Alice Graham Baker, clubwoman, community volunteer, settlement movement leader, and daughter of Francis Hughes and Mary Augusta (Wilson) Graham, was born in Waco, Texas, on October 18, 1864. Alice Graham married James Addison Baker in Waco on January 10, 1883, and moved to Houston where her husband practiced law with his father at the firm of Baker & Botts. The Bakers had six children: Frank, Alice, James Jr., Walter, Ruth, and Malcolm. After moving to Houston, Alice Baker joined her husband at Houston’s First Presbyterian Church and became active in the Presbyterian Ladies’ Association. In 1929 the women accepted the challenge of financing a wing for the Houston Tubercular Hospital in observance of their organization’s fiftieth anniversary. Baker and others led the campaign to secure permission from the city council to build a unit for twenty-four patients at a cost of $16,000. She then served on the committee to compile Old and New Cookery, a recipe book that earned $4,000 for the project. When construction began on the building, Baker poured the first shovel of concrete in the foundation. A tablet placed above the fireplace in the hospital’s living room noted the “‘beautiful life and worthy example’ of Mrs. James A. Baker (Alice Graham).”
When Baker learned in 1907 that Houston’s Second Ward was being settled by immigrant families facing crowded living conditions, language barriers, and an unhealthy environment, she invited other women to a meeting in her home to address these problems. This group of approximately twelve women decided to organize the Houston Settlement Association on February 19, 1907. One week later the group adopted a constitution and elected their officers. Alice Baker became president—a position she held for eleven years. The new organization explained its purpose as extending “educational, industrial, social and friendly aid to all those within our reach.” Its initial project was assuming responsibility for the city’s first free kindergarten, which had been started by the Woman’s Club of Houston in 1902. The group then organized the Second Ward Women’s Club, whose members were known as crusaders because of their strong support for the neighborhood projects. In appreciation of their work, Baker gave a garden party each year at which the club members were given a pin identifying them as a Crusader.
When the organization outgrew the small kindergarten cottage, the board rented a larger house in the neighborhood to serve as a community center, Rusk Settlement House. The women organized cooking and sewing classes, instruction in the English language, and a sub-station of the city’s public library. To provide health care in the neighborhood, they opened a dispensary, hired visiting nurses, and established a well-baby clinic along with the Alice G. Baker Baby Chest that provided layettes for babies who were in need of supplies anywhere in the city. Working with the public school system, they offered special classes for handicapped children, playground activities, and day care for working mothers. The Settlement Association Board received permission to share facilities with its neighbor, Rusk Elementary School, thus establishing a working relationship between the public school system and the Settlement Association. By 1916 Rusk Settlement was serving twenty-three nationalities through its well-organized committees of capable women under the guidance of Corinne Fonde, who had moved to Houston from New Orleans to assume the position of head social worker. That same year Brackenridge Settlement opened on the north side of the city and developed a kindergarten, playground, library, and garden. In 1917 Bethlehem Settlement was established for black residents of the Fourth Ward. Bethlehem organized a day nursery, classes for adults and children, and several singing groups. Teams of volunteers were active at all of these locations under the leadership of Baker and the board.
The Settlement Association Board realized that their programs required city-wide support if they were to expand their services in a rapidly-growing city. The Houston Foundation had been formed in 1915 as the official agency to receive and administer bequests made to the city of Houston. Since the foundation’s Social Service Bureau addressed many of the services provided by the Settlement Association, it seemed appropriate for those services to be administered and funded by the bureau. Alice Baker was appointed to the board of directors of the Social Service Bureau where she remained a committed mentor, volunteer, and benefactor.
Alice Graham Baker died at her home (known as “The Oaks”) in Houston on May 9, 1932, and was buried in Houston’s Glenwood Cemetery. She was survived by her husband, five children, seven grandchildren, and three sisters. As Houston continued to grow, the Settlement Association expanded its programming to meet community needs. In 1956 the organization’s name was changed to Neighborhood Centers Association of Houston and Harris County, Inc., but it retained the Settlement Association’s goal of meeting the needs of Houston’s underserved population. Alice Baker’s years of service to the settlement movement are recognized annually as Neighborhood Centers, Inc., presents the Crusader Award to a volunteer who exemplifies the dedicated spirit of Alice Graham Baker.
See also Settlement Houses.