Mary Snyder, Rebecca Halley and Anita Jones, the early years
By Maria E. Garcia
Women had a great deal of influence and contributed to the work at Neighborhood House. A number of them did so as members of the newly recognized profession of social work. Settlement Houses originated in England and by the 1880’s they had become established in the United States. Neighborhood House came into being as part of the settlement house movement.
Settlement houses were usually established in poor urban areas and provided a variety of services to the community. Those services included cooking classes, adult education, craft and sewing classes. They also did crisis intervention and provided home health care and daycare for working mothers. The settlement house movement evolved in parallel with the social worker movement in this country. Both were unique agents of social reform during the Progressive Era from 1890-1920.
Social workers were seen as progressive and well meaning. They were usually women from upper middle class families and had attended what was considered a progressive school. Helen Marston Beardsley, the daughter of businessman and philanthropist George Marston, was educated at Wellesley. When she graduated in 1917 she returned to San Diego. She worked at Neighborhood House as a social worker and educator for a number of years. This two part series will focus on six noteworthy women who worked at Neighborhood House as directors, educators and service providers.
Early news articles describe social workers as “typical old maids.”
Neighborhood House in San Diego was unique in that it dealt with Mexican immigrants and was less than twenty miles from the border. This set it apart from the majority of settlement houses worked with immigrants from Europe. Unlike the other settlement houses where the clients would become assimilated, Neighborhood House in San Diego was faced with a continuous influx of foreign born. In a 1930’s board report Miss Mary Marston, Helen’s sister, defends the fact that certain services such as English as a second language (ESL) were still needed at Neighborhood House.
In other parts of the country ESL classes were not needed after having existed for ten or fifteen years. Neighborhood House was the only settlement house in a California border town. In those days it was rather easy to cross back and forth across the border. Decades later, Roberto del Toro remembers his grandmother telling him that if you paid a nickel you could cross the border with little or no problems. Irma Castro remembers you had a crossing card which she referred to as a head tax card. It was an alien registration card.
Because of the continuous influx of Mexicans, classes such as citizenship and English as a second language continued to be used by the families around Neighborhood House.
Early news articles describe social workers as “typical old maids.” This description was used to describe both Miss Halley and one of the subjects of the second part of the series, Miss Peifer. In the early years social workers were not only usually female and from upper middle class backgrounds but also unmarried women. For this reason they were often labeled old maids. Some of the comments would clearly be seen as sexist by today’s standards but in those days they were acceptable and non-controversial.
Mary Snyder was the director in the early years. She developed kindergarten and adult classes at Neighborhood House. A 1927 news article states that 2,000 persons per week passed through the doors of Neighborhood House. When you consider the population of San Diego this seems like a very high number, but when you consider it was probably the only place that provided services to Mexicans in San Diego it seems like a reasonable number of people.
Newspaper articles from 1925 refer to her taking a leave of absence to return back east. Upon her return to San Diego, the women from the neighborhood held a tea to welcome her back. According to the San Diego Union her resignation in 1929, after eleven years of service, was a result of her work at Neighborhood House. The article states that “Her devotion to her work broke her health thus necessitating her resignation.” At her goodbye tribute San Diego Mayor Clark expressed his appreciation to her for “helping the former Mexicans fit into the life of San Diego.”
Interesting enough upon her resignation she went to Mexico to study social and educational conditions in Mexico. She took a letter signed by “her Mexican neighbors.” It is significant that a letter (petition) from the families living in the neighborhood was considered influential. This letter was to be presented to the Mexican Minister of Education Señor Vasconcellos. Permission was granted and she spent weeks studying in Mexico. It is unclear whether her decision was based on health concerns, but I believe to some degree she left to further her studies.
Miss Rebecca Halley was at Neighborhood House around 1918. She served as assistant director and director. She had the pleasure of being the director in the early years, when garden parties helped fund Neighborhood House. She was a trail blazer and helped decide the type of programs which were to be established at Neighborhood House. Because of limited staff she also taught sewing in her early days at Neighborhood House.
Miss Halley worked well with the Mexican community. This was a time when it was not unusual for Mexicans from both sides of the border to use the services at Neighborhood House. In 1937 the Mexican Council honored her for her work at Neighborhood House. The women in the community sponsored a tea to celebrate her 40 years of social work primarily at Neighborhood House.
One of her greatest accomplishments was bringing the play “La Pastorela” to San Diego for the first time. “La Pastorela” was performed by people in the neighborhood and performances were always well attended. One news article states that five hundred people attended one of the performances. In later years she would write a letter to the San Diego Union urging that the play be preserved as part of a series referred to as San Diego First.
After her retirement from Neighborhood House she lived in Lemon Grove. News articles refer to her as a civic leader. Her dedication to the play was obvious from the letter to the SD Union as well as the fact that the play was presented at the Forward House in Lemon Grove in 1937. I read this as her determination to keep this play as part of the history of San Diego. Miss Halley was a well-respected civic leader fighting to make sure that San Diego history would record the fact that “La Pastorela” was performed for the very first time in Logan Heights at Neighborhood House.
Anita Jones became director in 1930 and remained at Neighborhood House until 1937. She was often referred to as “Mama Jones.” Miss Jones had a Master’s degree in social work and ran Neighborhood House during the depression years. Miss Jones had trained under Jane Addams at Hull House. She had lived in Mexico for five years and as a result was fluent in Spanish.
Her responsibilities included planning as well as supervising employees. Her duties would expand to include making speeches and promoting contacts. The speeches involved publicizing the activities taking place at Neighborhood House. She worked to get supplies, musical instruments or sports equipment donated to Neighborhood House. She was successful in this endeavor and became Chairmen of Community Chest in 1937. By this time Community Chest was funding some of the services provided at Neighborhood House.
In his book “From the Barrio to Washington” Dr. Armando Rodriguez describes Miss Jones as follows: “Mama was a no-nonsense director and a lady with a great heart. She, like most people in authority in those days, was white and Anglo Saxon. I remember her as a ‘Mary Worth’ type –gray haired fifty something and rather chunky. She was the boss and made sure everybody knew it.” When I interviewed Armando, he felt she respected the people in the neighborhood.
On the other hand in my interview with the late Frank Peñuelas he felt she discriminated against Mexicans in her hiring practices. Miss Jones hired Frank Tweedy from Cleveland, where he had worked at Hiram House, to become boy’s director. His training had been in the field of group case work as well as camping at Ohio’s first Settlement House.
His first duty was to plan and expand the programs for boys. A novel idea that occurred during her stewardship was sharing the cost for childcare with the employer. Childcare was funded by the WPA, Community Chest and the cannery. News articles describe it as a place for tots to stay while their mothers work. The playground was expanded under Miss Jones’ direction.
This expansion took place with the help of the fathers and the boys from the neighborhood. This was an opportunity for the men in the community to support Neighborhood House. The outdoor community oven was built under her directorship.
Of special significance is that in 1935 she took a group of dancers to perform at the Admission Day celebration at the Junipero Serra Museum in Presidio Park. Once again the people from Neighborhood House were included in a historical event for San Diego. George Marston, the father of the Serra Museum, and his daughters Mary and Helen Marston no doubt had a role in assuring that the Neighborhood House dancers were involved in this celebration.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.