Archive ID: 2019-064-12

Robert and Velma Elkins home movies

Date Created: undated

Donor: Venise Wagner

Media Type: Film/Video


Robert Elkins home movies.


Robert Elkins was the first African-American boiler-maker at US Steel-South Works. Because of housing segregation in the old steel mill neighborhoods and other predominantly white communities in Chicago, African-American steelworkers were often forced to live at a distance from their jobs. In Robert Elkin’s case, he, his wife Velma, and their children Maryann, Vivian, and Robert, started out in the Ida B. Wells Homes in the historically black Bronzeville area of Chicago. However, after public housing developments lowered the maximum incomes that residents could earn, most steelworker families were forced to move. Finding alternative housing was extremely difficult for African-Americans, as Elkin’s granddaughter, Venise Wagner, recalled. Advancing in the mills in the 40s and 50s was equally difficult for blacks as many African-American steelworkers described in oral histories. Wagner explained how her grandfather ended up in the skilled position of boilermaker. His supervisor, a Jewish man who was angered by discrimination, promoted Elkins over the opposition of white co-workers before he himself quit. Wagner reflected on the pride her grandfather took in being a steelworker, despite such hardships, as well as the middle-class prosperity he was able to provide for his family. To Wagner, the Elkins family home movies symbolize this pride. Now a journalism professor, Wagner is writing a book about her grandfather’s and family’s experiences.

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