Landmarks: Southland History Collective unites scholars, communities in effort to preserve stories

I was talking to Dominic Candeloro a few months ago about the imminent closure of Enzo’s, a popular Italian beef joint in Chicago Heights, when the conversation drifted toward history in general.

Candeloro and fellow Chicago Heights historian Barbara Paul had published two books preserving stories and photos from the city’s past.

Paul, long the director of the Chicago Heights Free Public Library, had made preserving the city’s history one of her main missions. She led bus tours and helped establish an official landmark program as a tool to prevent further loss of historic structures in Chicago Heights, a city that had lost most of its downtown in recent decades.

Barbara Paul died at age 69 in 2009, leaving a legacy of devoted volunteerism and civic boosterism that helped connect modern Chicago Heights residents to the city’s industrial heyday earlier in the 20th century. Candeloro, a Chicago Heights native himself, moved away and focused on telling the stories of Italian Americans in the Chicago area in general. He’s now the library curator at Casa Italia cultural center in Stone Park.

Candelero and Paul’s last book on Chicago Heights history was published in 1998.

“We stopped 25 years ago, and now there’s 25 years of history that’s now overlooked,” Candeloro said.

That’s not to say history has been ignored in Chicago Heights. The Historic Preservation Advisory Committee that Paul helped establish in the 1990s remains active, “encouraging sensitive treatment of landmarked and vintage properties,” according to its website. The committee’s blog, started in 2011, indicates in a 2014 post, “We are not a historical society, but we often fill that role when needed because Chicago Heights does not have one.” The blog hasn’t been updated since 2017.

Meanwhile, the city’s regular chronicle of events good and bad, the paper of record — the Chicago Heights Star — had become a shadow of its former self. Once a newspaper so powerful and influential that its office was bombed by radical anarchists in the 1920s, the Star had expanded to be a main source of local news throughout the south suburbs.

Like the Daily Calumet and the Harvey Tribune before it, the Star was absorbed in the 2000s by the Daily Southtown. Its nameplate still appears every Sunday on the Southtown’s CommunityStar page, but the Star’s tenure of blanket coverage twice-weekly of the stories of Chicago Heights ended long ago.

In places like Chicago Heights, where tons of things happened and continue to take place, there’s a history void. We do our best to tell as many stories as we can, but some current events go unrecorded. As people move away and die, stories are lost. The collective experiences — uniting factors of people related by neighborhood or town — are being scattered to the winds of time in places with no active repository available to make memories accessible to subsequent denizens.

A group of historians and educators at Governors State University gathered recently to do something about it. Dubbed the Southland History Collective, the initiative is in its early stages of an effort “to preserve the diverse histories of Chicago’s Southland, create meaningful opportunities to engage with the past, and foster a strong sense of place and belonging among the inhabitants of the region,” according to its mission statement.

“This year is about trying to build community partnerships, learning what’s out there, learning what we can do to help and starting to dabble in areas where projects might exist,” said Megan VanGorder, an assistant professor of history and coordinator of the secondary social studies education program at GSU.

It’s a reboot of a loose-knit collaboration that began in late 2018 when historians from several south suburban societies wanted to tackle the future of local history.

“Many of us had been doing this for 40 years apiece,” said Kerry Adams, the university archivist at GSU and a member of the Park Forest Historical Society. “We looked at the trajectory of local historical societies, and how so many are still volunteer based, and how people are aging out.

“We found there are like 37 historical societies in the Southland. A huge amount of resources and time has been put into amassing these collections, but over time, we know some of them might not have a future.”

A global pandemic stalled that effort until the Southland Historic Collective was formed recently to dive back in. They’re starting with a blanket invitation to area historical societies, educators and anyone with interest to gather at GSU for a “History at Risk” forum at 10 a.m. April 29 at the campus in University Park.

It’s a way to gauge what resources are at hand in the south suburbs, where the stories of the community are being saved and where they might be being lost.

“There are a lot of amazing historical organizations around us, and then there are a lot of majority minority villages that don’t have these types of historical organizations,” VanGorder said. “We identified that as a gap in historical preservation and collection, and wanted to start thinking about ways we can allow folks to tell those stories, to begin collecting those items and curating some level of preservation at the university for those areas.”

They also want to engage more people, get them interested in the stories of the places where they live. A good starting point is with youngsters, and education is a big part of the collective’s plans.

“A critical part of our mission is to put our local histories in place, and give students a sense of how the past isn’t dead. It’s around us all the time,” said Eliot Fackler, an assistant professor of history at GSU. “We want to get elementary, middle and high school teachers to utilize local archives for lessons. We want to make sure we’re teaching a range of experiences and perspectives.

“Location is consequential. It’s beneficial to students to see how history informs local interactions today. If you want to understand Black homeownership in the south suburbs, you need to understand race riots and violence against people of color.”

Ultimately, it’s not just about preserving the past, it’s equally about the future, they said.

“If you love the place you are and know about the issues the place has faced over its history, perhaps you are more likely to engage in change and act in informed ways,” VanGorder said.

One challenge is that history keeps happening. Populations change and demographics shift.

“We have a newer demographic moving into the south suburbs, and this isn’t their history. Do they care? Because they have their own history they’re bringing with them,” Adams said. “It’s a balancing act. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

VanGorder, who is on the board of the Illinois State Historical Society, said the challenges aren’t unique to the south suburbs.

“We’re seeing a general issue, where you have to sell yourself to a new generation that has different preferences about how they consume and interact with local history,” VanGorder said.

But in some cases, the history itself is a selling point. Such is the case in Crete, where the historical society is developing a museum in the village’s old Congregational Church, home of a group of abolitionists known to have assisted freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad.

“Some of that will really resonate with newer audiences,” VanGorder said.

Ultimately, the GSU team hopes to become a resource for educators and community members alike, “a tool as a regional comprehensive university that empowers folks to tell their own stories,” VanGorder said.

And it’s starting with the forum later in April, which they hope will offer a glimpse of the state of local history.

“It’s a way to reassess,” VanGorder said. “Who has been represented, who haven’t we heard from? We don’t only listen to the voices that are coming at us. We’re also looking for the silences and where there aren’t any voices.

“It’s a chance to think about those communities that aren’t being represented in the historical narrative of the Southland and use our regional capacity to at least start those conversations.”

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at peisenberg@tribpub.com.