By GAUTAMA MEHTA
The Hyde Park Historical Society hosted an event at the Augustana Lutheran Church for the winners of its award for the best Hyde-Park related history projects from this year’s Chicago Metro History Fair on Saturday, June 17.
The projects were entered into the annual National History Day competition, and all corresponded to this year’s theme of “taking a stand in history.” The three presentations focused on the Jane Collective, the late University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill, and the Rosalie Villas housing development in Hyde Park.
There was also commentary on the presentations by legendary civil rights leader and oral historian Timuel Black, former Hyde Park Historical Society president Jay Mulberry, and Maryhelen Matijevic, the assistant principal for history at Mount Carmel High School.
The first featured project was by Allison Eby and Madeleine Mirza, two seniors from Des Plaines’ Maine West High School. Since the students could not make it to Saturday’s event, their presentation was instead given by their U.S. history teacher and mentor on the project, Bryanne Roemer, and supplemented by a video the students recorded.
Eby and Mirza’s project focused on the Jane Collective, a Hyde-Park based underground women’s organization that assisted women in need of safe abortions from 1969 until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. For their research, the two students interviewed Heather Booth, a founder of the Jane Collective and a prominent second-wave feminist and organizer.
For their research, the students also made an exciting discovery, in the University of Illinois at Chicago library’s special collections, of a box of interviews with six women detailing their experiences with the Jane Collective’s services.
“Research, for young people, is one of the biggest and most important things they can learn,” Roemer said. “I love when my students choose topics that you can’t Google.”
When Roemer asked the audience if anyone present had heard of the Jane Collective, a woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “I was part of it.” Her name was Rosalie Fruchter, and she had been a second grade teacher at Hyde Park’s Ray Elementary School at the time of Jane’s operations.
“I would man the phones, do counseling, and go with women to the abortion site,” Fruchter said of her involvement with the collective. “It was so dangerous and very secretive.”
Timuel Black, one of the panelists who discussed the student projects, described personally knowing Heather Booth, the Jane Collective founder whom the students interviewed.
“She was very inspirational to me,” he said.
Black recalled his involvement in the civil rights movement—he organized Chicago participation in Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington—and particularly emphasized the important contributions made by feminists.
He had a special message for the younger people in the room: “I used to be your age. You’re gonna be mine. What will you have to look back on?”
He proudly told the room that he was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 7, 1918. While things were much worse for African-Americans back then, especially in the South, “it was different, but not that different.”
He recalled going to Edmund Burke Elementary School, “right across Washington Park,” and urged young people to follow Studs Terkel’s model for oral history and “go and talk to your older relatives. Ask them what it was like, where were you born, what was it like when you were born.”
A website featuring Eby and Mirza’s research, including a timeline they constructed of the history of abortion rights in the US, is publicly accessible at 21452401.nhd.weebly.com.
The second presentation was by Nikki Han, a high school student at the University of Chicago Lab School. It focused on William H. McNeill, a University of Chicago historian (and Lab School alumnus) prominent in the development of the discipline of world history. McNeill, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, passed away last July.
The project grew out of a school paper Han wrote on McNeill. She was especially interested in him because she participates in Model UN, which “focuses on understanding the world at an international level.” She was surprised to learn, during the course of her research, that the kind of history she was learning in school had not always been taught. Traditionally, the histories of the United States, Europe and the rest of the world had been taught in isolation. It is due in part to the influence of McNeill that they are now taught in a more integrated manner.
She also highlighted the importance of such an approach at a time when the United States is receiving a high number of immigrants.
In his commentary on her presentation, Jay Mulberry said, “This is a fine paper. The research is truly outstanding. I can’t believe you didn’t take a year off to write this.” He also spoke about his own personal interactions with McNeill.
The third presentation was by Meghan Hammond, who has just graduated from South Loop Elementary School. The subject was the Rosalie Villas, a housing development in Hyde Park created in the 1880s by Rose Buckingham (later Selfridge), a wealthy socialite and member of the Buckingham family, which includes the namesake of Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain.
Hammond highlighted Buckingham’s independence, and how remarkable it was given her historical era.
Rosalie Villas was on a stretch of what later became Harper Avenue, between 57th and 59th Streets. It was designed by the same architect as the Pullman planned community, which Hammond observed is now chiefly remembered as a “failed experiment.” Hammond noted that Rosalie Villas had a similar goal, but succeeded, yet did not achieve the same level of fame.
She also emphasized that the houses in Rosalie Villas were sold, not rented, and at prices low enough that working-class people could afford them.
During her research, Hammond interviewed Rose Selfridge, who told her that his grandmother would be proud of her. She also consulted the Hyde Park Herald’s archives. On a visit to the Regenstein Library’s special collections, she described serendipitously meeting someone who had done a research project on the Rosalie Villas years before.
Hammond, who lives in Hyde Park, described her personal reasons for choosing this project: “I’ve felt a special connection to Harper Avenue since I was young.” This is partly because of the Rosalie Villas’ longstanding tradition of hosting elaborate Halloween festivities.
After the presentation, Laura Kracke, an audience member who said she had lived in Rosalie Villas since 1973, said that when she moved there, the block expected about 300 trick-or-treaters, a number that has now increased tenfold.
Kracke said the tradition had grown in part because of fears in the 1980s and 1990s of “tainted treats”; theirs was considered a “safe block” for trick-or-treaters.
After the presentations ended, many of the audience members, most of whom were longtime Hyde Park residents, stayed to enjoy refreshments and reminisce about the memories brought on by the presentations.