New Orleanians with Irish American heritage have shaped this city for more than a century.
Margaret Haughery famously built orphanages, fed the poor and cared for the destitute in the late-1900s; boxers like Martin Burke inspired the community by going toe-to-toe with elite sportsmen from around the country in early-20th century Irish Channel’s “Bucket of Blood”; and restaurateur, Richard “Dickie” Brennan elevated the city’s cuisine via his renowned Commander’s Palace and revived Krewe of Bacchus as a tool to draw tourists to the city for Mardi Gras.
There were many others, as well, and this article focuses on one of the most important: Eleanor Laura McMain. She placed the Irish Channel’s Kingsley House into the center of several New Orleans-area progressive movements, and became known as the “Jane Addams of New Orleans.”
Her early years
McMain was born on March 2, 1860, on a farm in East Baton Rouge to a family of Scottish/Irish descent. Her father took a job as dean and secretary at Louisiana State University, and her parents provided her with a private school education — uncommon for girls to receive at the time.
She briefly became a teacher in Baton Rouge, before relocating to New Orleans in the late-1890s to train in the Free Kindergarten Association, an Episcopalian effort to design innovations in pre-school education. At the turn of the century, the association combined with the Trinity Church Mission to form Kingsley House.
Providing services to the Irish Channel
Kingsley House is an example of a settlement house, which began popping up in American cities in the last decades of the 19th century. They were designed to create educational, recreational and social services to members of often impoverished, inner-city communities. Shortly after forming, Kingsley House appointed McMain as the director with the mission of improving the integration of the city’s poor into society.
McMain traveled to Chicago to examine and learn from two settlement houses run by renowned progressive reformer and activist, Jane Addams — the Chicago Center and her famous Hull House.
She took these lessons back to New Orleans and Kingsley House grew impressively. The settlement house provided a medical clinic, a kindergarten, a library, a night school and the city’s first vocational school. McMain reorganized Kingsley’s board so that it represented more of the city by including Roman Catholic and Jewish members instead of being exclusively Episcopalian.
In addition to providing opportunities for education and medical care, Kingsley House also became a social center. McMain established the city’s first public playground and created programming that included concerts, dances, athletic events and lessons, and select recreation specifically for children.
These services were critical to a community with thousands of immigrants trying to acclimate to their new home.
A Center of progressivism
But McMain’s work didn’t stop with Kingsley House. That was just the start of it. She called public attention to substandard urban living conditions as president of the local Tenement House Association, beginning in 1904. The next year, she led education and clean-up campaigns to eradicate yellow fever from the Irish Channel, going door to door with Kingsley House volunteers to instruct residents on preventive health measures. She lobbied the State Legislature for child labor laws, founded an anti-tuberculosis association in the city and became the first president of the Women’s League of New Orleans.
In 1910, McMain worked closely with leading New Orleans suffragettes, Kate and Jean Gordon, to pass a Women’s League-sponsored compulsory education bill.
She took a leave of absence from Kingsley House in 1912 to recover from malaria and used the opportunity to renew her relationship with Addams and to learn from her and Hull House. Later, Addams would sometimes visit New Orleans and Kingsley House, referring to it as “Little Hull House.”
McMain trained Red Cross nurses during World War I, and she collaborated with Sophie Newcomb College to establish a school for social workers at Kingsley House in 1921. This was the forerunner to the Tulane University School of Social Work, which is the fifth oldest institution of its kind in the country. That same year, she prepared the charter of the organization that would later become the United Way, and she became its president in 1927.
Her presence didn’t stop in New Orleans. In fact, it spread across the country and globe. McMain served on the board of directors for the National Federation of Settlement and Neighborhood Centers, was on the executive committee of the National Institute of Social Science, and replicated her efforts at Kingsley House at a Parisian settlement house that served 70,000 people in its first decade.
After returning from Paris, McMain’s health declined and she died in 1934 at home in Kingsley House at 66 years old. Her legacy, however, continues to the present day.
She was awarded the Times-Picayune Loving Cup for her community service in 1918, placing her name beside other great New Orleanians honored with the award such as Isidore Newman, Sophie B. Wright, Archbishop Philip Hannan, Leah Chase and many others. Eleanor McMain Secondary School was named after her in 1930 while McMain, herself, was still alive, and it remains a lasting monument to her incredible effect on New Orleans.
But perhaps the greatest testament to her legacy resides in that the Kingsley House campus still stands at 1600 Constance Street in the Irish Channel all these years later. It still serves the neighborhood and city it was originally designed to, with a mission that focuses on educating children, strengthening families and building community.
Their website notes that McMain’s “vision and legacy continues to shape the mission of Kingsley House to this day by providing services the community needs most.”
This month, let’s remember the many great Irish Americans that have made New Orleans such a special place. And, when we do, let’s not forget one of the greatest: Eleanor Laura McMain.