Point heritage honored
Wednesday, 05 December 2012 13:25

Among those accepting the ALTA Award for Sparrows Point from (far right) Cliff Murphy of the Maryland State Arts Council were (from left) Elmer Hall, Louis Diggs, Jean Walker, Eddie Bartee Sr., Lattice Simms and Eddie Bartee Jr.  photo by Michael Rodman

ALTA Award accepted by local historians

by Nicole Rodman

How does a community defined — indeed, built —  by the steel industry redefine itself as that industry fades away?
    What parts of the
community’s culture can be held onto without
the industry that helped
create it?
    For Sparrows Point, a town built by Bethlehem Steel to serve as housing for company employees, these questions are more important now than ever before as the town faces life without the mill.
    Though the mill has been closed, probably for good, there are a number of citizens dedicated to preserving the history of Sparrows Point and the people who called the town home.
    On Dec. 1, the efforts of these historians were recognized during the Maryland State Arts Council’s annual Achievement in Living Traditions Awards (ALTA).
    The award is presented each year to a person, place or tradition that, as a press release stated, “embodies or helps preserve Maryland’s cultural heritage.”
    This year, the ALTA for place was presented to the Sparrows Point Steel Mill and its communities.
    During the ceremony, held at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, Md., a number of local historians and former steelworkers accepted the award on behalf of the community.
    Acceptiong the award were local historians Elmer Hall and Louis Diggs, Jean Walker of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, as well as former steelworkers Eddie Bartee Sr., Eddie Bartee Jr. and Lattice Simms.
    As Elmer Hall noted in an e-mail to The Eagle last week, he was nominated to accept the award by retired CCBC Labor Studies professor Bill Barry who, as Hall points out, “should be recognized for his work collecting oral histories from Sparrows Point workers.”
    As for why he was chosen to accept the award, Hall guessed that he was selected due to his “efforts to preserve the memory of all aspects of life in Sparrows Point through the town reunions that I have held and the books that I have compiled on the town, the shipyard and the railroads and the steel mill and the oral histories that are contained in them.”
    Also on hand to accept the ALTA was Louis Diggs.
    Diggs has researched and written extensively on the lives of African-Americans in Sparrows Point and Turner Station.
    For his part, Diggs explained his selection to accept the award, saying, “I think many people were aware of the fact that I researched and wrote a book about African-American life in Sparrows Point and Turner Station, which brought to life the contributions made by African-Americans who spent most of their life working in the steel mills at the Point and the highly significant historic community of Turner Station that they created.”
    During the ALTA ceremony last Saturday, a number of other people and institutions were also honored, including the Carroll County Ramblers bluegrass band and J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack.
    Prior to the presentation of the award to Sparrows Point, an Irish pub band played in tribute to the late Joe Byrne, a former ALTA recipient and proprietor of J. Patrick’s Pub in Baltimore.
    Following the performance, master of ceremonies Cliff Murphy of the Maryland State Arts Council called the Sparrows Point delegation forward to receive the award.
    Before the presentation, Murphy and the Sparrows Point representatives discussed the cultural heritage of the Sparrows Point Steel Mill and the town it created.
     As pictures of the mill, the town and its people flashed on a screen behind him, Elmer Hall began by briefly recounting the history of the steel mill and Sparrows Point.
    Noting that he was attempting to fit “125 years of history into 90 seconds,” Hall described growing up in the self-sufficient company town of Sparrows Point.
    With dismay in his voice, Hall also spoke of the decline of the steel mill.
    As he explained, while there were approximately 35,000 employees at the steel mill in the 1960s, today only 44 remain.
    “They’re basically holding candles to keep the place lit,” Hall explained.
    Before he concluded, Hall also recalled thefateful day in 1972 when residents of the Sparrows Point bungalows got their eviction notices. Bethlehem Steel was tearing down the company housing to make way for a new blast furnace.
    Also on hand at the award ceremony was historian Louis Diggs. Diggs spoke of the segregation of African-American workers at the steel plant and in the town of Sparrows Point.
    Recalling that African-Americans were forced to go into the city for many services they could not access in Sparrows Point, Diggs noted that, at that time, “there was no room for blacks in Sparrows Point.”   
    Speaking from the perspective of a black steelworker at Sparrows Point during the civil rights era was Eddie Bartee Sr.
    A former steelworker and union representative, Bartee was part of a third-generation steelworking family.
    Joining Bartee Sr. was his son, Eddie Bartee Jr.
    The younger Bartee also worked as a steelworker and union representative for many years.
    During his remarks, Bartee Sr. recalled following his father and uncles into the steel mill, a place that could be much harder
on black workers.
    Bartee recalled seeing white foremen treat black workers more harshly than white workers, though he noted that one such foreman was later fired.
    Both Bartees recalled living on I and J streets in Sparrows Point — the streets reserved for African-Americans.
    Representing a younger generation of steelworkers was Lattice Simms, a 13-year crane operator who just lost her job at the steel mill.
    An African-American woman at the steel mill, Simms recognized the Bartees, noting that they “paved everything for me.”
    Like Hall, Bartee Sr. also recalled the day that Sparrows Point residents were evicted.
    “It was a good place to live,” Bartee Sr. noted, adding, “It was a sad day when the notice went out that we had to leave Sparrows Point.”
    As the discussion wound to a close, each of the Sparrows Point representatives received an award certificate.
    For these local historians, however, it isn’t about awards. Instead, it is about preserving the history of an area that they call home.
    “I think that it is important to recognize individuals and groups who have dedicated a portion of their lives to preserving arts and crafts, folk lore,  music and history,” Hall explained to The Eagle  last week.
    He continued, “Without these people much of our local history and traditions would be lost forever. 
    He concluded, “I think that the most important factor here is not the people and the award but that their particular craft, whether it be art, music, history or a way of life is preserved for future generations to enjoy.”