The sepia-toned photo shows a young woman with the characteristic bobbed, wavy hair of the 1920s holding a baby. Look closely, and you’ll see the baby is wearing a sweater.
Kristin Lems, Ed.D., professor of ESL and bilingual education at National Louis University, notes with awe that legendary Chicago social reform pioneer Jane Addams knitted the sweater for the baby, who is Lems’ mother, Carol Lems-Dworkin, now 93.
Front row seat to history
In 1889 when Addams purchased Hull House, later to become famous as the first settlement house in the United States, Lems’ great-great-grandmother was just moving into an apartment across the street. Her child, Lems’ great-grandmother Nellie, knew Addams for 50 years.
Lems took a sabbatical in the first half of 2017 to study Addams (1860-1935), who was born into privilege but troubled by the deplorable living conditions of immigrants in the 1880s. She and a friend, Ellen Gates Starr, purchased Hull House on Halsted Street near Taylor Street and began teaching immigrant and poor women, men and children how to read, marketable skills and recreation, and providing healthcare and childcare.
Addams pioneered the field of social work, and other settlement houses sprang up to serve immigrants and the urban poor. Her activism later led her to become a leader in the women’s suffrage and world peace movements, and in 1931 she received the second Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a woman.
Dramatic times to live in
“The sabbatical allowed me to research all the topics that gave rise to my musical — Hull House, Jane Addams, my own family tree, Chicago History, the World’s Fair of 1893 and the dramatic times they all lived in,” said Lems.
“In some ways, it was as much of a game-changing time as our current one, with new means of production, a huge influx to the cities and millions of new immigrants to the U.S.”
Bringing grandmother’s memories to the stage
Lems struck gold in researching her own family. She has four written memoirs by her grandmother, great-aunt and great-grandmother, as well as two oral history recordings of her grandmother’s memories.
Lems has written songs for the musical and a draft of the script. She is a veteran singer and performer, with eight full-length albums of original music, stage credits and a theater script under her belt. However, she envisions herself as the writer on the Jane Addams play and intends for it to be produced by a professional theater company.
“I am confident there will be an audience for this play in Chicago,” Lems remarked. “Interest in Jane Addams is greater than ever, and our story is, amazingly, one that has never been told!”
Lems has recently spoken about her upcoming musical to audiences at the Lakeshore Unitarian Society in Winnetka and Chicago Ethical Humanist Circle.