For over 100 years, the Ada S. McKinley Community Services nonprofit organization has helped countless people in Chicago and beyond.

Although widely known for its longevity and the astonishing number of people the group has served, many Chicagoans don’t know the story of its founder and her extraordinary accomplishments.

A schoolteacher and reformer, McKinley founded the agency in 1919, and it served as a settlement house to assist black veterans of World War I and their families migrating from the South.

Since then, McKinley Community Services has grown to provide services in child and youth development, employment and community support, and behavioral health and clinical services. Officials said the agency currently serves more than 7,000 people annually at more than 70 program sites in the Chicago area and in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Before founding the organization formerly known as the South Side Settlement House (SSSH), McKinley helped illiterate African-Americans and taught at an elementary school in her home state of Texas. 

After moving to Chicago, McKinley’s call to serve others continued, and she opened SSSH, the largest and only settlement house in Chicago fully staffed by African-Americans.

During the height of the Chicago race riot of 1919, McKinley bravely linked arms with Jane Addams, Harriet Vittum and many other women to march through angry mobs as the women demonstrated for peace and unity.

The Chicago race riot, a violent racial conflict started by whites against blacks, began on the South Side on July 27 and ended Aug. 3. The violence resulted in the deaths of 23 blacks and 15 whites.

At that time, it was unusual for black and white women to associate, but they boldly united for a common cause.

McKinley’s contributions—and those of other African-Americans, women and individuals without political connections—remain largely overlooked due to Americans’ conscious and unconscious biases.

Black History Month is celebrated each year in February, and its observance is an opportunity to give unsung heroes such as McKinley, whose impact is still being felt today, the recognition they deserve.

Venise Hardy, vice president of educational services at the McKinley Community Center, has firsthand knowledge of the organization’s impact.

As a youngster, Hardy benefited from the center’s services, and she returned as an adult to provide the same assistance to younger generations of future leaders.

“The level of individualized assistance that I received from Silas Pernell, pioneer of the College Preparation and Placement Program, focused on not just what was on a piece of paper, but who I was as an individual,” Hardy said. “This was vital to my success and is still the philosophy we use today. We firmly believe that ‘right fit, right cost’ is the pathway to ensure that students achieve success.”

The mission of McKinley Community Services is to empower, educate and employ people to change lives and strengthen communities, and that endeavor has served it well.

Last summer at McKinley Community Services’ annual Trunk Scholarship event, incoming college freshmen, who were placed at their schools through the McKinley organization, were awarded a computer and all the supplies students would typically load into a trunk to bring to their first college dorm room.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, the agency adapted how it delivers services, and it continued helping local communities without pause.

“During the pandemic, we have seen an increase in our foster-care services, which has been absolutely amazing to see,” said Hardy. “We’ve tapped into our internal resources and then adjusted and adapted our direct-service delivery model to fit a virtual platform that meets the needs of our clients.”

The agency’s spirit of perseverance amid the health crisis is another reflection of the unwavering dedication that McKinley demonstrated during her decades leading the agency. 

Throughout 40 years of service, McKinley helped people on the South Side during World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. 

Hardy said the commitment remains the same.

“No matter what the challenge of the moment is,” she said, “we have the commitment to serve.”

Although the observance of Black History Month is coming to a close, any month of the year is a good time to acknowledge the contributions of black pioneers like McKinley and her legacy of service at McKinley Community Services.

One way people can do that is to support the mission of the organization and honor hometown heroes like McKinley and others who have made a profound positive impact in the lives of families and local communities.

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