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Bethel New Life Records

Identifier: spe-nhrc-bnl

Scope and Contents

The Records of Bethel New Life consist of more than 20 sets of original donated material and three supplements. The majority of the documents were donated or loaned to Bethel New Life’s project, Looking Backward to Move Forward, for archival acquisition or copying. Included among those materials were 221 photographs, 0.5 linear foot of manuscript material, oral histories on video tape, and interviews on audio cassettes.

The photographs form a core part of the collection. 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. There are photos of formerly enslaved people (Photographs 5.11 and 15.12); an evangelist active in Underground Railroad work (8.44); African American policemen, including those employed at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Photographs 5.9, 8.4, 8.6, 8.13, and 8.43); African American military units in the Spanish American War (Photographs 8.1, 8.17-8.18, 8.20-8.21, and 8.27); and famous people such as Martin Luther King Jr. (Photographs 4.3-4.4), Mahalia Jackson (Photographs 12.6-12.7, 12.13-12.14) and Langston Hughes (Photograph 15.2).

The accession numbers of the photographs do not follow consecutively. There will seem to be several numbers missing. Bethel assigned accession numbers to photos and manuscripts; these formats are now separated and the accession numbers for the manuscript material has been ignored in the current organizational scheme. The Bethel Accession Register (Oversize Folder 1) contains the complete and original listing of all material in this collection.

Supplement 1 (Box 1, Folders 28-33) consists of items from boxes of miscellany found in Special Collections storage that were inadvertently omitted from the original collection cataloging although they probably arrived with the original accession. Included in this supplement are some administrative records and material concerning neighborhood churches.

Supplement 2 (audio cassettes 23-27) were received in March 1989.

Supplement 3 (Box 3, Folders 1-19) consists of additional materials found in Special Collections that were inadvertently omitted from the original collection cataloging. These items relate to Bethel New Life’s administration, additional video recorded oral histories and complete transcriptions of the video recorded oral histories in the initial collection.

Supplement 4 consists of material donated in 2010 by Linda Von Dreele and other items acquired through various means. Box 3, Folders 20-24, and photographs beginning with prefix 26, comprise this supplement.


  • Creation: 1870 - 2010

Conditions Governing Access

The bulk of the collection is open without restrictions. Some of the audio cassettes, videocassettes and transcripts in Series 3 are closed to researchers due to legal or privacy reasons. Repository permission is required for access. Please contact Special Collections,, 312-747-4875

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

Bethel New Life, Inc. is a non-profit community development corporation and social service organization founded in 1979 and serving Chicago’s West Side. Originally located in West Garfield Park (367 N. Karlov Avenue), the corporate offices of Bethel New Life relocated to the Austin community in 2001 (4950 W. Thomas Street). Through its holistic approach to community development, Bethel New Life provides a broad array of services and programs, including employment and training, childcare, senior housing and services, education and health care.

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. The area had been incorporated into Chicago only two years earlier. The community’s focal point, Garfield Park, boasted a lagoon, bandstand, greenhouse, and golf course. A racetrack was built at the corner of Madison and Pulaski (then Crawford Street), and the completion of an elevated train link to the Loop in the 1890s spurred the community’s growth.

There was heavy construction of new homes and apartment buildings in the area in the 1920s, and by 1930 the community reached its population peak of over 50,000 -- principally Irish, but also Russian Jews, Italians who were moving in from neighborhoods to the east, and African Americans who lived along Lake Street, the oldest industrial section of the community.

New housing construction all but ceased after 1930, and additional housing units were acquired generally through the subdivision of larger, single-family homes. In the 1940s and 50s, additional housing conversions were necessitated for residents whose homes were demolished by the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway. 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. Housing continued to be a problem, and between 1970 and 1980, West Garfield Park lost thousands of residents as housing units fell from 14,500 to 10,000. “Large empty lots, formerly occupied by small and medium-sized apartment buildings, [were] mute evidence of the loss of dwelling space caused by the withdrawal of investment, under-maintenance, and arson.” (Local Community Fact Book, 1980)

In 1979, the median income of West Garfield Park residents was 2/3 the citywide median, and 40% of the population lived below the poverty level. “Several community groups have been formed to do something about deteriorating housing conditions and the erosion of the economic base of West Garfield Park. They faced an uphill struggle against the result of fifty years of neglect.” (Local Community Fact Book, 1980) 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--both rehabilitated and new construction—to low and moderate-income community residents. Bethel New Life eventually managed over 100 rental units. In addition, Bethel operated food and sewing cooperatives, daycare and after-school programs for children, a holistic health center and senior citizens programs.

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--particularly architectural history. The committee recommended that the board not attempt historic district designation but encouraged grassroots preservation of local tradition and culture. The result was a project titled “Catch the West Garfield Spirit: Look Up, Look Around, and Be Proud.” In 1983, Bethel 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 grant monies supplied by 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. In 1984-1985 there were several programs developed to reclaim and uncover hidden sources of that rich history.


10.25 Linear Feet (in 14 boxes, includes 354 photographs, 27 audiotapes, 17 videotapes, 6 oversize folders)

Language of Materials



Bethel New Life, Inc. is a non-profit community development corporation and social service organization. The organization received an Illinois Humanities Council grant in 1983 to “involve the Black community of Chicago’s West Side in recovering the recent history of the area.” The Looking Backward to Move Forward project from 1984 to1989 focused on the themes of migration, ownership patterns, the church, and community leadership. The historical explorations included a series of oral histories and also gathered a range of documents and photographs that were donated or copied for the archival record.


The collection is arranged into three series that follow the Looking Backward to Move Forward project organization, resulting donation materials and closed files:

Series 1: Administrative and Planning Records, 1937, 1983-1989, undated

Series 2: Historical Materials, 1894-circa 2010, undated

Series 3: Files Closed to Researchers, 1984-2003

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Much of the material in this collection was assembled by the Looking Backward to Move Forward committee under the sponsorship of Bethel New Life, Inc., in 1984 and 1985. The collection was made possible by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council to “involve the black community of Chicago’s West Side in recovering the recent history of the area.” The grant proposal included the organization’s intent to “deposit artifacts in an appropriate archive where there is public access.” In Spring 1984, a gift agreement was signed designating the Chicago Public Library’s Special Collections and Preservation Division as that archive. Materials were transferred to the library from 1984 to 1986. Throughout the years of the project additional materials have been donated to the archive. Ms. Von Dreele donated additional material in 2010.

Related Materials

Brenetta Howell Barrett Papers

Sylvia Campbell Photograph Collection

East Garfield Park Community Collection

O’Quinn Family Papers

Faith Rich Papers

Ann Stull Papers

West Garfield Park Community Collection

West Side Newspaper Collection

Guide to the Bethel New Life Records
Processed by Galen R. Wilson in October, 1988, and in early 1989. In fall, 2002 and throughout 2003, additional materials were added to the processed collection, (Box 3) by Morag Walsh, and transcriptions of the videoed oral history interviews were completed. Additions were processed in 2019 by Johanna Russ. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Michelle McCoy, 2022.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875