Top among Ruth Bennett’s lasting achievements was the founding of a home to provide accommodations and safety for newly arrived Black women and children. In 1917, she launched a campaign to raise funds to purchase a three-story, nine-bedroom building at Second and Reaney Streets to be named the Ruth L. Bennett Home for Colored Women and Girls. The story of how the Bennett Home came speaks to the tenacity of Ruth Bennett and her network of Black women in Chester.
As newcomers to city life, the Bennetts quickly grew aware of Chester’s unwelcoming realities for newly arriving Black Southerners. Absent any organized assistance save for charity, the city’s leaders ignored the newcomers, save for instructing police to gather up Black itinerants and homeless and drop them at Calvary Church’s doorstep. The Bennetts rose to the challenge, providing refuge at the church and often giving up their own accommodations, choosing to sleep on cots in the building’s front entry.Rosenberg, Charles. 2015. “Bennett, Ruth L.” The Oxford African American National Biography
But Ruth Bennett was not satisfied with such ad hoc responses to the plight of the newly arrived. As a Black woman herself swept up in the Great Migration, she was especially aware of and concerned by the social problems Black women and girls faced in settling in Chester. When we think about the Great Migration, we typically conjure up images of Black families or Black males moving northward to take jobs in factories and other industrial enterprises. Less known are the challenges that were faced by young Black women, who traveled alone or with children, fleeing difficult personal, work and social situations in the South with hopes for better opportunities in the North. Their adjustment to urban life proved difficult, especially with regards to securing safe and decent accommodations and steady employment.
According to noted historian, Darlene Clark Hine, women migrants risked being preyed upon by unsavory offers to work at little or no wages (in return for meager accommodations), conned into sex work, or left to fend for themselves thereby attracting the unwanted attention of the police. Hine, Darlene Clark. 1991. “Black Migration to the Urban Midwest: the Gender Dimension, 1915-1945,” in The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender, … Continue reading Prevailing norms of gender and racial discrimination in the early 20th century severely restricted employment options.
Apart from peak periods of wartime production, industrial jobs were considered ‘men’s work’ and opportunities for employment in factories for women were uncommon. Jobs typically designated as ‘female’ positions– stock girls, clerks, and secretaries – were rarely offered to Black women, per discriminatory practices based on race. Domestic work – housecleaning, laundry and occasionally child care – in white households prevailed as the dominant means for Black women to earn income.
Bennett understood secure employment and decent accommodations were urgently needed to address the concerns of safety and adjustment to city life. Young women with few resources or local connections were subject to very real hazards on the streets of Chester, from appalling mistreatment at work to exploitation as sex workers in Bethel Court, to arrest and jailing for loitering and similar infractions.
Within months of her arrival, she and fourteen women associates founded the Ruth L. Bennett Improvement Club “for the purpose of doing uplift work” among Black women and girls. With a slogan “Loyalty to women and justice to children,” the Club offered evening and weekend classes in cooking, housekeeping and millinery at the Gartside School Building. Rosenberg, Charles. 2015 The curriculum emphasized food preparation, sanitation, household organization, managing budgets, and the up-to-date expectations of what was referred to as ‘home economics’ – all skills that would position women favorably for domestic jobs. She successfully fundraised to purchase the home on Reaney Street to provide adequate housing for women and girls. Within a few years of its opening, continued small donations from Chester’s Black residents helped pay off the property’s mortgage in 1925. Reverend Bennett died that same year and Ruth Bennett moved into the home and lived there until she died in 1947.
The Home hosted the Improvement Club’s domestic/home economics, music, and current events classes, social services, job placement and a growing number of subsidiary groups: the Ruth L. Bennett Civic Club, Ruth L. Bennett Young Women’s Auxiliary, Ruth L. Bennett Junior Club, Ruth L. Bennett Golden Age Club and Ruth L. Bennett Golden Age Hostess Club. All shared the common objective: to mobilize the talents of young women for progressive change, under the guise of social club participation.
In 1925, Bennett founded the Wilson Memorial Nursery, named after local businessman and contributor William Wilson. The Nursery addressed the lack of child care for working mothers and the need for safe housing for orphans and children removed from their homes by court order. Donations from within the community and Mr. Wilson’s large contribution to purchase the property adjoining the Home came on the heels of a tragic house fire which took the lives of two children at home alone while their mother worked.
The impact of the Bennett Home and Wilson Nursery was significant. By 1940 more than 2,000 girls and young women sought shelter at the Home and the services provided by the Improvement Club. World War II reignited Chester’s industries, bringing a new round of Southerners to Chester and newcomers to the Bennett Home and nursery. Women residing at the Home and employed as shipyard welders were referred to as the “Bennett girls.” The Home and the Wilson Nursery continued to operate through the 1990s, when deindustrialization and suburbanization transformed Chester.
If you look at the time where she helped people, 1916 and on, that preceded the emergence of public housing in this country. Public housing didn’t even come into existence until the mid to late 30s, so we’re talking a few decades. You had an inundation of people into a new area. For the portion of the population most in distress, the single women and children, public housing or shelter systems […] didn’t exist yet in this country.Steve Fisher, Executive Director, Chester Housing Authority, 2016.
The Bennett Home remained empty and unused until 2013, when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation repaired the exterior and restored the interior for possible use as a museum or repository for historic artifacts.
|↑1||Rosenberg, Charles. 2015. “Bennett, Ruth L.” The Oxford African American National Biography|
|↑2||Hine, Darlene Clark. 1991. “Black Migration to the Urban Midwest: the Gender Dimension, 1915-1945,” in The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender, edited by Joe W. Trotter, Jr., (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p.99|
|↑3||Rosenberg, Charles. 2015|