Hale, Clara 1905–1992
Clara Hale 1905–1992
Known worldwide for her selfless nurturing of babies born into dire circumstances, Clara Hale—who was nicknamed “Mother Hale” by the children she took care of—helped start Hale House, the only institution of its kind in the U.S. to house and care for infants born to mothers who were addicted to heroin, methadone, cocaine, and other hard drugs. “Mother Hale, as she was known, was a pioneer in self-help efforts in poor neighborhoods and came to symbolize the untapped potential of disadvantaged groups taking care of their own,” noted Bruce Lambert in his obituary for Hale in the New York Times in 1992. The nonprofit Hale House-which is formerly known as the Hale House Center for the Promotion of Human Potential—is located in the Harlem district of New York City, an area rampant with drug addicts and pushers. An estimated 1,000-plus infants were tended in the establishment from its beginning in 1969 up to Clara Hale’s death in 1992 at the age of 87. Hale continued her efforts on the behalf of her “children” until a few months before she died of complications from stroke, and at the time was still watching over at least one child in her own room. “I’m not an American hero—I’m simply a person who loves children,” said Hale in 1992, according to the New York Times.
Hale’s own early life was a difficult one. Born Clara McBride, she was just an infant living in Philadelphia when her father was murdered. Her mother then tried to make ends meet for young Clara and three older siblings by renting out rooms and maintaining a lunchroom for longshoremen. “Mrs. Hale credited her mother—who died when she was just 16—with instilling the values on which Hale House is based,” according to Lambert.
Soon after graduating from high school, Clara McBride married Thomas Hale and moved with him to New York City. Her husband started up a floor-waxing business there while taking courses in business administration at night at City College. Clara Hale brought in more much-needed income by cleaning Loew’s movie theaters at night. When she was 27, her husband died of cancer and left her to support her three children—six-year-old Lorraine, five-year-old Nathan, and an two-year-old adopted son, Kenneth. Hale expanded her work hours by taking on house cleaning jobs during the day.
Born Clara McBride on April 1, 1905, in Elizabeth City, NC; died December 18, 1992, in New York, NY, of complications following a stroke; married Thomas Hale; children: Lorraine, Nathan, Kenneth.
Worked cleaning Loews movie theaters, 1930s; began baby-sitting children in her home, 1930s; became a foster parent, 1940s; raised forty foster children, 1940s-1968; first took care of a drug-addicted baby, 1969; began caring for drug-addicted babies full-time; moved her baby care operation into a new building that was named Hale House, 1975; started caring for babies infected with AIDS virus, 1980s.
Awards: Honorary Doctorate, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 1985; Truman Award for Public Service (with Lorraine Hale), 1989.
After deciding that her outside work commitments were causing her children to be alone too much, Hale began taking care of other people’s children during the day at her own home. Soon it became obvious that she had found her calling. “The parents paid me,” she told Parade in 1984. “I didn’t make a whole lot, but I wasn’t’ starving. And the kids must’ve liked it because once they got there, they didn’t want to go home.” Before long, Hale’s fledgling daycare operation became a full-time job, with kids staying with her during the week and parents seeing the children on weekends.
In the 1940s Hale went beyond daycare by securing a license as a foster parent. She began taking in children who were awaiting placement with adoptive parents, earning two dollars a week per child. For over a quarter century her five-room apartment in Harlem was a sanctuary to seven or eight foster children at a time. All of the 40 foster children she helped raise ended up going to college.
Hale retired from foster parenting in 1968 when she was in her early sixties, but it turned out to be a short-lived respite. Her true calling was sparked in 1969 when her daughter Lorraine happened to pass by a young woman with a baby in her arms who was falling asleep in a park in Harlem. Hale’s daughter thought that her mother might be able to help the woman, so she gave the woman her mother’s address. “My mother has always been committed to the belief that there is a little bit of God in every person,” Lorraine Hale was quoted as saying in Newsday in 1985. “She feels it is her responsibility to respect and honor everyone. I knew she wouldn’t turn that baby away,” she added.
“When I saw this woman at my door, I was sure that some mistake had been made,” Hale told People in 1984. “I thought my daughter didn’t even know any addicts. But since she insisted, I asked her to wait while I called. When I came back, only the baby was waiting,” she continued. Hale took the reins from there, nurturing the baby through its withdrawal, then giving it back to the returning mother without requesting any fee. Soon the word got out on the street about Hale’s generosity. “Before I knew it, every pregnant addict in Harlem knew about the crazy lady who would give her baby a home,” she told Newsday.
Six months after her first encounter with a drug-addicted baby, Hale had 22 such babies filling her apartment. Money for tending the infants was provided by her daughter, who had a doctoral degree in child development, and her two sons, who all worked overtime or two jobs to help come up with the extra funds. After Hale’s efforts came into the public eye, campaigns for financial support were waged. In the 1970s, Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton helped secure funding of Hale’s work by New York City.
Sutton later initiated efforts to find a new building to better meet the needs of the growing operation. A federal grant was secured to helped rebuild a five-story brownstone in central Harlem in 1975, which was then christened Hale House. Children were referred to the establishment by New York City agencies, the police department, and word of mouth. Eventually Hale’s operation included child care workers, a house parent, a teacher, a social worker, and a cook. Clara Hale trained a number of child-care workers, in addition to sleep-in aides who relieved her on the job from time to time. Her daughter assumed control of the administrative operation, thus freeing Hale to care for the children full-time.
The strategy for taking care of these tragic infants boiled down to one word for Hale: love. As Herschel Johnson wrote in Ebony in 1986, “The cure she [Hale] employs is not based on miracle medicines. Instead, the healing power of love and positive reinforcement is emphasized.” Typically, Hale would receive congentially addieted babies who were about ten days old and work with them for two or three weeks to overcome their with-drawal. Newcomers typically stayed with Clara Hale herself in her own bedroom. By about five to six weeks, the babies were more or less normal. Mothers could not take their babies back again until they had completed a drug-treatment program, or until it was determined that they were ready to be good parents to their children. Children stayed at Hale House an average of eighteen months, at which point they were placed in foster homes or returned to their families. During their stay the mothers were required to attend a drug rehabilitation program and visit their children every week.
By 1985 Hale House was receiving annual funds of $190,000 funneled through the New York City Department of Social Services of Children, with another $30,000 being brought in by private donations. Celebrity supporters over the years have included Tony Bennett, Lena Home, and John Lennon, whose John Lennon Spirit Foundation directed by his widow, Yoko Ono, continued sending Mother Hale $20,000 a year after Lennon’s murder in 1980. Over the years, Hale herself engaged in a lot of fundraising for her operation.
Eventually Hale House was expanded to include a complex of 30 apartments for the mothers who were receiving treatment for drug rehabilitation. Controversy sometimes swirled over Hale House’s unorthodox policies, which failed to meet the usual requirement that young children be raised in private homes instead of her group-care setting. Court approval for returning infants to parents was not required by Hale House, either. Unwavering public support enabled Hale to bypass the usual restrictions, and she continued to get waivers from state regulations throughout the mayoral administrations of Abe Beame and Ed Koch in the 1970s and 1980s.
As the crack epidemic in New York City eased up, Mayor Dinkins ordered the administration to stop referring kids to Hale House in 1989, feeling that the city could better handle finding foster care. Despite this shift in policy, babies continued to arrive at Hale House, both drug-addicted ones and those infected with the HIV virus. A more aggressive fund-raising policy was put into effect to help make up for the loss of government financing. By 1991, Hale House’s budget was $3.5 million. In the years that followed, its programs were expanded to encompass housing and educating mothers after detoxification, apprentice training for youths who began having problems, and a home for mothers of infants infected with the AIDS virus.
During his presidential administration, Ronald Reagan was a big fan of Mother Hale. He invited her to attend his State of the Union Address in 1985, at which occasion he called Hale “a true American hero,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Hale received a standing ovation at the occasion, but remained her usual humble self. She continued wielding her magic with her kids well into her eighties, and never stopped taking great pride in her tiny charges. “I think they’re all success stories,” she said of her Hale House babies in the Los Angeles Times “We’ve never heard of any of our children being in jail, and I think that’s success.”
Italia, Bob, “Clara Hale: Mother to Those Who Needed One.” In Everyone Contributes, ed. Rosie Wallner (Abdo & Daughters, 1993).
Ebony, May 1986, pp. 58, 60, 62.
Jet, March 29, 1989, p. 23.
Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1990, pp. E1-E2.
New York Daily News, November 13, 1983, p. 29.
New York Times Biographic Service, December 1992, pp. 1630-1631.
Newsday, January 29, 1985.
Parade, November 18, 1984.
People, March 5, 1984, pp. 211-212, 214.
Washington Post, February 8, 1985, p. Cl.
Clara Hale (1905-1992) spent 52 years bringing hope and assistance to the less fortunate. Her greatest endeavor was the founding of Hale House, a home for drug-addicted and AIDS-infected children.
Clara Hale was a humble woman and a great humanitarian, a champion of the principles of self-help and self-determination. Through her devotion to her own three children she was inspired to reach out to others in her community who were in need of nurturing.
Clara Hale was born Clara McBride on April 1, 1905, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. She was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father was killed when she was very young. When Hale was sixteen years old her mother passed away, leaving her completely orphaned. She finished high school on her own and then married Thomas Hale. The couple moved to New York. There her husband ran a business and went to college while Hale worked as a janitor. They were married only a few years when Thomas died of cancer, leaving the young widow with three small children to support.
Hale cleaned houses and continued her job as a janitor, laboring day and night to make ends meet. Eventually she abandoned those jobs to spend more time with her children, Lorraine, Nathan, and Kenneth. She opened her home for childcare, initially keeping the children while their parents worked during the day. The youngsters in Hale's care, many of whose parents worked as live-in domestics, became extremely attached to Hale and her family. They preferred to live all week at the Hale's residence and stay with their own families only on the weekends.
Children came and went from the Hale residence. Her own children grew to consider each newcomer as one more sibling. Hale told Parade's Tom Seligson, "My daughter says she was almost sixteen before she realized all these other kids weren't her real sisters and brothers. Everyone called me 'Mommy."' In 1940, Hale acquired a license to take foster children into her home. She reared some 40 members of this extended family into adulthood and sent each into the world armed with a healthy dose of self-esteem. In time, Hale's foster children grew up to have children of their own. She regarded them as her own grandchildren. Indeed, Hale raised so many children as her own that accounts of the size of her natural family vary from source to source, although most mention one daughter, one son, and an adopted son. What is known for certain is that her family fared well. Her daughter, Lorraine, earned a Ph.D. in child development and became the executive director of Hale House. Hale continued to provide foster care for over 25 years. When she retired in 1968 she could not have foreseen that her most notable endeavor, the founding of Hale House, was yet to begin.
In 1969, Hale was again hard at work, unable to turn her back when confronted by a young, drug-addicted mother, too intoxicated to care for her baby. Lorraine Hale had encountered the young mother and her baby in dire circumstances and had sent the pair to Clara Hale for help. Hale was then 64 years old, but she could not refuse the desperate pair. Indeed, she had no choice when the mother disappeared while Hale made a phone call in another room and left the baby behind. Hale took the tiny baby girl and nursed her through drug withdrawals. The young mother had other children, and when she returned to Hale's residence, she brought the others and left them, too. Eventually she returned to take the children back. Hale sent the family off with her blessing and never charged a penny for her help. Within a few short weeks Mother Hale's apartment was packed from wall to wall with 22 drug-addicted babies. Some of them were abandoned; some were orphaned. As Mother Hale told the tale to Irene Verag of Newsday, "Before I knew it every pregnant addict in Harlem knew about the crazy lady who would give her baby a home."
Slowly the Hales (Clara, daughter Lorraine, and sons Nathan and Kenneth) allowed their lives to become virtually consumed by the effort to instill hope and to inject healing into the lives of addicted parents in Harlem. The dedicated family worked day and night to support their cause. Mother Hale kept the frailest of the infants in her own bedroom, cradling them and walking the floors all night when necessary to comfort each one through the painful experience of detoxification. The younger Hales took as many jobs as was necessary to bring in the funds to support the many, many children who came into their home. "It wasn't their fault they were born addicted. Love them. Help one another," Hale explained to others, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune.
It is not difficult to understand why those who knew Hale adopted the appellation of "Mother" when referring to her. It is difficult to comprehend the extraordinary sense of love and commitment that must have driven Hale to suffer with these babies. Keeping the babies clean and fed, a maxim at Hale House, must have been a burden by itself. Many were premature and sickly. Some had become addicted to heroin in the womb. The babies often suffered from shaking fits and shivering. They would scratch at their own bodies and make themselves bleed. By far the majority of babies were born addicted to crack cocaine. Developmental delays and passivity were commonplace symptoms among the babies at Hale House. The detoxification process took weeks, and Mother Hale strictly refused to administer drug therapies to her youngsters. Instead she comforted them through their withdrawals with personal care and compassion. "We hold them and touch them," are often quoted words from Hale, as noted in the New York Times. She continued: "They love you to tell them how great they are, how good they are. Somehow, even at a young age, they understand that." Many of the youngsters were withdrawn in their behavior, but Hale had a knack for bolstering fragile egos by providing the children with persistent verbal reinforcement, hugs, and smiles.
It was not long before the benevolent work of the Hale family came to the attention of noteworthy philanthropic citizens, civil welfare bureaus, and public assistance agencies. The Hales succeeded in securing a federal grant to renovate a five-story house on 122nd Street. The spacious Harlem brownstone was dubbed Hale House. Percy Sutton, the famed philanthropist and president of the Manhattan Borough, arranged public funding. John Lennon, of the world-famous Beatles, donated thousands of dollars to Hale House before he died, and the John Lennon Spirit Foundation perpetuated his generosity with annual contributions after his death. Other distinguished personalities also recognized the honorable work of Hale House and contributed generously throughout the years in support of the cause.
By 1984 Hale House had acquired a staff of seven college-educated care-givers along with a license to house fifteen children and a reputation for never refusing a child. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times' Beverly Beyette, Mother Hale confessed that she would defy the authorities, but never would she leave a child in need. "Sometimes we have 30 or 40 [children]," she confessed. "[When inspectors come by] we hide them. They say, 'Oh, Mother Hale, don't you give us any trouble."' Many of the children were referred by public agencies, including the police and hospitals. Others were simply abandoned by their mothers.
The founding of Hale House coincided closely with the isolation by medical science of the virus known to cause Acquired Immuno-deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in humans. This deadly and incurable virus can be easily passed among drug addicts who share needles. The virus can also be passed from mother to infant. Very little was known about the disease or its treatment at that time, but Hale courageously accepted and cared for children who were known to be infected with the AIDS virus, loving and nurturing them the same as all the others.
In 1986, it was estimated that over 500 babies and toddlers had been rescued from drug addiction and the pain and loneliness of AIDS via Hull House intervention. Children of all races and backgrounds, from two weeks to three years, were sheltered and given the same personal care. The work at Hale House did not stop with caring for the child victims of drugs and AIDS. The parents of Hale House children were offered counseling and assistance in finding housing. The goal of Hale House was to reunite the families by teaching the parents to shoulder the responsibilities of life. In order to be reunited, addicted parents were required to participate in a rehabilitation program of approximately 18 months in duration. During that time they were required to maintain contact with their children via weekly visitation. It is a testament to the success of the program that in 1989, after 20 years of operation, only 12 of the many hundreds of children who had passed through the doors of Hale House had had to be placed for adoption. Wayward youths and other addicts also received help and direction to lead useful lives.
Mother Hale was honored by President Reagan during his State of the Union address in 1985. She was invited to Washington, D.C., where she was seated next to Mrs. Reagan during the speech when the President introduced her as "a true American hero." She received the applause of the Supreme Court and Congress with her characteristic humility. In 1989, she was honored with the Harry S. Truman Award for Public Service.
Hale was honored many times during her life. Despite the accolades, throughout the years, Mother Hale's thoughts were always with the needy children who were brought to her for assistance. In 1986, she told Herschel Johnson of Ebony that, "I'd like for it to go down in history that we taught our children to be proud Black American citizens, and that they learned they could do anything, and that they could do it for themselves."
In 1990, the 84-year-old Hale was invited to Los Angeles as an honored speaker at a symposium for care givers and social workers who were working with the problem of infant drug addiction. The public by then was familiar with Mother Hale's work and her reputation. Her words came nonetheless as a surprise to the professional crowd. Mother Hale, as quoted by Beyette, had little else to say except, "Help one another. Love each other," a refrain that she echoed many times throughout her life. Dr. Ernie Smith, also in attendance at the conference in Los Angeles, heard the no-nonsense words of love from Mother Hale, and he reiterated the message. He said, according to Beyette, "Well, Mother Hale didn't have a Ph.D. or an M.D. or 'any other kind of D,' but she took in that first drug baby back in 1969. 'All she had was a rocking chair."'
Hale continued her work. "When I get to heaven, I'm going to rest," she told Beyette. As her health began to fail, she became too frail to hold even the tiny babies whom she loved so dearly. She died of complications from a stroke on December 18, 1992 in New York City. Clara Hale and Hale House are credited with saving the lives and futures of many hundreds of babies over the years. At her funeral in New York she was eulogized by Reverend Carolyn Knight of the Philadelphia Baptist Church, who praised Mother Hale as "The moral conscience of this [New York] city." Mother Hale's work has been perpetuated by the Hale Foundation in New York.
Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1992.
Ebony, May 1986, pp. 58-62.
Grand Rapids Press, December 20, 1992; December 24, 1992.
Jet, March 20, 1989, p. 22; January 11, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1990.
Newsday, January 29, 1985.
New York Times, December 20, 1992.
New York Times Biographical Service, December 1992.
Parade, November 18, 1984.
People, March 5, 1984. □