When Eddie Bartee started working at the Sparrows Point steel mill in 1955, about 35,000 men toiled at the eastern Baltimore County plant. Over the next four decades, he made a comfortable life for his wife and their six children as he moved through the ranks at the mill.
Now, with the plant closed and machinery being sold for scrap, Bartee and other steelworkers are teaming with University of Maryland Baltimore County students and professors to record their stories. The students are making a website and helping with a documentary to preserve the history of the plant.
"It was no utopia, but I and a lot of my friends made a good living at Sparrows Point," Bartee said last week as the students leaned against battered metal folding chairs in the retired steelworkers' union hall, straining to hear the 78-year-old. When the plant closed late last year, "It was like I had lost a relative or a good friend," Bartee said,
Much as pieces of massive machinery have been carted away from the plant in recent weeks, the history of the mill — once the region's economic hub — is in danger of disappearing. But two UMBC professors and their students aim to preserve the stories of 20th-century manufacturing using 21st-century techniques.
The students and professors set up a video camera and bright lights in the union hall in Southeast Baltimore last week — the first of many visits they plan as they document the workers' lives.
Junior Samantha Hawkins said that despite growing up in Howard County, she knew little about the plant when she signed up for the American studies course.
"I couldn't believe it was such a staple of the economy and I had never heard of it before," said Hawkins, who is majoring in both anthropology and visual research methodology.
The project is part of the university's Breaking Ground initiative, which aims to empower students to develop and implement solutions to challenges that surround them. David Hoffman, UMBC's assistant director for civic agency, said the university wants to shatter students' conception that citizenship occurs in discrete bursts in the voting booth or volunteering projects.
"How can we prepare students to work together and see the world as open to transformation through their actions?" said Hoffman, one of the program's leaders. "Every experience students are having reinforces the sense that they can take responsibility for recognizing problems and initiating solutions in their communities."
The Sparrows Point project, Documenting Cultural Heritage in Partnership with Communities, is a collaboration between an American studies professor, Michelle Stefano, and a new media studio professor, Bill Shewbridge. The students in their two interwoven courses use traditional methods for exploring the past, such as transcribing oral histories, while employing the latest technology to record and share those stories.
"Hopefully, what we're doing with this project is capturing stories that would otherwise be lost," said Shewbridge, whose new media students are videotaping the interviews and editing them for an accompanying website.
Stefano, who coordinates the Maryland Traditions folk life program of the Maryland State Arts Council, hopes that the students will not only learn how to conduct cultural research but come away with a more profound lesson.
"They're realizing larger stories in terms of global capitalism and putting a human face on a post-industrial culture, but, above all, we want them to develop empathy and compassion," she said.
Through Breaking Ground, which was formally launched in the fall, engineering students have helped the Baltimore Public Works Department develop models to predict which water pipes are likely to burst. American studies and visual arts students have interviewed residents of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn to develop a cultural and historical map of those communities. Theater students are working with students with intellectual disabilities to help them dramatize their struggles.
The project also encompasses work outside of the classroom, such as a program sponsored by the student government association that reviews ideas for campus projects and funds the best — such as creating a WiFi hotspot near the lake, allowing students to access the Internet while enjoying a scenic spot.
Stefano and Shewbridge hope that their students not only immerse themselves in the region's industrial history, but help foster a greater respect for the steelworkers' legacy.
"This is American heritage — not only Baltimore, not only Maryland, but this is a big part of the occupational history of America," said Stefano.
Many of the retirees stressed how the dearth of middle-class manufacturing jobs has dramatically changed the economic landscape over the past few decades.
When Mike Lewis graduated from Patterson High School in 1978, he rapidly secured job offers at the post office, a General Motors plant and a paint factory, before accepting a position at the steel mill, where his grandfather and uncle had also worked.
"At that time, you could graduate from high school and provide a good life for your family," he said. "There were employment opportunities for my generation that are not really open to people coming out of high school today."
Don Kellner, who worked at the plant for 44 years, stressed the role that the decline of dependable, middle-class jobs would have on young people's prospects.
"You can't all work at McDonald's and you can't all be lawyers," Kellner, 74, told the students. "I believe that the only salvation of the American people is the union."
Students said they had given little thought to the role of manufacturing before the class began.
"When I was coming out of high school, you were pushed toward college," said Caitlin Smith, a senior anthropology and ancient studies double major. The prospect of finding solid work with only a high school diploma seemed impossible, she said.
Jennie Williams, a junior American studies major, said the course has opened her eyes to the key role the plant played in shaping nearby neighborhoods.
"It's a company town," she said. "You realize there are all of these families who have been involved for generations."
For the retirees, who chatted over plastic-foam cups of coffee between interviews, the program presents a chance to make sense of the great transition through which they have lived.
"It's a story that needs to be told," said Lewis. "An entire sector of the economy is dying off. It's part of the legacy of this community."