Who was former Hinsdalean Grace Bagley?

Researching the lives of prominent personages from the past comes naturally to historian Julia Bachrach. But when the starting point is Hinsdale's only Frank Lloyd Wright house, digging up details about one of its original occupants is a different kind of fact-finding expedition.

To compose the exhibit "Finding Grace: The Forgotten Story of Social Reformer Grace Bagley" - currently on display in the 1894 home Wright designed for Bagley and her husband, Frederick (see Page 40 for details) - Bachrach, together with historic preservationist Jean Follett, used every traditional and digital resource available. Their work yielded a portrait of a woman keen on improving the lives of immigrants in late 19th-century Chicago. Her work even brought her into the orbit one of the most famous social activists of the day.

"There are handwritten letters from Jane Addams, and you can tell they were very close friends," Bachrach said of the Hull House settlement co-founder.

Asked in an 1918 interview about her commitment to the under-served, Bagley shared how she had "drifted into Hull House, as do most Chicago women, when they begin to want to help other people, and got quite interested in the work there among the foreign population."

The tenement building her husband owned on the Near West Side would be her field of outreach. She became the building's manager and even took Italian lessons in order to better communicate with residents.

"It was like having a full-time job," Bachrach said. "She became a national expert on housing reform."

Active in the Chicago Women's Club, Bagley was among a group that challenged prevailing prejudices of the era in advancing black social activist Fanny Barrier Williams for club membership.

"They decided to kind of rock the vote and nominate her," Bachrach said. "They wanted to change the rules and break through some of the racial barriers."

In 1899 Bagley and her CWC cohorts were successful in establishing the nation's first juvenile court system in Chicago.

"She was very concerned with juvenile boys living in cells with hardened adult male criminals," Bachrach said of the mother of three. "She tried to make sure that the boys would be educated while they were in prison."

Frederick's work took them to Boston, where in the early 20th century the cause of women's suffrage was gaining traction. Bachrach told of a meeting Bagley and her daughter, Elizabeth, convened with dozens of women at their home to promote suffrage. Bagley would go on to become a director in the National Women Suffrage Association.

But she never lost her heart for the Italian immigrant community, helping them assimilate by organizing English classes in Boston.

"She would give a speech to congratulate them on completing their first session, and she delivered it in Italian. I thought that was so cool," Bachrach said.

Understanding more about Grace Bagley confers greater significance to the place she lived, Bachrach said.

"She was a privileged woman, but she didn't choose to live her life as a privileged woman did at that time. It makes you want to do more."

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean