Hale, Clara McBride (“Mother Hale”)

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Hale, Clara McBride (“Mother Hale”)

(b. 1 April 1905 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina; d. 18 December 1992 in New York City), social activist best known for her founding of the not-for-profit Hale House, a treatment center for drug-addicted babies, located in New York City’s Harlem.

Hale was one of four children of James McBride, a dock-worker, and Elizabeth McBride, who owned a boarding-house. Soon after Hale’s birth the family moved to Philadelphia, where her father was murdered when Hale was still an infant. Left with few resources, her mother worked as a cook and took in boarders. She too died, when Hale was sixteen years old. Nevertheless, Hale graduated from Philadelphia High School and then obtained employment as a domestic worker.

A few years later she married Thomas Sam Hale. They moved to New York City, where Thomas opened a floor-waxing business. Because the income from their business was not sufficient, Hale obtained employment cleaning theaters. In 1932, when she was twenty-seven years old, her husband died of cancer, leaving her with three children to raise. In need of money, Hale cleaned homes during the day and theaters at night. Troubled about leaving her children without adult supervision, Hale decided to stay home and take care of other people’s children. She worked hard and in 1940 became a licensed foster parent, taking in foster children for $2 a week per child. Hale retired in 1969 after caring for more than forty children.

That same year, Hale’s daughter, Dr. Lorraine Hale, encountered a heroin-addicted woman in a Harlem park with a two-month-old baby. Lorraine gave the woman her mother’s address. By the end of that day Hale was caring for the mother and child in her home. Within six months Hale had twenty-two drug-addicted infants. For a year and a half, Hale’s three children provided financial and moral support. Hale and her daughter became the institutional founders of Hale House, and later Lorraine Hale became the director.

In 1970 Percy E. Sutton, then president of the Borough of Manhattan, helped Hale find and renovate a Harlem brownstone at 154 West 122d Street. The vacant five-story building was rebuilt and had a floor for play and preschool activities, a nursery for detoxified babies, and a floor where new arrivals were kept during the withdrawal period. In 1975 Hale House was officially licensed as a child-care facility. It was the only black voluntary child-care agency in the United States. In the 1980s the program drew national attention as drug-addicted babies languished in municipal hospitals. Hale House took the children at birth, reared them until their mothers completed a drug-treatment program, and then reunited the children with their families. They were able to reunite the children 90 percent of the time.

Mother Hale, who earned her affectionate nickname from her children, loved to talk about her work. A woman of small stature, she had a gentle touch, tremendous energy, and great confidence and charm. She was a woman of boundless maternal love committed to social justice. As a result of her dedication to childcare, President Ronald Reagan in his 1985 State of the Union address honored Hale as a true American heroine. In 1986 the State of New York agreed to finance a new Harlem project that provided temporary apartments for recovering drug addicts and their children. The state also agreed to pay the operating costs of Hale House.

Throughout the Abraham Beame and Edward Koch mayoral administrations in New York City, Hale House won waivers from state regulations barring group nurseries for children under the age of five years. However, David Dinkins, elected mayor of New York in 1989, refused to make an exception for Hale House. His administration decided that the city was doing better than Mother Hale was in providing foster care for children. In the fall of 1990 the city threatened to shut down the Hale House group nursery home and to stop sending children there. In October 1990 Mayor Dinkins complied with state regulations and withdrew funding and support from the Hale House program.

Hale refused to give up. Children continued to come, brought by desperate parents, police officers, churches, and other groups. To finance their care without government funding, Hale House increased its private fund-raising. In 1991 it received tens of thousands of dollars in private donations. In 1990 and 1991 Hale House expanded its programs to include housing and education for mothers after detoxification, training for youth, and a home for mothers and infants infected with AIDS. Even in her last days, Hale continued to care for the children. In 1992, at the age of eighty-seven, Mother Hale died of complications from a stroke at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She was cremated. Her daughter, Dr. Lorraine Hale, continued to run Hale House.

In 1985 Hale received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. In 1987 she received two of the Salvation Army’s highest honors, the Booth Community Service Award and the Leonard H. Carter Humanitarian Award. In 1982 the New York chapter of the Urban League gave Hale the League Building Brick Award.

Mother Hale, who was a Baptist, dedicated most of her life to caring for abandoned, unloved, and orphaned children. She was a nurturing and loving woman whose gentle matemalism made her a rare individual, one who lived according to the conviction that every child deserves the love and dignity he or she is inherently due as a human being. Her outstanding work in nurturing and childcare made her a national icon, and she left her loving imprint on the lives of thousands of children. Her work will always be remembered.

Bob Italia wrote a juvenile biography titled Clara Hale: Mother to Those Who Needed One (1993). Useful background information about Hale’s life is in Current Biography 1985. Hale’s career is discussed in Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Late Achievers: Famous People Who Succeeded Late in Life (1992), and Mary R. Holley, Notable Black American Women (1991). See also Alessandra Stanley, “Hale House Fights City Hall on Babies’ Care,” New York Times (20 Sept. 1990), and Lorenzo Carcatera, “Mother Hale of Harlem Has Saved 487 Drug-Addicted Babies with an Old Mirage Cure: Love,” People (5 Mar. 1984). Obituaries are in the New York Times (20 Dec. 1992), Los Angeles Times (21 Dec. 1992), and London Daily Telegraph (21 Dec. 1992).


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