Documentary captures local steel history
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 14:34

Former steelworker Calvin Simms expressed anger at how the steel mill was closed during last week’s screening.
photo by Nicole Rodman

by Nicole Rodman

More than 50 people poured into the UnitedSteelworkers Union hall on Dundalk Avenue last Thursday as UMBC students and staff screened Mill Stories, a documentary film built from interviews with former Sparrows Point steelworkers.
    Community members, including many of the steelworkers featured, turned out as UMBC professors Michelle Stefano and Bill Shewbridge, the project’s leaders, introduced the finished film.
    The Mill Stories project began last fall, as Stefano, also a program coordinator with the Maryland Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council, and Shewbridge came together and decided to create courses focused on capturing the history of Sparrows Point.
    By January and into February their students were hard at work. Shewbridge, a new media professor, guided students in filming the interviews while Stefano, an American studies professor, taught students to conduct interviews.
    According to Stefano, the idea behind the film is  “that even if Sparrows Point ceases to exist – even if the landscape is forever changed – the memories and stories, and its significance and values, live on.”
    For both professors, the value to their students is clear.
    “We don’t usually think about empathy as a learning outcome but in this situation I think it is one of the most valuable aspects of the project,” Shewbridge explained. “The students achieve a deeper sense of how we are all connected through our experiences and stories.”
    Throughout last fall and winter, Shewbridge and Stefano’s students conducted and filmed interviews with former steelworkers at many locations, including the Steelworkers Hall.
    The stories told reflect not only the story of Sparrows Point’s demise but the decline of manufacturing in America.
    The post-industrial process for many towns, cities and communities across the world is a story we hear about often,” Shewbridge explained. “There’s a pattern at work here; the demise of Sparrows Point and its supporting communities is, unfortunately, a common story these days.”
    For the workers sharing their perspectives in the film, the story of Sparrows Point is one of struggle, hard work, friendship and, ultimately, sadness and anger.
    The film did not seek to sugar-coat the realities of life at the steel mill. Many of those interviewed spoke of the harsh conditions (and even undocumented deaths) that were part of working at Sparrows Point.
    “Bethlehem Steel was one of the hardest environments you could work in,”  former employee Darlene Redemann said in her interview.
    While most of the workers characterized the steel mill as a hard place to work, nearly all of them focused on the opportunities that working at the mill afforded them.
    “It was a tough place to work. It was a dangerous place to work, but it offered everyone who worked there a good living,” former steelworker Paula Fleming explained.
    While working at the mill was hard, for most of the steelworkers, it was tempered by the close bonds formed with fellow employees.
    As former steelworker Darnell Hammond put it,  “We really looked out for each other. The people made the job.”
    Spending more time with their co-workers than their families, many formed familial bonds with their fellow steelworkers.
    “You left your family at home and when you walked in the steel mill you adopted another type of family,” LeRoy McClelland Sr. explained.
    Ironworker Joe-Ed Lawrence echoed this sentiment in his interview, noting, “All the guys down there, they’re my brothers.”
    More than just a job, being a steelworker was, for many people, a part of how they viewed themselves.
    As Troy Pritt noted, “It wasn’t just a job, it was who you were ... a part of your identity.”
    Founded at the turn of the 20th Century, the steel mill also faced turbulent times as segregation and discrimination took its toll on the workforce.
    Many of the African-American and female steelworkers reflected on the role that prejudice played in day-to-day operations at the plant.
    One of realities of this discrimination was the fact that black workers were often given the most dangerous, least desirable jobs at the mill.
    “A lot of times I felt discriminated against,” Addie Houston-Smith explained of her struggles as an African-American woman working at the mill.
    Eddie Bartee Jr., whose father, grandfather, uncles, brothers and cousins all worked at the mill, was in third grade when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the integration of his Sparrows Point school.
    By the time he went to work at the mill, however, discrimination was still a fact of life.
    “All your top management was white,” he explained.
    However, as the 1970s went on, things began to get better.
    While former steelworker Alphonso McNiell Sr. recalled segregation at the mill, including separate black and white locker rooms, he did note that “in time, it slowly changed.”
    For former steelworker and current union financial administrator Mike Lewis, he found life as an African-American at the steel mill easier than it had been for those before him.
    “I was able to become something at that plant that my grandfather would never have been able to,” he said.
    While the experiences of those interviewed did vary, most of the former steelworkers were united in their sadness and anger at the way the mill went down.
    “We left and we lost all of our money,” Redemann said of the loss of her pension after years spent working at the mill.
    She added, “We had people committing suicide; that’s how bad it got for some people.”
    Others reflected on the way in which Sparrows Point echoes the demise of manufacturing in America and the rise of outsourcing.
    “We are not unique, it’s happening all over the country. The middle class if being eroded in America,” Mike Lewis said.
    As he explained, “Patriotism is more than just a symbolic gesture .... Stop taking the easy way out and outsourcing jobs to India and China. Start investing in people here.”
    Following the film screening, the floor was opened up for comments from those assembled.
    Speaking with a barely contained, visceral rage, former steelworker Calvin Simms railed against the way that workers lost their jobs in the wake of the RG Steel bankruptcy and closure.
    “How do you do that to people?,” he asked. “You don’t treat human beings like that!”
    While the steel mill may be closed, and the land in redevelopment, for Shewbridge and Stefano, the goal is to keep Sparrows Point alive through their Mill Stories project.
    They plan to keep adding interviews to the project. The footage will be stored at the Maryland State Arts Council Folklife Archives.
    More information, as well as all of the Mill Stories interviews, can be found at www.millstories.org.