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Industrial Boom and Bust: the living heritage of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill (Baltimore, MD)

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Part of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill complex in the process of being dismantled in March 2013, soon after it was closed. Photo by William Shewbridge.

The following is a guest post by AFC Folklife Specialist Michelle Stefano.  

On Thursday May 11 at noon, the Library of Congress will host a screening of the documentary film, Mill Stories: Remembering Sparrows Point Steel Mill (36 min), in the Pickford Theatre of the Madison Building. Mill Stories shines an important light on the memories and stories of former workers of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill that was, until recently, located on the harbor outside Baltimore, Maryland. Co-sponsored by the Library of Congress Professional Guild AFSCME Local 2910 and the American Folklife Center, the screening will be followed by a discussion with Loretta Houston Smith and Troy Pritt, two former Sparrows Point steelworkers. The film has also been accepted as part of the 2017 DC LaborFest, which is screening films and hosting labor-related events throughout the District during the month of May.

Created by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1887, and taken over by Bethlehem Steel in 1916, Sparrows Point became the world’s largest center for producing steel, including the girders of the Golden Gate, George Washington, and Bay Bridges, as well as steel for shipbuilding during the World Wars. With over 30,000 employees during its mid-20th century peak, it experienced a gradual decline in the decades that followed. For 125 years, hundreds of thousands of steel workers and associated personnel have known the mill not only as a place of employment, but as the center of community life, especially for those who lived in its company town, which was located smack in the middle of the mill complex. In 2012, Sparrows Point was shuttered forever, devastating its workers – both active and retired – their families, and surrounding communities.

Nonetheless, this is a story that lives on in their hearts and minds. As part of the larger Mill Stories project, the film aims to safeguard and promote the living cultural heritage of the recently closed mill, and to help amplify the voices of those who knew it best. At its core, the project brings to light the sociocultural impacts of industrial decline through the documentation and promotion of the stories and memories of former workers, as shared through ethnographic interviews. Mill Stories serves to connect the experiences of Sparrows Point workers to the broader narratives of industrial boom and bust, whether in Baltimore or beyond. Indeed, deindustrialization is increasingly common for regions across the world. The innumerable closures of manufacturing plants, mills and factories form a pattern that affects millions. For much of the past century, and through to today, industry not only provided jobs, but also shaped the lives of its workers through the development of housing, neighborhoods and community life. Yet, statistics are often employed to illustrate industrial decline and its impacts, with little interrogation of personal, as well as shared, experiences of it.

The author of Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, Deborah Rudacille, writes:

[E]very social movement of the 20th century played out at Sparrows Point – from agriculture to industry, from corporate paternalism to unionization, to the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equal opportunity by women, and then on through technology change and globalization, and now, post-industrialization.

During interviews for the Mill Stories project, steelworkers spoke of the legacies of the local union, which fought for workers’ rights over the course of the 20th century, and the different ways in which they strove for better safety measures and regulations in recent decades. In particular, African American workers recounted how the civil rights movement impacted the mill and women workers discussed the discrimination they faced with respect to working at the mill while raising a family, among other issues.

In 1974, Loretta Houston Smith was part of a group of women newly hired at the mill. She recounts her first experiences, including the brief period when she was laid off, a common reality for many workers in the industry:

I was hired as a laborer, and I was then hired in the pipe mill. And in the pipe mill, we had jobs like grinders, hookers, and it was funny, because when I had – when I first got laid off – my first experience with unemployment, I had to tell them the type of job that I worked, and I said: ‘Well, I was a hooker,’ you know…and the lady was like, ‘you were what…at Bethlehem Steel?’ And I said, ‘Oh, let me explain the job to you: I was a crane follower, and I hooked up these long cables, and I would pick them up and hook it up to the cranes, and that was what a hooker did, you know.’ And I made a lot of money doing that, so I didn’t leave.

Loretta became involved in the local union early on during her time at the mill. In the 1990s, she helped to establish the union’s Women of Steel committee, eventually becoming its president, as a means of teaming up with her fellow coworkers to fight against gender discrimination. Lettice Sims, who was hired in 2002 as a crane operator, fondly calls Loretta the “Rosa Parks” of Sparrows Point as a result of her support for and protection of women at the mill. Even Loretta calls herself a “trouble maker”, someone who “wanted something done, you know, and I would talk about the issues that involved myself and a lot of other women”. Sims continues:

Loretta was a legend in her own right […] It’s just like Rosa Parks; you got to stand for something. She was that stronger person that stood for us to make it easier for us coming in the door, because everything was already paved there – I had it easy, believe me […] When Loretta left, it was two Afro-American females […] It was around sixty crane operators and there was two Afro-American crane operators and I was one of them. During my generation, [nobody] was prejudiced; I was never discriminated against, or nothing like that. I thank Loretta and Darlene, because they made the path for women like me to come along…because that was a hard road that they had to go through and I couldn’t endure nothing like that.

Troy Pritt started working at Sparrows Point in 1997 within the coated products division, on the galvanizing line. He recalls: “I did multiple jobs [at the mill], from crane operator to quality control. As things went on there, jobs were combined to cut costs, so we pretty much learned to do everything.” He was one of the workers laid off in 2012, and as he notes, he did not just lose a job, but he lost a ‘home’ and by extension, a family. He explains:

It was like a family, and I don’t think that people really get that about what we did, because it was such a part of our identity. It wasn’t a job; it was who you were. People now get a job and it’s to put on their resume […] But [at the mill] it was, you went in and you had a job for forty years. This was your family. And for a lot of guys, their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their aunts – so it was, you were going home. This was your home, as well as your career, as well as your job, and that’s what I think a lot people really don’t understand about the experience of working at Sparrow’s Point.

Indeed, Pritt’s father worked at the mill, as well as three generations of his wife’s family. In the lead-up to its eventual closure, he remembers his wife “reading the writing on the wall” and telling him, “I’ve been here before; things are gonna get bad.” Nonetheless, Pritt felt prepared. Thanks to his involvement in the union, and ten-week voluntary layoffs offered by one of the last mill owners, Severstal, he was able to take classes at a local college. In 2013, he enrolled in business classes at the University of Baltimore and, at the time, noted:

This is nothing that my family’s ever done; I’m the first one to go to college, so I’ve been in contact with the professors, and it’s like, ‘Um, I’m 44 and I need to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.’

The film, and the larger Mill Stories project, is co-produced by William Shewbridge (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Michelle Stefano (American Folklife Center).


All quotes are from the film, Mill Stories: Remembering Sparrows Point Steel Mill. This post includes excerpts from the forthcoming publications:

Stefano, Michelle L. “Women of Steel at the Sparrows Point Steel Mill.” In Gender and Heritage: Performance, Place, and Politics, edited by Wera Grahn and Ross Wilson. London and New York: Routledge, forthcoming.

Stefano, Michelle L. “Finding Closure: The Poets of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill.” In Baltimore Revisited: Rethinking and Reimaging a Right to the City, edited by Nicole King and Kate Drabinski. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, forthcoming.

Comments (2)

  1. This project is an important step in bridging the gap in understanding between the general concept of “job loss” and the reality of cultural dislocation when a long-time industry — such as milling steel or mining coal — is made redundant. While we hear a lot about “retraining” and “retooling” for different types of work following the death of industries, we see little to address the loss of work identity and the community culture that grows around a single industry economy. I hope to have an opportunity to see the film.

  2. My Mother worked at Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point, for about 5 years or so in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Her name was Octavia Roberts. She even was a ‘Shop-Steward’in the Union too. I’m glad some of these women are finally being recognized for their contributions.

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