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South Chicago Steel Mills Largely Gone But Not History

by Brian Patrick Roach
June 17, 2008 – At one point, the thick, heavy gray smoke being pumped into the air from the South Chicago mills demonstrated prosperity. With the dense smoke long gone and only a few steel mills left, a group of South Side residents hope a new documentary will preserve the stories of the thousands of workers who once made this area hum.

Metropolitan Family Services , in collaboration with Claretian Associates , worked with South Chicago high school students and community organizations, such as the Southeast Historical Society to interview retired steel mill workers from the community. Chicago Community Trust and Claretian Associates funded the project.

“The steel mills have really died here,” said Jackie Samuels, the community program director for Claretian Associates. “It’s history that we don’t want to lose.”

For “History from the Mill,” about 20 student volunteers from Washington High School and New Millennium School of Health interviewed 16 retired mill workers. Each videotape interview lasts about an hour.

Rod Sellers, a retired history teacher from Washington High School and volunteer at the Southeast Historical Society , said the interviews were conducted in the museum after closing hours.

Dee Spiech, a clinical social worker at Metropolitan Family Services and the project coordinator, asked Sellers if he wanted to assist with the project because of his experience with oral history projects similar to “History from the Mill.” Sellers agreed and became a consultant to the students and the project.

Sellers said he conducted the first few interviews then helped train the students in the interview process.

“It was a basic format,” Sellers said. “How [the mill workers] started, when they started, how they got the job there, etc.”

After the basic questions, the interviews went more in depth and covered subjects, such as equal employment and the working conditions.

“It takes a real effort to make the logistics come together with a project like this,” Sellers said. “I think it was successful.”

Michelle Scheidt, program manager at Metropolitan Family Services, said the project was a way to work with senior citizens within the community and keep them engaged while at the same time give high school students some history about their community.

“As more years go by,” Scheidt said, “we’ll lose that opportunity [to speak with the mill workers].

Scheidt said there is a promotional 10-minute DVD providing quick portions from each individual interview, with the hope that it will peak people’s interest.

Spiech said the interviews took place between 2002 and 2007 and the entire project is close to finished. About 200 introductory DVDs will be distributed locally.

Both the introductory and the interview DVDs will be available at the end of June at Metropolitan Family Services, Claretian Associates and the Southeast Historical Society.

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