Community Voices Spotlight: Jill Schennum

One of Bethlehem’s most defining landscapes is the Bethlehem Steel factory.  Approaching South Bethlehem from any direction, the retired steel stacks are the first thing anyone sees.  They are the city’s major historical attraction, and Bethlehem Steel is arguably Bethlehem’s greatest claim to fame.  The once multinational corporation impacted the lives of nearly every family in the Bethlehem area during its years of operation, and its logo and history can be found scattered throughout the city today.  Jill Schennum is a researcher who honors the history and legacy of Bethlehem Steel with a particular focus on the stories of steelworkers and their families through her work with the Steelworkers’ Archives.

Dr. Jill Schennum has been a Professor at County College of Morris (CCM) for twenty-one years.  She is a cultural anthropologist with appointments in the Anthropology, Sociology, and Economics departments at the community college in New Jersey.  Schennum is also a leading expert on Bethlehem steelworkers and is finishing a book about the fall of Bethlehem Steel.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Schennum was working in Bethlehem as a social worker.  During this time, she witnessed firsthand the closing of the steel mill in Bethlehem, sparking her interest in the subject.  As a member of the community, she felt the societal impact of deindustrialization as families worried about the financial burden of losing their jobs.  After witnessing the fall of Bethlehem Steel, the steelworkers became the focus of her research. She went on to pursue a Ph.D. and completed a dissertation titled Bethlehem Steelworkers: Reshaping the Industrial Working Class, which involved years of research in the Lehigh Valley.  She specifically studies the economic impact of the loss of union jobs, pensions, and healthcare.  

Schennum is not only dedicated to the history of Bethlehem Steel scholastically, but also has brought that history to a platform for engaging the current Bethlehem community.  Jill has been a fundamental resource in collecting the Steelworkers’ Archives through her position on the Mission Interpretation Committee and on the Steelworkers Archives Board of Directors.  These archives are dedicated to preserving the history of the corporation that held such an influential role in Bethlehem’s development.  In this project, Schennum had interviewed a number of women who worked at Bethlehem Steel because she recognized an underrepresentation of women’s voices in Bethlehem’s story.  She then took the initiative in creating the Women of Bethlehem Steel Collection in the Beyond Steel Archive in collaboration with Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative members Seth Moglen and Julia Maserjian. Schennum, Moglen, and Maserjian organize the Women of Bethlehem Steel collection as a place to showcase the stories of women already collected and to collect additional oral histories to complete the image of women’s integration into Bethlehem Steel.

Schennum is currently expanding on her dissertation as she completes a book detailing her research on steelworkers entering Bethlehem Steel between the years of 1964 and 1979.  In the book project, she examines three waves of hiring from the company’s prime through its financial difficulties and its eventual decline. Her book tells the story of workers as they contribute to the building of the nation in a dynamic steel industry, but focuses more on the anxiety of such workers when toward the end of the 20th century Bethlehem Steel began its movement toward closure.  She specifically focuses on the steelworkers union and its relation to this tense time. Through the union contracts, workers in danger of losing their jobs could be transferred to other steel plants, most commonly Lackawanna in Buffalo, NY, with the hope that they could fulfill their pension eligibility before the collapse of the company. In cases where pension eligibility could not be met, she studies the transition of steelworkers into other jobs.

Schennum specializes in a very dynamic range of steelworker experiences.  Through her work, she knows that there are many different narratives to the story of Bethlehem Steel.  She is committed to highlighting the diversity of these stories in order to provide a nuanced understanding of the history and legacy of our city’s major corporate entity until the end of the 20th century. Schennum is dedicated to celebrating the history of the city of Bethlehem and also sharing the stories of difficult economic times.  She also is preserving the history of Bethlehem Steel and sharing it with the community to make sure that the steel stacks that are characteristic of Bethlehem retain the historical significance through the stories of the people who worked there.

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