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Ada S. McKinley’s time has come

There’s no park, no street, no monument for the Black woman who stood toe to toe with white activist Jane Addams.

“This is a story that transcends Black history. It is American history,” noted Jamal Malone, the young man who is CEO of the social service agency founded by Ada S. McKinley (above) 102 years ago.
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Dear Ada,

I wish I had known you when I was struggling to meet the challenges that Black girls face in a world where blackness is too often a hurdle rather than a gift.

It was in such a world that you found a way to make life better for Black people.

Your story would have inspired me. It should have been told decades ago.

In this season of racial reckoning, and in a month when we are celebrating women’s achievement, it is important that your name be remembered.

It is time you get your due—not for vainglory.

When history omits those who have brought light where there was darkness, it cheats us out of seeing the path we are to follow.

“This is a story that transcends Black history. It is American history,” noted Jamal Malone, the young man who is CEO of the social service agency founded by Ada S. McKinley—102 years ago.

“The folks in the media covered stories for people that looked like them,” Malone points out. “Ada did not look like the people that ran the newspapers. The media chose which stories to highlight and cover—including folks like Jane Addams—when their work is equivalent.

Ada’s [work] is more sustaining because Hull-House closed, and Ada S. McKinley Community Services still exists,” he said.

You are the mother figure that watched over a population that was overlooked, beginning with the “soldiers and sailors club,” a gathering for Black servicemen cast aside after World War I.

If you grew up anywhere near CHA’ s Ida B. Wells housing project, an area now called Bronzeville, then you’ve heard of Silas Parnell.

He helped tens of thousands of Black students go to universities and colleges. Most of those students had no idea how they would accomplish that goal.

The list of prominent Chicagoans that Parnell assisted include ABC-7 TV news anchor Cheryl Burton, Suzet McKinney, former CEO of the Illinois Medical District, and state Rep. Camille Y. Lilly.

Ada S. McKinley attends the dedication of the Ada S. McKinley Community Services building at 34th and Michigan.
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Parnell was so closely connected to Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc., that he was often mistakenly credited with being the agency’s founder.

Parnell was an integral part of the network of services that spread out over 70 sites throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

McKinley died in 1952, on the same day she laid the cornerstone on the agency’s new headquarters at 34th and Michigan.

“We serve over 7,000 people a year, providing services that include employment, early learning, education, youth services, mental wellness, employment and housing,” Malone said.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen an increased demand and need for our wide array of services,” he added.

“She is the foundation for the work of Silas Parnell and all the other leaders that have given this agency stability and sustainability over the years.”

You saw a need and did the work.

Those who labored with you knew your worth and valued your legacy so much that when your gravesite was found to be unkempt at a suburban cemetery, they brought you back to Chicago and had you reinterred in Oak Woods Cemetery.

“Her burial site at Oak Woods is next to Harold Washington. But when you look at the textbooks that we grew up learning from in school, she did not exist in the history books nor at museums nor in literature,” Malone said.

This whiteout has shaped a false narrative about our city, and that needs to be corrected.

Jane Addams has been given proper respect. You deserve no less.

You built a settlement house, fed the hungry, clothed the naked and assisted the troubled in a segregated area of the city where Black people were ignored.

Your choice to labor among us distinguished you from your peers.

Now it is on us to uncover your history.

We can fix that.

“We want scholars and educators to include her story in history books. We want Ada Sophia McKinley to be recognized and have a major street or park named after her. And we want people to go to our website to contribute to help sustain her legacy,” Malone said.

It’s a long overdue ask.

Much respect,
Mary

For more information, go to https://www.adasmckinley.org/.