary Julia Workman (1871-1964), daughter of former mayor and city treasurer William Henry Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.) Mary Julia, a graduate of the State Normal School branch at Los Angeles with a certificate in elementary education, was particularly notable in the world of social work.
In addition to Brownson, she was active in church work, labor issues, and served on the city’s Civil Service Commission. In 1925, she received a high honor for laypersons from the Pope and continued her active participation in civic affairs until her later years. Her sister Elizabeth (1872-1945) was also involved with the association as a “Volunteer Active Worker” on Sunday religious programs and others.
Some well-known donors included the second wife of oil magnate Edward Doheny; Los Angeles Express publisher Edwin T. Earl; lumber business owner Christian Ganahl; prominent merchant Hans Jevne; the wife of attorney Henry O’Melveny; William R. Rowland, former sheriff, oil man, and son of John Rowland, the original grantee Rancho La Puente, and his wife Manuelita Williams (daughter of former Chino Ranch owner, Isaac Williams); attorney Joseph Scott and his wife; Maria de Jesus Wilson de Shorb, the daughter of prominent early Los Angeles resident Benjamin D. Wilson; and William H. Workman and his wife, Maria E. Boyle.
There were also lists of associate members and general subscribers to the association pritned at the back of the yearbook. A financial statement for the 1914-15 fiscal year showed receipts of a little over $4,000 added to a balance of a little uner $2,000, with expenses not far south of $3,500.
A decade after this yearbook was issued, it was decided to remake the Brownson House Settlement Association, a process that alienated Mary Julia Workman who ended her affiliation with it. Now part of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, Brownson House provides “emergency food, holiday assistance, motel vouchers, and utility bill assistance” on a part-time schedule from a Boyle Heights location
Though settlement houses were a product of a bygone era and no longer exist in the form and while there may be questions about how they viewed migrants and assimilation given current thinking about immigration and participation in civic life, this yearbook is an interesting artifact concerning one of the more notable of Los Angeles’ settlement house institutions with a strong tie to the Workman family.