Bethel New Life Records

Institution: Chicago Public Library - Harold Washington Library Center
400 S. State Street
Chicago, IL 60605
Phone: 312-747-4300
Date: 1870-1986
Extent: 1 Linear Feet
Finding Aid

Biographical/Historical Note:
Bethel New Life has its origins in Bethel Lutheran Church, which was founded in 1891 to serve the German/Scandinavian populations in the West Side neighborhood of West Garfield Park. By the 1950s, a third of the white population had left West Garfield Park and by the 1960s, more than 40,000 African Americans had moved into the neighborhood. In 1979, the median income of West Garfield Park residents was 2/3 the city-wide median, and 40% of the population lived below the poverty level. Several community groups were formed to do something about deteriorating housing conditions and the erosion of the economic base of West Garfield Park. One of those community groups was Bethel Housing, Inc., formed by the Bethel Lutheran Church in 1979. In 1982, Bethel Housing changed its name to Bethel New Life, Inc., and under this name continued its work in offering housing opportunities to low and moderate-income community residents.

In October 1983, Bethel New Life's board appointed a historic preservation committee to work with graduate students from the University of Illinois to explore the possibilities for the preservation of West Garfield Park's history andl successfully applied for an Illinois Humanities Council grant to "involve the Black community of Chicago's West Side in recovering the recent history of the area." With grand support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project known as "Looking Backward to Move Forward" was funded. "Looking Backward to Move Forward" focused on four themes - migration, ownership patterns, the church, and community leadership - which were seen as essential to West Side African American history.

Scope and Content Note:
The Records of Bethel New Life consist of more than 20 sets of original material and two supplements. The majority of the documents were donated or loaned to "Looking Backward…" by Bethel New Life for archival acquisition or copying. Included among those materials were 221 photographs, ½ linear foot of manuscript material, nine oral histories on videotape, and 14 interviews on audiotape.

The core of the collection, and its most "historic" component, are the photographs. These images cover a century of photography from tintypes to color snapshots. They record a wide range of African American history on the West Side of Chicago and include images of individuals, families, churches, and businesses. Most of the photographs were taken in Chicago, but many illustrate Black families from the South who later relocated in Chicago.

The Records of Bethel New Life also contain the administrative records of the "Looking Backward…" project. These include donor files (Box 2:1-19), which are arranged alphabetically, and files concerning the Illinois Humanities Council grant (Box 2:20-2:22). Public programs conducted by Bethel are documented in audiotapes #T15-T22 and videotape #V10.

Related Material: