From personal moments like family vacations to larger historical themes like white flight, a public database of home movies recorded by African-Americans in Chicago will be released on Tuesday.
The South Side Home Movie Project, based at the University of Chicago, has decades worth of celluloid memories from residents on the city’s South Side. Film professor Jacqueline Stewart created the project and said although the origins of black filmmaking are on Chicago’s South Side, so few of those films were in public archives. Stewart then realized if she could get video and photographs stored in individual homes to a broader audience, it could help reveal the history of neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.
Stewart founded the South Side Home Movie Project in 2005, inviting residents and former residents to share their home movies. Stewart said some people were initially skeptical.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Why do want my aunt’s stuff?,’” Stewart said. “Like, they think it’s boring or it’s so personal it couldn’t have value to other people.”
But, she said, the movies showed universal themes that cross over the racial and ethnic boundaries that create so much division in Chicago. For example, Stewart said at a public screening of the home movies, a white family from Bridgeport and a black family from Bronzeville were able to recognize many similarities they saw on screen about their pasts.
Stewart said the goal of the South Side Home Movie Project is more than nostalgia. She said it’s also about offering an image of the black community that challenges what she says are prevalent negative images.
“Graduations and weddings and all of that … all that’s really important,” Stewart said. “And it works as a kind of counter image to the prevalence of such depressingly negative images that still pervade American media about black people in this city … and in this country.” She said because of that, many documentary filmmakers come to the project seeking those positive images.
The new database uses an intricate cataloging system created by South Side Home Movie Project’s archivist Candace Ming. Ming said users can search terms like “Grand Canyon” or “travel footage shot from the car.” The database even includes classifications like camera angle or type of film used.
Both Ming and Stewart said they hope the database will encourage more current and former residents to donate their home movies. Stewart said she’s especially interested in movies from families who once called the area home but have since moved away. For example, the many Jewish families in the South Shore neighborhood, an area that is now predominantly black.
Ming said watching the movies is also about feeling a part of someone else’s world. She said, “After watching all these movies, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m part of your family now.’”
The South Side Home Movie Project public database is available here.