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Kickstarting History

Posted under Stories by Peter T. Alter

DePaul University interns Catrien Egbert and Yasmin Mitchel are working on the Museum’s latest oral history initiative, Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project. Through DePaul’s public history program, they were students of Peter T. Alter, the Museum’s director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. Catrien and Yasmin are working with Peter now on the Forty Blocks project.

Since April 2015, the Chicago History Museum (CHM) has been developing a collaborative oral history project with Breakthrough Ministries, a social services provider located in the community of East Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side. Breakthrough has worked in the neighborhood since the late 1990s and has broad connections there. Starting in March, while based at Breakthrough’s FamilyPlex, we will work on the project with the Breakthrough Film Crew, a group of middle and high school students who have an interest in developing film, video, and audio skills. Together we will learn East Garfield Park’s history and oral history interviewing techniques, which includes touring the neighborhood, going on a field trip to CHM, and using CHM’s extensive archival and photographic collections. Then, on March 26, the Film Crew will conduct as many as twenty-four interviews with East Garfield Park residents.


On Saturday, February 13, Film Crew members recorded a history presentation and built a timeline of East Garfield Park’s history. Photographs by Peter T. Alter

For the Forty Blocks project, CHM is trying a relatively new way of funding the effort through Kickstarter.com, an online “funding platform for creative projects.” Donations to this campaign will be used to purchase new audio recorders, pay for professional oral history transcriptions, and staff the project. CHM plans to raise $3,000 through Kickstarter.com and is well on its way to meeting that goal.

We could always use your help, though, with sharing the campaign with others and pledging. The goals of the project lie at the heart of CHM’s mission: welcoming Chicagoans and sharing Chicago’s stories. In this case, East Garfield Park residents will share their stories with CHM.

In 1966, during the Chicago Freedom Movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to East Garfield Park and other Chicago neighborhoods. He even lived close to East Garfield Park in the West Side community of North Lawndale. Dr. King, the SCLC, neighborhood cooperative organizations, church leaders, and block clubs fought against racism in housing, education, and employment.

Since the 1970s, East Garfield Park has become synonymous with poverty and violence and its history has gone largely unrecorded since this time. More recently, the area has emerged as a possible zone of gentrification and redevelopment, and residents wonder if it will become “the next Wicker Park”—if they will see the issues and transitions that come with such change. Yet, the community is much more than this.

That’s why CHM and the Breakthrough Film Crew are working together to document its history. By recording and transcribing the stories of East Garfield Park’s residents, CHM hopes to add to the understanding of Chicago’s history, African American history, and the rich tapestry of American history. East Garfield Park’s history will become known and accessible through places like the Collection Online portion of the CHM website. Film Crew students will also create their own documentary film from these interviews, which we plan to screen in CHM’s Robert R. McCormick Theater later this year.

Please visit our Kickstarter campaign, watch the video, share it with others, and even pledge if you like.

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