Personal Reminiscence: College Settlement, A Second Home

by Oscar H. Hankinson

I had never heard of College Settlement before about the age of 12. I spent 11 years growing up on Fifth and Ellsworth. I was the oldest son of 10 children, with 5 older sisters. My older sisters never mentioned this "college settlement," nor did I hear about it from any of my neighborhood friends. When my family moved in 1945—I was almost 12—to a new home two blocks away, it was not only to a new house, but also to new neighbors, new friends, and most of all, a different culture.

My first decade was spent in an Italian section of South Philadelphia, which was my entire universe. That universe was only a few blocks wide and long. A few blocks in any direction led you to other enclaves of different ethnic groups. To the east were Polish and Irish people. To the north were African Americans. To the south were Jewish people and a few African Americans. Neighborhood interaction was minimal. You knew to stay in your own neighborhood or you paid the price. Fights and skirmishes between neighborhood youth were legion. Since I lived in "my" Italian neighborhood, I felt Italian. All other persons were foreigners, to be fought, resisted, and banished from "our" community.

My African American parents migrated from South Carolina at the turn of the century. They settled in this area to be near family members in nearby neighborhoods. My older sisters had more opportunities to visit our relatives and also attended school outside of our home neighborhood. They had traveled in many neighborhoods and did not seem to be bothered by the change of address. They were seemingly oblivious to what appeared to me to be a great contradiction. In many neighborhoods children grow up knowing they belong to one ethnic group. This appeared to be true for me, too, except the group with which I had affiliated was not mine.

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In my new neighborhood I heard about College Settlement and the many activities there. Basketball (unheard of in my old neighborhood), ceramics (what was this?), and drama (only girls play-act) were some of the new activities I would soon experience. My new friends were quite positive when I asked them about this place where many people, black and white, gathered to play, sing, make things, and just hang out. It was hard to believe that this institution was only three blocks away from my old neighborhood.

Visiting the College Settlement building was a completely new experience for me. Unlike at my elementary school, there were black and white people present and in charge of programs. Miss Verna (white) was in charge of arts and crafts. Mr. Jackson (black) was a social worker. Mr. and Mrs. Peters (white) were the settlement's top executives. They were beloved by almost all of the youth in the neighborhood. Other persons, of different ethnic groups, ran programs and seemed to respect and enjoy not only the children and youth, but each other.

Of course, I was completely ignorant of settlement houses. This house, filled with wonderful people, wonderful activities, and friends of all hues was completely different from any other place I had ever visited. It was a place to go in the winter when the streets were cold and barren. It was a place where I could go to wrestle on the floor of the game room (and not be challenged to fight) while older kids played pool, checkers, or card games. It was a place to watch staff deal with a youngster with a problem, rather than a problem youngster. Going to College Settlement meant taking part in classes in which I would never otherwise have been involved: cooking classes, drama club, literature group, and organized outdoor games that I had never played before. But the most important to me of these at the time was summer Farm Camp. For teenagers, Farm Camp meant spending a week or two away from home with your friends and complete strangers.

Farm Camp was located in Horsham, Pennsylvania. During the summer, we swam in a lake instead of a concrete neighborhood pool. Learning how to row a boat or paddle a canoe was extremely gratifying. Leaving the hot city streets to run through grass, pick apples, or walk in the shade of deep pine forests were exhilarating experiences worthy of writing home about. In the spring, summer camp had to be refurbished and spruced up. Clearing debris and getting equipment ready for the camp season were very important tasks. Spring clean-up was also a training ground for new summer camp counselors and workers. Spending a weekend at camp in April or May was a special treat. It meant that you had become an integral part of the staff's planning for the summer. Special treatment! To a Farm Camp camper, the name "Hattie" meant graciousness, warmth, a big smile, but above all, great food. Hattie was the camp cook. Three meals and a snack each day (sometimes a "little something" on the side) helped campers and counselors alike idolize Hattie. Campers also immensely enjoyed the visit from a group of Italian mothers who came to camp each week to cook and serve spaghetti. We always knew when they had arrived because the aroma of red sauce wafted through the country air. Hattie was special, but spaghetti and red sauce was something else.

Camp, though, was not the only new or life-changing experience College Settlement provided. For me, in the end, it was Drama Club that changed my life forever. One day, one of the cooking class instructors asked if I would be interested in joining the Drama Club. What in the world was a "drama club"? Only "sissies" and other strange people joined drama clubs, or so I thought. But I went. And the first night I attended, I met a very special young lady. We worked on a Christmas pageant, and she was "Queen of Christmas" and I was cast as Santa Claus. It worked! Queen of Christmas and Santa Claus have been married for 51 years and counting.

As I look back on the College Settlement and Farm Camp experiences, I feel a sense of loss and bereavement. I feel the tremendous loss to this community. Yes, there are still a few settlement houses serving needy populations in Philadelphia, but this neighborhood, now called Queen Village, is bereft of any institution closely resembling that old revered facility. From the vantage point of a retired teacher, school principal, and a former youth services executive, I've watched our neighborhood deteriorate. Individuals may try to bridge the gap in helping youth, but such individuals need a place, a "house," in which boys and girls can find a second home. College Settlement represented the proverbial "village" house in helping to raise a child.

Oscar Hankinson graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia and received an MS from Temple in psychology and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in educational research and administration. He has worked as an elementary school teacher and as a principal and was the first executive director of the Youth Services Commission of Philadelphia.


  • This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Pennsylvania Legacies, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's illustrated public history magazine.
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