Southeast Chicago Historical Society

DIGITAL ARCHIVE

The Southeast Chicago Historical Museum is an all-volunteer institution created in the early 1980s that holds 10,000+ artifacts and 180+ oral histories. You can access more than 1000 of these items through this Digital Archive. The Museum continues to gather materials to extend its collections.

Scroll down to view a rotating set of featured items and 13 curated collections on specific topics. Or just browse the archive.

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Pool Room, 3221 East 91st Street

Featured Item

Pool Room, 3221 East 91st Street

Pool Room, 3221 East 91st Street. Pool players at pool tables.

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Black Experience in the Mills

Beginning around World War I, growing numbers of African-Americans sought economic opportunities in Northern industries, including Chicago’s steel mills. Despite housing segregation and discrimination in the mills and early unions, African-Americans formed a strong presence in Southeast Chicago. Individuals like Joe Cook and Frank Lumpkin, for example, were highly respected labor leaders. African-Americans were among those most hard hit by the loss of industrial jobs that began in the 1980s.

Union Life

Unions were central to social life in Southeast Chicago. After early craft unions lost their influence in the 1919 Steel Strike, the CIO led another union organizing drive in the 1930s. This one tried to organize workers based on industry rather than work skills and sought (not always successfully) to bridge ethnic and racial divisions among workers. A nationally significant labor event happened in Southeast Chicago in 1937. During the Memorial Day Massacre, ten strikers were killed and nearly one hundred wounded by city police. Although the unions helped bring post-World War II prosperity to the region, the mills began to close in the 1980s and 90s. Some workers, like the Save Our Jobs Committee, continued to fight for labor rights even after the shutdowns.

Danger in the Mills

Steel mills were dangerous places with molten steel, hot ingots, massive machinery and overwhelming heat, noise, and pollution. In the early years, steel workers were regularly killed or injured on the job. Museum materials offer a window onto early steel mill safety programs, although major improvements only happened in response to union pressure and government safety enforcement decades later. Oral histories describe the intense sensory experience of working in the mills and the accidents that too often occurred.

Having Fun

Steelworkers worked long hours and irregular shifts. However, workers, along with their families and other community members, found ways to have fun in Southeast Chicago. Churches, park fieldhouses, settlement houses, the YMCA, and sometimes the steel mills, sponsored clubs and athletic teams. Community groups sponsored picnics, outings, and carnivals. Parades and local musical groups were common, and movie theaters and dance halls were well attended.

From Old Country to New

In 1910, nearly 80% of Chicago residents were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some were Northern or Southern Europeans; however, the largest group were Eastern Europeans, including Poles, Slovenians, Serbs, Croatians, Hungarians, Czech, and other groups. Around World War I, many Mexican immigrants also came to work in the steel mills. Different immigrant groups built churches, schools, and ethnic organizations to help them adjust to their new surroundings and provide social support.

On the Homefront

Southeast Chicago residents were affected by wars in many ways. The steel mills were central to wartime production. Workers were urged to boost industrial output, while women and newer ethnic groups were recruited to replace steelworkers serving in the military. Many area residents either served in the military or had family who did and donated war-related items to the Museum. Other donations document community involvement in war efforts or the hardship experienced on the homefront, including images of victory gardens, recycling efforts, air raid drills, and rationing coupons.

Postcard Landmarks

Postcards were new items in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and sending them became an international craze. Many early postcards displayed artists’ color-tinted renderings of photographs of neighborhoods, industries, and other points of interest. Sometimes, photographs were taken by non-professionals and then converted into postcards. As a result, postcards offer a fascinating window onto Southeast Chicago’s old steel mill neighborhoods. Industry is portrayed in these postcards in colorful cheerful terms as forces of progress and prosperity. The messages on the back are often as intriguing as the images.

Civil Rights Struggles

Historically, Southeast Chicago’s steel mill neighborhoods were highly segregated by race and ethnicity. By the 1930s, 10% of steelworkers in the region were African-American, although most black steelworkers lived in other parts of the South Side due to housing discrimination. During the 1950s, whites rioted when a black family moved into the Trumbull Park Housing development in South Deering. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights protestors marched through Southeast Chicago to protest housing discrimination. Black steelworkers also faced civil rights struggles in the mills and unions.

Early Days on Wolf Lake

The Calumet wetlands belonged to Native American groups, including the Potawatomi, who hunted and fished in what would later become Southeast Chicago. The treaty of 1833 forced Native Americans out of the region. Early white settlers also often hunted and fished and sometimes interacted with remaining Native-Americans.  In the mid-1800s, the German Konybisy/Neubieser family were among the first white settler families to move to the shores of Wolf Lake in Hegewisch. The photographs they donated to the Museum depict a life of farming, fishing, hunting, and managing a rustic tourist lodge on the lake that attracted better-off residents from the growing city of Chicago to the north. Ice cutting on Wolf Lake for railroad refrigeration was another early industry.