By Sharon Ann Holt
Public historians at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) accepted the challenge of collecting video oral histories of workers associated with Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point, Maryland plant, and company town right after the plant’s owner went bankrupt and closed it in 2012. Led by folklorist Michelle Stefano, visiting assistant professor of American Studies, and videographer Bill Shewbridge, director of UMBC’s New Media Studio, the public history team, including successive groups of students, spoke with a widely diverse array of twenty-eight Sparrow’s Point workers about their experiences in the plant when it was operating and their lives in the associated mill town of Sparrows Point. The interviews focused heavily on the personal impact of plant closure and the on-going demolition of the industrial structures. The interviews also solicited steelworkers’ thoughts on how the largest and most productive steel plant in America failed and died.
The interviews, supported by several dozen images of meetings and memory-gathering sessions and a large collection of historical and contemporary photographs, have been shared, processed, and presented in K-12 and college classrooms; on the web; at public events in Sparrows Point, Baltimore, and around the region; and in a documentary film, Mill Stories: Remembering Sparrows Point. The project captures stories of people like Eddie L. Bartee, Jr., shaped by Bethlehem Steel through his four uncles, two grandfathers, father, brother, and cousins, who all worked at the plant before him. Considering himself a “thoroughbred, a Steel baby,” Mr. Bartee quips that though he was the last man in the family to make a living at Beth Steel, he thought he was the best of the lot. Bartee does admire his father, Eddie, Sr., for challenging the racial segregation of bathrooms and locker rooms, while a colleague, crane operator Lettice Sims, pays similar respect to Addie (Lorretta) Houston Smith by calling her the “Rosa Parks” of the plant. Ms. Sims notes her own experiences of discrimination based on both sex and race but affirms that she had it easier thanks to groundwork laid by others. Her modern attitude was, “It’s 2000, why are you thinking that I can’t do any job a man can?”
Besides the pride in job skill and community leadership, the interviews also capture raw pain and a wrenching sense of loss. The documentary film captures the emotion better than the interviews, opening with a poem read by Chris McLarion, a poet and former steelworker. His poem, read to the audience at one of the project’s public gatherings, addressed Sparrows Point as a lover whom he never properly appreciated and now has lost. Interviewee Joe-Ed Lawrence compared steelwork to the military, where loyalty to friends and workmates was absolute. He recalled men who only knew each other by nicknames nevertheless climbing down from scaffolding to dash off and donate blood to help save a workmate’s child. Mike Lewis spoke of lifelong friendships, and Darlene Redemann echoed that the hardest part of the closure was losing touch with her friends. Houston Smith talked of passing people on the streets every day she recognizes and feels a kinship with, even though she might not be able to recall their names. Family, home, beloved, world — these metaphors of the plant pour from the interviews, evoking an almost unbearable sense of personal loss.
Lawrence’s allusion to military solidarity illustrates how the love arose not because the tasks were easy or pleasant but especially because they were so hard and so dangerous. Redemann summarized the sense that “if you were not family in there and working together, you were going to get hurt.” And management was hardly an ally. Joe Rosel noted that, as a college graduate, he understood the need to protect workers from exposure to asbestos. When he asked for a respirator, he was told that if he got one, everyone would ask for one, and the company couldn’t spend the $300,000 that would cost. Rosel, like the Bartees, father and son, along with Sims and Houston Smith, acknowledged that they had had to fight to overcome segregation and discrimination. But the pride the steelworkers felt also comes through loud and clear, both because they won so many of those fights and because, as Deborah Rudacille, whose family worked at Bethlehem Steel, notes in the film, nowhere outside industrial production did working Americans find they could own a home, put their children through college, and save enough for a secure retirement. Union wages and benefits made these things possible for so many, and steelworkers cherished their experiences of hard work, shared vulnerability, and (almost) success.
Rudacille adds another element to the picture of pride and loss by recalling how many iconic American structures rest on the strength of Bethlehem Steel: the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and the Waldorf Astoria hotel, to name only a few. The sheer scale of the plant, its century of production, and its national and international imprint on the modern world make the life of steel, though lost, still a continuing psychological and spiritual anchor in the identities of Sparrow’s Point’s people.
But this was clearly a “family” with a scoundrel at its head, a squadron lacking competent commanders, a teasing lover who seemed true but whose abiding priority lay somewhere else. Many interviews capture the ways that steelworkers struggled against management, against their own unions, and certainly against the globalization of capitalism that helped destroy the plant in the end. By paying attention to the people who were largely ignored by the bankruptcy courts that took their livelihoods and their retirement funds away, the Mill Stories project also honors the lives, insights, and above all the suffering of a huge community of American workers.
Oral history, at its best, can restore dignity and pride to people by valuing their personal experiences, however difficult, as a thread of human history. Sparrows Point’s official story will remain, because it was a vital industry to Baltimore and to American steel more generally. This project has helped assure that the unofficial, shop-floor stories of the people who made the industrial giant what it was are also remembered, and on their own terms.
While meeting such vital personal and historical needs, oral and public history, at Sparrows Point and beyond, can and should pull back the camera and look at the context of deindustrialization as well. In the face of the pain recorded in these histories, do we as historians have any obligations beyond capturing their stories? Granted that those captures are interactive and potentially healing to some degree, deindustrialized communities everywhere and in many industries face very painful issues. Can public history as a profession move beyond just recording and re-sharing these difficult experiences?
Deindustrialization around the country has clearly been a catastrophe, especially for men. As Sparrow Point steelworker Mike Howard recalled, “I felt good. When you’re in your prime, physical work is a challenge, and you’re working with other people, there is a certain pride in being on top of the job. The demands of the work bred a kind of man who was fiercely committed to his work.” 1 There are some new histories of women in Steel and of the wives of steelworkers, 2 but the whole experience of American deindustrialization badly needs a gender analysis that goes beyond just including women. Men suffered not only from lost jobs and devastated communities, but also because “manliness” itself was permanently redefined by the collapse of industry. Studies of women in steel indicate clearly that families, working women, and of course children shared the suffering. But the language in the Mill Stories interviews emphasizes that the deepest wounds were the industrial working man’s lost ability to be a provider and the lost sense of his identity as one of a valued community of strong men working together not just for self, but for team and for country.
In the end, manliness itself was rejected by bankruptcy-based deindustrialization. After unionization, Beth Steel workers clearly relished their earnings, but the real anchor of their identity was the hard work under tough conditions that not just anyone could do. But during the public discourse and legal arguments about the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel, lawyers laid the blame for the corporation’s failure heavily on greedy union workers 3, silencing the critique of workers and scholars of compounding, decades-long, failures of management. So in addition to the loss of their livelihoods and retirement plans, steelworkers, once the absolute emblem of patriotic, heroic, hard-working manliness, had to endure being redefined (and feminized) by management as destructive parasites.
What does it mean to public history to carefully and respectfully document a trauma this deep and broad? As oral history teams labor to preserve these human stories from the march of age and death, they school themselves in the historical context of what they are collecting. Hours spent developing questions and recording and transcribing interviews precede the selection of interviews to make available in text, audio, and visual form. Frequently, these efforts eventuate in websites and documentary films. The UMBC project certainly created both, and an important archive; making the Sparrows Point stories readily available to anyone is a genuine public service.
But steelworkers themselves call for something more. As former Bethlehem Steel worker and photographer Bill Goodman himself testified, at some point he realized he wasn’t just taking pictures of his colleagues or the plant, he was documenting history. When poet Chris McLarion was asked about what happened at a taped public event, he replied, to significant applause, “We can blame [others] but we forgot to fight. We forgot to pressure the politicians, and it’s hard to go to bed at night. … We didn’t seize the mills. For gosh sake, the workers in Argentina were seizing the mills and sitting in them for three years without getting paid, and we sat on our ass!”
If steelworkers, in the midst of their pain and losses are holding themselves accountable, is there a point at which public historians, assembling oral histories of an experience as important and widespread as the collapse of American industry, need to take up the challenge of practicing public history too in ways that dig deeper into the meaning of the testimony?
A historical reality like deindustrialization may call for more than collecting and recording. A bare handful of rich men made decisions that served them well enough while entailing catastrophe on workers, their communities, and even the nation. Yet, they paid no penalties for their misconduct. Instead, the workers and communities that supported them and endured their failures were left behind to deal with the wreckage. They, and we, may need to do more than just remember. In a self-governing society, the voting public depends upon public historians to help them understand their country. Understanding is key to empowering the people to respond and build toward the future. Are we prepared to stand in the face of this horrific history and only record its impact, simply preserve memory? Does the depth and breadth of this tragedy, so vividly captured in these interviews, not call upon us to reflect, to analyze, even to act? Are we really serving displaced workers when we collect and display their stories to our own professional credit but offer nothing from our vast analytical training that makes the road ahead clearer? Can we offer nothing to prevent corporate failure on this scale from happening over and over; can we imagine a new future for a capitalism that is not permitted to cannibalize itself and take innocent people down with it? Americans could be challenged on our nostalgia for corporate giants, asked why, to quote singer-songwriter John Eddie, we “feel adored when we’ve been abused.” 4 The public history of industry in America, if it is anything distinct from academic practice, could become a resource for generating a public counter-narrative, a thoughtful, empowering calling out of public suffering in an amok capitalist moment.
The oral histories give us a place to start, if we can find the will. After all, it is our audience, struggling and dying. Those are the people we get our tax-exempt status to serve. Lung and heart disease, lack of medical care, depression, even suicide stalk these communities where we trawl for stories to preserve. We need to be careful lest, by doing no more, we cast ourselves as one more set of exploiters.
Visit the Mill Stories website at http://millstories.umbc.edu.
For information about the documentary and planned screenings visit http://millstories.umbc.edu/documentary/.
- Mark Reutter, Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of AMerican Industrial Might (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2004), 311.
- See, for example, Mary Margare Fonow, Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United States Steelworkers of America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Karen Olson, Wives of Steel: Voices of Women from the Sparrows Point Steelmaking Communities (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).
- Along with concern about governmental failure to maintain protective tariffs.
- John Eddie, Happily Never After album, 1999.
Dr. Holt is a public historian, scholar, teacher, and executive. She is a lecturer in history and public history at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. As a public historian, Dr. Holt seeks to build community connection and civic vitality around understanding and presenting American history. Over more than a decade in the public humanities, Holt has brought about new initiatives, improved the strategic focus and financial management of non profits, built brands, managed teams of staff and volunteers, and contributed to statewide, regional, and national discussions on the future and purpose of the humanities. She lectures in the United States and Europe, and publishes in journals of public history, museum studies, and American history.
I was especially struck by your point that the prevalent narrative about de-industrialization blames the workers and their unions as being too demanding and thus driving the corporations out of business or at least moving their operations to more “corporate friendly” locations. I formerly worked at a museum whose collections were related to the Studebaker Corporation which stopped production in the US in 1964 and in Canada in 1966. That anti-union, anti-worker blaming was a major component of the mainstream story of the decline of Studebaker with very little emphasis on poor management and industry changes. Great article!
Maria E. Gonzalez
This project has a number of excellent aspects, not least of which is engaging groups of students over a period of time. Longitudinal studies are essential if our colleagues in community planning are to be assisted and the community engaged.
Excellent example of what public historians can do using oral history and field techniques.
Comments are closed.