The story of Ada S. McKinley the organization and its longevity are rooted in the dedication and resilience of our founder and namesake. Ada Sophia McKinley started our now 101-year-old organization during the Spanish Flu pandemic (January 1918 to December 1920) and the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. The essential work we are doing over a century later to protect the well-being of the people we serve during the COVID-19 pandemic and amid social unrest is a full-circle mirror of our history.
Being a black woman right out of slavery, there are little to no records of Ada S. McKinley. She has gone unsung among Black sheroes. Here is what we were able to dig up through research over the years as we continue to honor her legacy.
Ada Sophia McKinley was born on June 26, 1868 in Galveston, Texas during the Reconstruction Era. She and her family soon relocated to Corpus Christi where she stayed until she went off to Prairie View College. She graduated from there and Tillotson Missionary College in San Antonio. After college graduation, she became a school teacher in Austin, up until she met and married dentist William McKinley in 1887.
Sometime in the 1890s, Ada and her husband moved to Chicago after losing two children to a Diphtheria epidemic that plagued several Texas cities. Rather than wallow in her grief, she immersed herself into Chicago’s political and social circles and began to focus on improving the lives of others.
She joined the Phyllis Wheatley Club, was one of the organizers for the league of women’s voters, and became the president of the Citizens Community Center during the progressive era. She volunteered as a hostess to black soldiers at “War Camp Community Services” which was organized by the Chicago Urban League.
After the Chicago race riot of 1919, Ada marched alongside white settlement house workers, including Jane Addams, to show that interracial solidarity was possible.
That same year, she founded a settlement house to assist African American veterans returning from World War I and families migrating from the South when they had nowhere else to go. In 2019 Ada S. McKinley Community Services celebrated its 100th anniversary and the agency now serves more than 7,000 people annually at over 70 locations, primarily in Illinois/Chicago with additional sites in Indiana and Wisconsin. Its work has expanded over the past century and now covers several programmatic areas that include mentoring and college placement, foster care, housing opportunities, youth and family counseling, employment training and placement, and head start programs.
Ada laid the cornerstone at the organization’s first headquarters on 34th Street in Bronzeville in August of 1952 (see group picture accompanying this article from the evening of the dedication). She died just hours later on August 25th. The site is now headquarters for Ada S. McKinley Community Services’ educational programming that has placed more than 70,000 youth at over 400 colleges and universities throughout the country, many of whom have become first-generation college graduates.
Her gravesite is at Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s south side and located prominently next to the first African American Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, after being moved from another cemetery (See Chicago Tribune article from April 24, 1995).
Ada S. McKinley has changed thousands of lives! We encourage you to share her story with others as inspiration during these unprecedented times.