“I just took the bull by the horns and dealt with the issues.”
During his 39 years at Sparrows Point, Eddie Bartee, Jr. worked alongside his father, brother, cousins, and uncles as both a steel worker and as a union official. He moved to “Steel Town” with his parents at the age of two and began working at the Mill straight out of high school. He, like his father, was always involved with the union; he became the Chairman of Civil Rights in 1993 and a high-ranking union official in 2000. In the interview, he recounts what it was like to grow up at Sparrows Point, how segregation and discrimination played a role in hiring at the Mill, and the series of tragic circumstances that led up to the Mill’s closure. “I think I got the best out of it while it was there,” he says, “but…I’m gonna be proud and I’m gonna move forward.” (Written by Caitlin Smith, Maryland Traditions intern and recent UMBC graduate)
My name is Eddie Bartee Jr and I am 57 years old. I am a thoroughbred! I’m a steel baby, I don’t care how you look at it, I lived there, I worked there, okay. I had four uncles that worked at Bethlehem Steel, both of my grandfathers worked at Bethlehem Steel, my father worked at Bethlehem Steel, and my brother worked at Bethlehem Steel, and I had two cousins. I always considered myself the cream of the crop because I was the last one.
I grew up in the community of Sparrows Point. My parents moved there when I was two years old and I lived on Sparrows Point all my friends and all. I was right in the heart of the middle of the steel mill. In order for you to live down there one of your parents had to work at the plant. Because it was called “Steel Town” and it was one of the best places I ever lived as far as safe environment It had three churches, it had a restaurant, it had a grocery store, it had a bank, it had a drug store, we had a baseball diamond.
It was only probably about seven years of my life that blacks were segregated to the blacks. Then after that we had to integrate and that was because of the civil rights act of 1964. Segregation didn’t play a part of my world until I got into the work world, because what happened, they integrated when I was in the third grade for us to go to school together so we had to go to school together and that was 1968. It didn’t affect you when you were nine or ten years old because of the fact that you’re not thinking on that level. We played on the same baseball teams, we played on the same football teams.
You only think of the level of how discrimination come apart is when you get into the corporate world. When you get in the corporate world and you realize that there’s two tiers or two sides and you realize how they treat black people and how they treat white people. So how they treat white people in some cases and then how they treat black people in other cases that even within the union thats how things were played out because you look at the ratio of the hiring, how you had a percentage, you looked at management, all management you had a handful of blacks and the rest of them was white. All your top management was white. All your superintendents, well you had a few black superintendents, one or two, but most of your top management above, all in labor relations, all white.
So this is what you had to deal with. And then, you know, the thing about it is I think what probably kept me at a certain level is because my father was union president and vice president, he already had paved the way for me and made connections within that company, got respect from out of that company, so it made it a lot easier for me that I didn’t have to go through a lot of the struggles that people went through. It’s like alright, I just took the bull by the horn and dealt with the issues and just do the best we can. So I followed behind my dad’s footsteps pretty much as far as an advocate for the union.
I stood up for people’s rights, I stood up for workers rights. For a person to come out of high school, a non-skilled job and take a job and make $25 an hour and have the best of benefits, have health care, have pension and have life insurance paid by the company. These are the things that you look at that a lot of people don’t recognize and say now you have to go out there and regroup to get these things. So sure, I’m like anybody else. I’m a little saddened that it had to go down, but I think I got the best out of it while I was there. (Edited by Kristen Anchor)