Settlement Houses

By: Teresa Palomo Acosta, María-Cristina García, and Cynthia E. Orozco

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: February 3, 2021

The Neighborhood House, established in Dallas in 1900 by the Dallas Free Kindergarten Training and Industrial Association, was likely the first of the many settlement houses set up around the state to provide educational and social programs for immigrants, the working class, and poor people. The houses were the forerunners of neighborhood centers. In the United States women generally were the most prominent leaders of the settlement houses, a Progressive era movement that began in England in 1884 and spread to the United States in 1886. From the 1890s to the onset of World War I, young, White, middle-class men and women, motivated by social and religious concerns, left their homes and moved into the poor neighborhoods of the nation's largest cities to help alleviate the conditions and address the needs of local residents. One way they did this was to establish neighborhood centers to provide financial and material assistance to the poor, as well as social and educational opportunities for the people of the area. The most famous settlement house in the United States, after which most others were modeled, was Hull House in Chicago, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Historians of the Progressive era have characterized the movement as an attempt of mostly upper-class women social reformers to "Americanize" immigrants. Women's leadership was notable from the outset, both nationally and in the state. Their participation resulted, first, from the fact that the movement coincided with the first significantly large group of women college graduates in the nation. With few professional avenues open to them, many found settlement work appealing. Second, a large number of this generation of female college graduates did not marry; the settlement houses, where they could both work and live, offered them a socially acceptable profession and a personally rewarding alternative to family life. So many women flocked to the settlement movement that they soon dominated its leadership.

For the most part in Texas, settlement houses tended to be a collaborative effort between single, college-educated women and older married women who had experience in charity work through voluntary associations. Important movement leaders included Dallasite Mrs. Morris Liebman and Houston residents Sybil Campbell, Corrinne Stephenson Tsanoff (wife of Radoslav A. Tsanoff), and Alice Graham Baker, the president of the Houston Settlement Association from its founding to 1918. Under Mrs. Liebman's direction, the Dallas kindergarten group organized the Clara Chaison Kindergarten at the Neighborhood House as its first major project and enrolled approximately 100 students from among the Russian Jewish families who lived in the vicinity. Other programs there included a boys' club, a girls' club, cooking classes, a sewing school, a weekly rummage sale for the poor, and a playground. A nurse in residence at the settlement provided medical attention. Her initial involvement in the Neighborhood House was supported by a sixty-dollar contribution raised by a group of young female volunteers. The settlement established similar programs at additional sites in south and east Dallas to assist the needy. In south Dallas, for example, the Cotton Mill Kindergarten enrolled eighty-five children who lived in what the association deemed the neighborhood's "barren and desolate" homes. This pattern of establishing kindergartens as either a settlement's initial or primary focus was repeated throughout the state. While the kindergartens were initially started as a way to attract parents to the settlement houses, children's needs became the focus of the settlements. The beginnings of the settlement houses in Texas were also linked to middle-class White women's desires to improve living conditions for children. In the South at the turn of the century, four times as many White children per capita worked in industry as in the North and also suffered the nation's highest illiteracy rate. Some women who had already pursued child-welfare problems through voluntary associations wanted to alleviate this dire situation. Women who had been raising money since the 1890s for charity kindergartens in slums and factory districts and overseeing their operations were drawn into settlement work by their interest in kindergartens. Settlements in Houston began when Sybil Campbell, a teacher at Rusk School, persuaded the Houston Woman's Club to set up a kindergarten and day nursery. This step led to the establishment of the Houston Settlement Association in 1906 and the Rusk House in 1909. In time, Houston had some eight settlement houses.

Besides the club women's involvement, women associated with the mission projects of the Dallas Methodist churches established similar institutions called Wesley Houses, named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. These religious settlements sought to bring Christian light to those who lived "under the shadow of the evil about them." The Wesley Houses in north Texas served American and immigrant workers in a factory and laundry district as well as a cotton mill area, where saloons and other places of vice existed. In addition to a kindergarten, the Wesley Houses offered sewing classes, boys' and girls' clubs, sports, meeting rooms for community organizations, health services, and mothers' clubs. Founded in the belief that working-class women would improve their mothering skills under the guidance of the better educated settlement workers, the mothers' clubs were intended to improve home life.

Notable settlement houses that served Mexican Americans, a principal target of reformers, were the Rusk in Houston, the Mexican Christian Institute (later the Inman Institute) in San Antonio, and the Rose Gregory Houchen Settlement in El Paso. The Bethlehem Settlement in Houston was one of the few houses that served African Americans about which anything is known. All four were founded between 1909 and 1917. Rusk provided charitable assistance to the poor of Houston's Second Ward. Inman championed the cultural, intellectual, physical, and moral development of the Mexican community in San Antonio. In general, settlement workers in Hispanic communities offered the residents English-language classes, entertainment programs, books in Spanish and English, and arts and crafts courses. At least one Black nurse was in the Visiting Nurses Association, which was in residence at Rusk from 1914 to 1936. The Bethlehem Settlement, directed by a biracial committee, had a nursery and kindergarten. Other activities included a self-improvement club for older girls and occasional maid-training classes. The city of Houston demolished Bethlehem in 1940 to make way for a housing project. Significant settlement activities among Blacks in Houston did not resume until some years later, after a new biracial committee was organized. El Paso and Austin were also the sites of settlement house activity among Mexican Americans. The Houchen Settlement, founded in 1912 by the Methodist Church, served the residents of the Segundo Barrio in south El Paso. An initial $1,000 donation provided a "Christian rooming house" for single Mexican female workers and a kindergarten. Although female Methodist settlement workers dominated Houchen's early days, a Mexican student, Ofilia Chávez, was also on the staff. Within its first six years of operation, Houchen established a full array of "Americanization" programs, such as citizenship and English classes, Camp Fire Girls, Bible studies, working girls' clubs, and Boy Scouts, all of which lasted the forty-year period between 1920 and 1960. The Houchen Settlement added a nurse in 1920, who helped start a medical clinic for Segundo Barrio residents. Between 1930 and 1950, Houchen probably served some 15,000 to 20,000 individuals each year, approximately one-fourth to one-third of the Mexican population of the city. The Inter-American House, established in Austin in 1943 with a $1,000 grant obtained by University of Texas professor George I. Sánchez, followed the longtime practice of involving university students in settlements and thus provided lodging for a small group of female student workers. Lectures and discussion programs were the mainstay of Inter-American. Other programs included arts and crafts classes, musical instruction, and a playschool for children.

Some eighteen known settlements ultimately came into existence in urban areas of Texas-Austin, El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco. One settlement, however, was established in the small coal mining town of Thurber by the Methodists. Some of the institutions belonged to both the Texas Association of Settlements and Community Centers and Neighborhoods and the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers. Although the minority communities were often the principal beneficiaries of the settlement workers, minority involvement in leading the houses has not been thoroughly documented. Historians have nonetheless noted that between the 1940s and 1990s both Black and Hispanic women took on increasingly larger roles and often became staff members at Bethlehem, Inman, and Houchen. Not surprisingly, their new responsibilities pushed the centers to reflect more of their concerns. At Houchen, for instance, the staff threw its support behind the League of United Latin American Citizens by allocating space for two of its chapters. Over time, the settlements were gradually transformed into neighborhood centers, such as the Inman Christian Center in San Antonio and Evangelia Settlement in Waco, which have continued to offer an array of recreational and educational programs. They have also added projects that reflect new social needs, such as drug-prevention and delinquency-prevention programs. Ultimately, many have become voluntary nonprofit neighborhood-based agencies that serve low-income residents. Some have continued to sponsor English classes to help newly arrived immigrants adjust to American society. Others have added programs to assist the elderly and joined the United Way.

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Elizabeth York Enstam, "The Forgotten Frontier: Dallas Women and Social Caring, 1895–1920," Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas 1 (Spring 1989). Judith Nichols McArthur, Motherhood and Reform in the New South: Texas Women's Political Culture in the Progressive Era (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1992). John Patrick McDowell, The Social Gospel in the South: The Women's Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1886–1939 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982). Vicki L. Ruiz, "Dead Ends or Gold Mines: Using Missionary Records in Mexican American Women's History," Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 12 (1991). Judith Ann Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). Corrinne Stephenson Tsanoff, Neighborhood Doorways (Houston: Neighborhood Centers Association of Houston and Harris County, 1958). Robert A. Woods and Albert J. Kennedy, Handbook of Settlements (New York: Arno Press, 1970).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Women
  • Activism and Social Reform
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Houston
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Teresa Palomo Acosta, María-Cristina García, and Cynthia E. Orozco, “Settlement Houses,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
February 3, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: