When Bryan Mathis was growing up in the Venice housing projects in the 1950s, he knew he wasn’t supposed to ride his bike over the railroad tracks.
Mathis’ grandmother had migrated from Mississippi years before, and he grew up in the Lee Wright Homes in what is now north Venice. The train trestle was the dividing line for racial segregation back then, he said, but Mathis didn’t know that. “I didn’t know any better, I never knew I was poor,” he told an interviewer in 2016. “I never understood the color issues, I never understand why I couldn’t go past the train trestle back there.”
Of course one day he and his cousin rode up to the train trestle, but they were seen by his uncle. “I got a spankin’,” Mathis said, and an education from his uncle on why he could not cross the trestle” “Because you can just simply come up missing.”
It was the time of Emmett Till, he explained to Lesley Thompson-Sasso, an interviewer working with Madison Historical. Mathis’ stories of growing up in civil-rights-era Venice are part of the oral histories being collected by this new online encyclopedia and digital archive, a cooperation between the Madison County Regional Office of Education and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
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It’s the brainchild of regional superintendent and gubernatorial candidate Robert Daiber. Daiber said when Madison County celebrated its bicentennial in 2012, he realized that the last comprehensive history book written about the county was published at the centennial — in 1912.
“There was no recorded history of the last hundred years,” Daiber said. The big, bound volume published at the centennial brought the history up through the pioneers and early township establishments, and that history was a fascination to Daiber; his great-grandfather was among the pioneers who settled the county.
But the history of the 20th century was slowly being lost, as the people who lived through that history passed away and records are lost. Even more recent history, such as the building of SIUE and the way it transformed Edwardsville and the surrounding area, had not been recorded.
Shortly thereafter, state Sen. Evelyn Bowles died. “She was living history,” Daiber said. “She broke all kinds of barriers, and we missed the chance to interview her. I said, we can’t miss too many more people.”
It wasn’t just people like Bowles, whose contributions might have appeared in many newspapers and government archives. There were workers in the steel mills, the people who worked at Olin Brass or the Illinois Glass Company, the people whose ordinary lives changed the face of the county.
Daiber spoke to then-interim chancellor Steven Hansen about his idea to do a new, updated history book, and Hansen immediately offered the resources of the university, its research capacity and equipment.
But that’s when the concept changed. SIUE history professor Jason Stacy, who now helps oversee the project with history professor Jeff Manuel, said they shifted away from a book into using 21st-century technology to digitize, catalog and record history for all time.
Rather than a book, which is static and can’t be changed, we wanted to create a website as an online encyclopedia.
Jeff Manuel, associate professor of history and co-director of Madison Historical
“Rather than a book, which is static and can’t be changed, we wanted to create a website as an online encyclopedia,” Manuel said.
With Hansen and Daiber, they launched the project as an example of the digitization of the humanities. “Many people think that history teaching and scholarship has not changed in many years, but this project shows how historians are embracing the web and its potential for democratizing history and preserving local history in new ways,” Manuel said. It also provides students with the opportunity to work with the kind of technology they will need to know to work in museums and archives in the future. “Historians have to be skilled in a wide variety of digital and multimedia techniques,” he said.
The team works out of the IRIS office on the SIUE campus, which stands for Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship Center. They use high-end scanning equipment that allows them to preserve their materials safely. For example, one scanner holds the partially-open book in a V-shape with cameras on either side behind heavy black drapes. This permits the book to be properly scanned into a digital image without pressing it flat on a traditional flatbed scanner and possibly damaging its spine.
The three components of the project are:
▪ A growing encyclopedia of articles about moments in time, about people and businesses and schools and any other aspect of Madison County’s history. The articles are written by students, researchers, professors, historians, even members of the community — but it’s not Wikipedia. There is an editorial committee that reviews every article before it posted, Manuel said. That way the archive can maintain a balance between the factual authority of an encyclopedia, and the accessibility and flexibility of an online resource like Wikipedia, he said.
▪ The online archive of scanned documents and resources, from old photographs to a catalog of glassware available in the early 1900s, in the era before plastics. Documents don’t last forever, and people are far too quick to throw away old papers from a grandparent’s attic when there might be material of historical interest in them, Stacy said.
“We don’t want people to throw away things like documents from their grandparents,” Daiber said. “We can scan what we think is historical, and it can be preserved. We should not lose primary references of history, because it is passing.”
▪ Oral histories collected in interviews with people who lived through history in Madison County. Bryan Mathis and his childhood in Venice are part of that oral history, as are Thom Swain, who owned the Fat Cats nightclub in the 1980s; Roland Harris, who grew up in Alhambra in the 1930s and served in World War II; Rita Bonds, who worked for the Owens-Illinois Glass Company and served as secretary for the NAACP in Alton; Sally Burgess, who manages the Hope Clinic in Granite City.
They’re the people who survived the Great Flood of 1993, the steelworkers who watched their industry change around them over the last 40 years, the workers and immigrants and students and other ordinary folk who lived through extraordinary times.
That’s their main focus, according to Stacy and Manuel.
Oral history is as old as our species. It captures a slice of history that sometimes wouldn’t be recorded ... It’s the people who wouldn’t come up in newspaper archives, a farm wife, a factory worker.
Jeff Manuel, associate professor of history and co-director of Madison Historical
“Oral history is as old as our species,” Manuel said. “It captures a slice of history that sometimes wouldn’t be recorded… It’s the people who wouldn’t come up in newspaper archives, a farm wife, a factory worker.”
To launch the project, Daiber and Hansen had to get funding. The digital platform is hosted by SIUE, with money funneled through the regional office of education from grants and corporate sponsorships from Phillips 66, attorney John Simmons, the Meridian Foundation and others.
So far they’ve been able to fund their tech developer, Ben Ostermeier, who was an SIUE history major and minored in computer technology. Ostermeier was the first student who constructed a website instead of a paper for his senior project, and won the Senior Paper Award for that project. Ostermeier’s knowledge of both history and technical skill put him at the forefront of the new “digital humanities,” bringing the disciplines of history, psychology and other humanities into the 21st century with the use of technology.
Ostermeier handles the technology, while three graduate assistants per semester work on the archive, the articles and interviews. They’ve been working since August 2016 and have collected 14 oral histories as well as dozens of articles in the encyclopedia, including the history of Edwardsville’s segregated Lincoln School, the Fuller Dome at SIUE, Standard Oil’s company housing in Wood River and many other topics.
One of those students is Angela Little, the only undergraduate research assistant working on the project. Her interest is local history, and she has spent the semester researching and writing papers for the project. With many such projects, you only get work on them for a semester or a year, she said. But since this project is inviting public participation, she will get to work on the project in the future after her job is done.
Manuel said he sees the project not as a standalone or duplication of other efforts, but as a hub to cooperate and connect with many other organizations doing similar work. Dozens of organizations have partnered with the archive, including the Benjamin Stephenson House, Collinsville Historical Museum, Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, Madison County Transit, National Great Rivers Museum, libraries, community museums and more.
“One thing that has been a pleasant surprise is how many small museums and historical organizations there are in just one county,” he said.
The work goes beyond just the website. This summer, the Regional Office of Education is offering scholarships for nine teachers to assist with the project, learn and understand it and develop lesson plans to teach their students how to use its resources in their own research. The project can take up to 15 teachers this first year, Stacy said.
In addition, they continue to search for people to interview for oral histories and hope to hold “community scanning events,” where they will set up their equipment in a library or labor hall, and people can bring by documents and resources they may have in their own homes. The experts will scan them safely, and they’ll be recorded in history.
“This is a phenomenal project,” Daiber said. “It will take some time, but there’s been so much done in the first year that it’s exciting.”
The first year cost about $57,000, and going forward it will be a challenge to keep up funding. Manuel said they have applied for grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, but nearly all grants are on hold due to the state budget impasse. Meanwhile, on the national level, the National Institute of the Humanities might be on the chopping block as well, so there’s no guarantee of any funding from that area, Manuel said.
All the changes of the 20th century, they happened right here, and there are people right here who lived through them.
Jason Stacy, associate professor of history and co-director of Madison Historical
That makes corporate sponsorship even more important, and funding from alternate sources will be needed in the belt-tightening times, they said. “We have been pleased to be able to draw on donations,” Manuel said.
For Daiber, this was a contribution he felt he needed to make. “This is my last term (as superintendent), and this is something that I can give to the Madison County community that will continue to grow and develop in time, and it’s something I feel good about for the kids.”
Neither Stacy nor Manuel is from Madison County, so for both of them, it’s been a project of exploration of their home. Stacy said Madison County is in many ways a microcosm of the history of the United States, with its industrial legacy and the impact of deindustrialization and the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service-oriented one; the suburban and rural areas; the farming regions on the east side of the county; the university; and the logistics growth along the highways. The diversity of Madison County, among its people, its businesses and its communities, makes it a fascinating historical study, he said. Manuel called Madison County “the most representative county in Illinois.”
“All the changes of the 20th century, they happened right here, and there are people right here who lived through them,” Stacy said.
And their voices — including that of Bryan Mathis — are now recorded on the Madison Historical Archive, for everyone to hear.