[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
Selections from an open-ended conversation held at DOVA Temporary in early September, 2008, with four individuals engaged in archiving projects that relate to 1968. We talked about the work they are currently doing, the challenges they face, and their strategies for the future. Thanks are also due to Judy Roothaan and Nathaniel McLin and others for their questions and comments during the conversation.—Rebecca Zorach
Faheem Majeed Curator and acting Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center;Sherry Williams Founder and Director of the Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society;Michelle Puetz Director of programming at Chicago Film Archives; and Estelle Carol Director of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory Project
Archiving 1968: Faheem Majeed Curator and acting Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center
We are the last of one hundred and ten or so art centers from the WPA art centers—Works Progress Administration program, part of the New Deal. We opened our doors in 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was there, and it was broadcast coast to coast—it was quite a big deal. Predominantly the artists that they focused on were artists of African American decent, because the art guild that was there found issues with finding legitimate spaces to show their work. The Art Center has collaborated with many artists, fostered many artists over the years—Gordon Parks, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White—very influential artists. A lot of the Harlem Renaissance artists that became very well-known were actually Chicago-based, and went to New York to find fame, but for a lot of them the South Side Community Art Center is where they started. Gwendolyn Brooks—her first poetry class was actually at the Center. Gordon Parks—his first room was at the Center. My role is a very interesting one, coming in completely as a novice, just a student and an artist, actually—coming in looking for support, I received help from the Center about five years ago. So after I was set up and was able to support myself, I wanted to give back to this institution. It started out as volunteering and then eventually it transitioned into leadership over the years—just after many observations and times put in. So one of the very interesting things dealing with the institution is this amazing collection that’s dating back to the 1930s that’s been tucked away for some time. All these amazing original pieces—AFRICOBRA prints also WPA artworks, some of our earlier works are 1930s. But just kind of how to deal with it now that you’re the curator, how to make this accessible, how to make it kind of fit within a more current context, that’s been my challenge.
One of our goals is to create proper storage—partnering with other institutions like the Art Institute to figure out how to start archiving and restoring these things in ways that make sense so that they can be utilized by the world. We have this amazing collection of Barbara Jones-Hogu prints along with a couple other pieces (and since she had that flood, we are one of the only institutions that have a collection of her AFRICOBRA works, since a lot of it was literally washed away). Currently we are in the process of really analyzing how to build proper storage and space for storing these valuable works, and archiving them from literally the ground up. In the past it was very nonchalant. People would just come in, there would be a handful of people that would come in and say “Hey, I need this,” and just kind of throw it up on the wall. Some things had been damaged over the years. I do have the flexibility to do some things and create a system rather than having to live by that system. So it’s been a very educational experience.
The fun thing about my position is that a lot of this history kinda comes alive. So one of our biggest wealths of information are our constituents who have kept the Center alive, literally, through ups and downs—from the Red Scare to the ’68 riots, through all these various things. I just got a birthday invitation from one of our members who’s ninety. And so that’s another thing kind of documenting these personal stories is very integral to the institution. So it’s really juggling from constituents to the artists to the collection to this late 1800s Georgian Revival building. I’ve had success recently, getting a sizable grant from American Express through the Partners in Preservation program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. One of the things I really depend on is partnerships. So rather than going and trying to get funding for myself, I’ll try to pull someone else in, or a couple of different institutions in and submit together, and usually funders are more eager to, you know, fund multiple things—get a bigger bang for your buck. But still, it’s a day to day challenge to try to figure this out. The smallest things make the biggest differences in a small institution like ours.
We were not designed as a collecting institution. None of the WPA art centers were. Actually, there was a time when they ordered all artwork done by WPAers to be burned. Destroyed. So there was a handful of people that kind of broke the law and saved the stuff. Now the GSA [General Services Administration] has recognized the folly of doing that, and you’re like, “Well, thanks.” But we’re one of the few institutions that’s legally able to own WPA artwork. Because we stayed afloat and we were able to make this transition, and so we actually own all the work. But we can’t sell our work. So they’re actually going—the GSA is going and finding all of these WPA artworks and pulling them off walls—the majority of the works in post offices and government buildings, people are just kind of taking them and putting them in their offices, because they’ve been sitting around forever. But basically, the majority of the work that’s in our collection was created either for the institution or in the institution. So we didn’t purchase the work, they were just made there.
[It’s not hard to get people to talk about difficult times like the 1960s.] My only conflict with collecting oral histories is literally the ability to have someone do it. I have endless amounts of information. I have—one of the great things about that I—once I stepped into this role of leadership at the Center, what was amazing was the masses of people that were so supportive and ready to give information. So doors were open to me that weren’t necessarily there before. History just pouring out everywhere. I had members, like I said, in their nineties. I have current members. I have all these—those connections, they branch out into all these things. My only concern right now is I have twenty people I want to spend several hours with (on oral history)—but I’m one individual. So I’m really trying to lean on institutions to bring them in and make it into a collaborative thing and set it up where they go in. Because I think that’s just as important as the collection, those stories. And I know a lot—I’ve learned a lot of the stories because I just sit there and listen. I’m just a sponge—I just take it in. But it needs to be recorded.
Archiving 1968: Sherry Williams Founder and Director of the Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society
This is a huge undertaking that my children encouraged me to take on because they were very tired of my giving history lessons and driving down Michigan Avenue pointing out the South Side Community Art Center, Dr. Burroughs’s home, the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center, you can just go down Michigan Avenue and point out the home—the former home—of Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber—I mean, just Michigan Avenue alone, you’re not gonna even travel further east. Quite often as I head to my mom’s house I will point out all of these historical places, give note to the incredible people and the contributions that African Americans have given to the city, to the nation, to the world. And they got quite bored with it and said, “Why don’t you start a historical society?” And this would have been in 1999. I lived at 4538 South Forrestville—and so when I began the endeavor, I started with the home that I lived in and found out just by documenting the house I lived in and the houses that were to the north and south of me and across the street that quite a few of the residents who were still living there, and some who had moved or passed away, had incredible histories about what they had done in their lives. Two doors to the south of me lived the first female African American principal for the City of Chicago. So I could just go on and on and on talking about sites, places, people, events that have occurred in Chicago that contribute to the fabric of what has taken place in the nation. And so when I was invited to participate in this conversation about the year 1968, the first thing I thought about was what did I have that was currently within our archives that reflected the year 1968. [I brought] two photographs. One was the photograph of the murder of Fred Hampton [in 1969], and the other was a picture of him speaking in front of an audience in downtown Chicago. And I thought those two photographs to be a pivot for myself, because I was born in 1960 and I was all of what, seven years old? Eight years old? It shocked me, and when the shots rang out on the West side of Chicago, not only did it ring out on the West Side, but the shots could be heard on the South Side. And although I was very young, I could quite vividly remember the tensions in the air, the atmosphere that followed his murder. And I remember vividly seeing the presence of the Black Panthers in the community and my mother’s response.
I came from a family of sharecroppers. My mom moved here in 1942, to 18th and Archer which was a community commonly known as Chinatown. And it still is a community commonly known as Chinatown. And in this mixed bag of ethnic, cultural, religious variations, my mom managed to keep ahold of a shotgun that she’d brought up from the South. And so when all of the things that were taking place that followed the murder of Fred Hampton was affecting the South Side community I lived in which was Englewood, I lived at 1023 West 59th Street. I witnessed and remember my mom coming out with her gun and making the statement that if anything is going to happen I’m gonna protect my family. My dad was away hunting. All my family had grown and hunted forever. So I grew up eating deer and possum and squirrel and whatever else my dad was shooting… We always had a garden. My mom still today makes soap, cha-cha, jelly, jams, quilts—so we came from a family that knew how to do things with our hands.
And so now I was seeing my mother taking a protective role, a role that I had never seen before, in the absence of my dad. And so when I look at the year 1968, I can’t help but reminisce about these things that I felt and I sensed that happened, and why it happened, and was triggered by the murder of Fred Hampton. I was eight years old, I had never experienced death from a family member. I hadn’t lost an aunt or a cousin, or a puppy or anything. So having to be explained about death, and more importantly having to be explained about a murder was—I mean, even today I mourn the loss of any—loss of life. But particularly I still mourn, respectfully, the loss of Fred Hampton’s life. He was twenty-one years old. I have a daughter that’s thirty. And so I can’t help but reflect if—what if I lost my son or my daughter. How would I be able to move on?
Our mission is to preserve, protect, and provide African American history and culture of Chicago. It of course expands beyond Chicago because so many of those African Americans that migrated here have strong connections to Mississippi, have strong connections to Tennessee, to Georgia, to much of the South. And of course we have a relationship to slavery. And so quite often when I am experiencing a research project, or we are doing a presentation, or we’re documenting something—the history goes beyond just a person being a resident of Chicago. And so our mission has been just that—to preserve, provide, protect, and present African American history and culture of Chicago.
We’ve been moving more toward being a museum. We currently don’t have a space. For four years we were housed in the Swift Mansion on 45th and Michigan, and we used that space as a way to display and do presentations on African American history and culture. Partnerships have been so vital for us. Without collaborations we wouldn’t be able to continue to do the work that we’re doing. And what we’ve been doing mostly in the past two years has been presenting joint partnership programs through the efforts of the Field Museum and the University of Chicago. So for instance we did a collaboration with the Polish Museum of America on dance, and so they brought in seven provinces of Poland and showed and demonstrated dance—and we brought in the African American experience of dance. So those type of partnerships is what has been able to keep us at least actively presenting African American history and culture.
Archiving 1968: Michelle Puetz Director of programming at Chicago Film Archives
Chicago Film Archives is a relatively new institution. We’re about six years old and formed out of the former 16mm lending collection at the Chicago Public Library. And we’re focusing on collecting regional moving image history, so looking at Chicago’s history of film production with an emphasis on industrial, educational, amateur film—which were what Chicago was sort of known for mid-century. And there are several collections at Chicago Film Archives that pertain to Chicago’s history in ’68, specifically in relation to the Democratic National Convention. One of those is a collection of material that was donated by Franklin McMahon. We have a bunch of audio cassettes of his, material that’s on quarter inch tape and on cassette that were recorded in the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, and he recorded political rallies and has a bunch of tapes from the ‘68 DNC, both speeches from inside the convention and then interviews that he conducted with protestors outside, in the park and on the street. We have a film that’s called The Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial that’s by Franklin McMahon. It’s sort of an animated collage of his drawings from inside the courtroom put with his audio recordings. And then there are video copies at the archive with two films that are pretty important that come in the aftermath of the DNC riots—What Trees Do They Plant?— a documentary made by the City of Chicago immediately after the events of August ’68 which defended the actions of the police and was broadcast nationally on over one hundred and fifty TV stations on September 15, 1968. And then Seasons Change which was a one hour rebuttal that was made by the ACLU in response to What Trees Do They Plant? And what I’ll talk about today is a series of film modules—short films that comprise a 1969 series entitled Urban Crisis and the New Militants.
The Film Group was started in 1965 as sort of a straight-laced commercial film production company, and they made advertising and commercial spots and industrial films in Chicago. And as the social and political unrest of the ‘60s began to take hold they turned their cameras to the streets, and sort of radicalized by what they saw, they drastically switched gears and started producing these really forceful documentaries—examinations of civil rights and anti-war movements inspired by the ideals of the movements and the people that they encountered. They created this Urban Crisis series as a dramatic new approach to educational filmmaking. They introduced the methods and concerns of cinéma vérité documentary and dispensed with the conventional modes of educational filmmaking, primarily having these talking-head voices of authority narrating the events that people would see unfolding on screen. Instead they turned their cameras to the real-life events that were taking place on the street, unfolding around them, and crafted films that relied solely on the footage and synced sound events that they were capturing—which really forced the audience to discover for themselves the films’ meanings without being told what they were seeing. And the films in that Urban Crisis series focused on the events of the chaotic final two days of the DNC, and then as well on some events surrounding and leading up to the ‘68 riots, including Robert Lucas’s 1966 march across the city line at the Cicero and the violence that ensued.
We’ve tried to pay careful attention to preserving the spirit in which the films were made in their original utilitarian purpose. The big question that we’re struggling with is how to translate that message and how to translate the spirit of the original footage—and what these films convey now. The challenge that we’re facing practically is how can we translate the spirit of the films into new technologies such as DVDs, web video access. One of the important questions that we faced in beginning to research the materials was how were the films originally viewed, what audience were they originally intended for. They were intended for use in the classroom, Chicago Public Schools—the prints that we have came from the Chicago Public Library’s lending collection of 16mm films. And as described by the filmmakers, they comprise “a unique classroom aid” in talking about the events of 1968—”they teach by raising questions rather than by attempting to answer them”—which I think is a really powerful statement. They’re presenting intellectually provoking situations to students. The specific struggles and crises that they chronicle are long over, but the underlying political, social, and constitutional issues that the films elicit are as vitally important today as they were forty years ago. What must we surrender in pursuit of increased security? What are the boundaries between the authority of the State and the rights of the people? How does our government’s actions around the world affect or reflect our political and social life in America? What are the duties of citizens to protect and expand our rights? How does propaganda control the framing of political discourse, thereby setting limits on expression? Those are just some questions that come to mind—and I think the films remain as valuable a tool in exploring those questions today as they did in 1968. Like I said, the preservation of these films has raised issues that, as a young institution—we haven’t faced with other preservation projects. And it’s instituted—at least for me personally—a new way of thinking about film preservation and the importance of preserving materials like this. The filmmakers are there, they’re in these crowds of people, they’re developing this material immediately afterwards, editing it, and putting it out there later that year. And because they’re made in that moment of immediacy, with this principle of asking questions rather than answering them, they don’t explain anything, there are very few intertitles, people aren’t identified. So that presents a really unique challenge.
As an archivist, as a cultural institution, how do we create a context for this material and also remain true to the spirit in which they are originally produced? So that they still do pose those questions. The materials were treated by the filmmakers as sort of disposable—the original materials were missing, they weren’t really made to be seen forty years after the fact. So it’s been a real challenge for us to figure out ways to make them accessible. And from a practical standpoint, of course, our biggest challenge is funding. I mean, figuring out sort of policy, access, and ways to disseminate this material. And for the preservation of the films, we got funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation which is typically an institution that funds the preservation of films that have artistic and cultural importance. So for films like this you have to sort of make a very particular case for materials that have historical importance but that aren’t necessarily great art. And that funding offsets the cost of transferring the 16mm original prints to 16mm negatives, getting archival positive copies printed, getting 16mm distribution prints made, and then getting video transfers—and getting the films archived both on video and on DVD. Because while 16mm is this very stable archival format, it’s really difficult for most people now to view—most people don’t have film projectors—so we’re trying to figure out ways to make the material available on video for people who are interested in researching.
My hope is to bring the films back to the public schools.
Archiving 1968: Estelle Carol Director of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory Project
The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory Project is an online archive. You could also call it an online museum. The museum documents a very tiny bit of history—it’s the organization, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which only existed between 1969 and 1976. But its relevance is that it’s a very unique expression of women’s liberation in this country. The Chicago version of women’s liberation is quite unique. We were the Midwest contingent of the women’s liberation movement—and felt we were being shortchanged by the other archivists and the other authors who were writing histories of that movement. They mostly wrote about the West coast and the East coast and kind of bypassed and skimmed over Chicago and the rest of the Midwest. So the relevance to 1968 is that the women’s liberation movement (I don’t call it the feminist movement because that’s not what it was called back then) was spearheaded, was forced up into history largely because of of the events of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement and the SDS and the student movement. It was all those things coming together that created the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union in the way that it was, which was an extremely radical, very loud—I guess you’d also call it a socialist-feminist organization. And that made it different than most of the other women’s movement groups like the National Organization for Women. And their roots came directly out of the civil rights movement and the student movements and the anti-war movement because the people who started that group in 1969 cut their organizer’s training teeth on those other movements. They were trained by the people in the South. They were white women who went down to the South to work with the Civil Rights Freedom Rides. They were trained in the anti-war movement on college campuses—and there were some really sharp gals at that time and they learned their lessons well and they transformed what they’d learned about how to organize a radical movement into a movement of women. But they wanted to do it different. They wanted to do it as an equality movement, they wanted to do it as fairness for all people—anti-racist issues and class issues. So they were very consciously a movement for working women.
And they called themselves socialist-feminists—they had a conference, a founding conference—and they wrote papers on it and so forth. I was an artist and I’m still an artist—that’s how I earn my living. So in 1970, since we were starting the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, I started the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective, which was a work group of the Women’s Union—and we did collective art. It was my group—so I’m really attached to it! It’s my history. There were other people in the Women’s Union who were organizers in the traditional sense, you know they created rallies and had meetings and had newspapers and went out flyering and went to communities and organized people and all kinds of issues of employment and childcare—but what I did personally was create the art to pull it all together—the culture and the glue of our movement. We felt that our music and visual arts had to accompany any major revolution. We felt we were creating the revolution of women. So we just got a lot of women together—most of whom were not formally trained artists—I was one of the few who actually had formal training as an artist, and so I taught a lot of the rest of the women how to do printmaking.
So we did silkscreened posters. And you can see them on our website. We have an online museum, it has about seven or eight hundred pages, it’s an enormous site. So among other things on the website is this gallery of posters and the gallery of photography and an audio gallery of rock music and so forth and so on. We market and we bring our culture of that time to young women, mostly in women’s studies programs in universities—by reproducing in smaller versions the original silkscreen prints. I took the digital files and I made small archival quality digital prints, which we sell from the museum site at our online store. And the money is how we fund our work. So we didn’t feel like we really wanted to be beholden to foundations. I mean, because we were so radical and because the women’s studies movement is much less radical than we are and they control the money, we had to find another way to fund our work. So that’s what we do. We sell the art. And we get a steady enough income—I mean, this is a very tiny archive; we’re just documenting the history of like eight years of one organization. But it’s really an important piece of the history of the women’s liberation movement that we want all young people to know about. So our main focus is to get the attention of young people.
So that’s what our posters do. They’re visual and they’re striking. And so people go—and I bring them to all the women’s conferences and the women’s studies gatherings—and I put them out on the table and the young women come by and they buy them, stuff like that. And we have posters that we popularized from other movements. Some came from Cuba. One by Leslie Nevramont was tied to a video that we made in the ‘70s about the maternity center which was being forced to close, it was kind of an activist project with a poster tied to it. It was a home-birthing center, it was an amazing institution that no longer exists. Another one was done by some of the lesbian gals in our group. We all worked together pretty well. We had some disagreements, but in general…. You can order these online at the museum store. A lot of the other posters that the Women’s Graphics Collective did were to publicize other movements, because they always felt that they were part of a much larger movement. We did a poster to support the United Farm Workers organizing. And a lot of other events. So the other thing that we do, if anybody wants to get ideas about how to popularize the art—is that we make baby ones and we make them into refrigerator magnets—and so the young women just grab these up, because they’re cheap. So anyway, the point that I’m trying to make with all these things is that if you put everything out there on the web and you make it flashy and accessible and cool and it’s always there and you know how to do the search engine optimization so that when you type in your word you come up top in Google—if you do all that stuff than you don’t have to organize the academics and the writers and the schoolteachers—because they find you. I mean, we’re constantly getting calls from people who want a speaker and a picture and a poster.