Clara Hale

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.


Further Reading on Clara Hale

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.