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South Chicago, East Side

Southeast Side Archive Makes History ‘Come Alive’ With Short Documentaries, Curated Collections

Using the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum's "incredible wealth of historical materials," the digital archive allows residents and their items to tell stories of local — and national — importance.

Workers pose for a picture in the steel beam room at the U.S. Steel South Works facility in the 1970s. The photo is one of a series featuring steelworkers on the job donated by Ed Sadlowski, former union president for Local 65 of the United Steelworkers of America.
Southeast Chicago Historical Museum
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EAST SIDE — A scrapbook about the Memorial Day Massacre created by a 19-year-old witness. A decades-old ticket to a free circus at 108th and Ewing. A furnace worker’s hard hat from the U.S. Steel South Works plant.

The Southeast Chicago Archive and Storytelling Project documents and gives context to these historical items — and plenty more. It’s all housed on an interactive website now that is still being developed, with plans to be finalized early next year.

Four interactive storylines — mini-documentaries on local topics which incorporate the museum’s items and oral histories — are the online archive’s centerpiece. The storylines:

The first two storylines are finished and free to view online. Links to the featured items and interviews are included throughout, so users can dive deeper into their histories.

The piece on deindustrialization is planned for a late fall release. The environmental activism storyline is set for early spring.

The online archive also features 13 curated collections on local social life, Black workers’ experiences in the steel mills, union organizing, small shops and more.

The storylines are “very intense and very complicated, from a technical standpoint,” said Rod Sellers, volunteer director of the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum. Located in the Calumet Park Fieldhouse at 9801 S. Avenue G, the one-room museum has been closed since the start of the pandemic.

Many of the museum’s nearly 200 oral histories, featured in the storylines and elsewhere on the site, were completed by Sellers and his students at George Washington High School in the ’90s and early 2000s.

The items displayed on the archive, and residents’ stories about those items, make an underappreciated community’s history “come alive,” project director Christine Walley said.

A Southeast Side native, Walley’s father worked for Wisconsin Steel until the company closed its South Deering plant in 1980. She’s now a professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“There was this feeling after the mills had closed, for a lot of people, [that the Southeast Side was] this passed-over area,” Walley said. “There’s an amazing history down underneath the Chicago Skyway that people aren’t aware of. This kind of project can convey that more broadly.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Homes in South Chicago on April 30, 2021.

Sellers will consider the archive’s rollout a success if Chicagoans use it to become more aware of the community’s rich history, he said.

The Southeast Side is “a forgotten part of the city” for many outsiders, Sellers said. In return, he jokes he doesn’t keep up with anything north of 79th Street.

But Southeast Siders’ stories must be heard, Sellers said. They aren’t just of local importance; they — and the museum’s archive, by extension — reflect recurring themes in United States history.

Though some of the items in the archive are nearly a century old, and some interviews date back a few decades, the stories they tell remain relevant.

“Industrialization, immigration, unionization — those things all played out on the Southeast Side of the city,” he said.

The first major wave of Mexican immigrants settled on the Southeast Side in the early 20th century. Now, Hispanic and Latino people comprise 82 percent of East Side’s population and 60.5 percent of Hegewisch residents.

The Memorial Day Massacre took place at Republic Steel’s facility near 116th Street and Burley Avenue. More than eight decades later, the site is again a community flashpoint as environmental activists — including students and faculty at George Washington High, less than a mile away — organize to stop a fifth metal scrapper from opening.

Residents have also pushed back against the expansion of a federal dump site near Calumet Park, toxic pollutants and more. They’ve been “very much involved with pollution and environmental issues” in recent decades, Sellers said.

“Prior to that, those were kind of downplayed because of the economy,” Sellers said. “One quotation that comes up again and again in that area — back in the day when the mills were operating — was, ‘If there’s soot on the windows, there’s food on the table.'”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Trinity Colon, a 17-year-old student at George Washington High School, speaks as activists march and carry a fake coffin March 4 through Logan Square to call on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deny a permit that would allow Southside Recycling to open in East Side.

Walley explored the community’s ongoing issues of environmental justice and economic opportunity in her book “Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago.” She and her husband, filmmaker Chris Boebel, made the book into a documentary.

Boebel is also co-director of the website team, which includes creative director Jeff Soyk — who designed the site — and archivist Derek Potts.

The archive was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and MIT.

Much like the online archive, the “Exit Zero” book and film relied heavily on the museum’s collections. With those projects, “we had the chance to experience the incredible wealth of materials in this community museum and how amazing it is,” Walley said.

In working on the Southeast Chicago archive, “we’ve only been increasingly astounded” by the museum’s collections and preservation work, she said.

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