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Mid-century home movies offer glimpse of Ralph H. Metcalfe’s family life



Ralph H. Metcalfe. | Sun-Times files

Ralph H. Metcalfe. | Sun-Times files

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When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday

Where: George C. Hall Branch Library, 4801 S. Michigan Admission

: Free

Info: (312) 747-2541

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Updated: January 29, 2014 7:39PM

In 1932 and 1933, future U.S. Rep. Ralph H. Metcalfe (D-Chicago) was considered the world’s fastest human.

He was also pretty snappy with the movie camera.

For the first time, Metcalfe’s 1950s and ’60s home movies will be shown to the public at 1 p.m. Saturday at the George C. Hall Branch Library, 4801 S. Michigan. The city’s first black library was a block west of the blues landmark Theresa’s Lounge and near the 4638 S. Michigan apartment where the Metcalfes lived in the 1950s. More than 24 color reels have been sliced together and edited by the Chicago Film Archives. Metcalfe died in 1978.

Ralph Metcalfe Jr., 65, is curator of the collection.

“It’s definitely a joy to go back,” Metcalfe said. “And it definitely produces perspective how simple and plain things were then compared to now. One of my Cub Scout buddies, Grady Murdock, is a leading labor lawyer now. He’s in these. We have a little of the JFK inaugural; it’s atmosphere but no Kennedy himself. The first thing we have on there is my 3rd birthday party at a nursery school, which is 1951.

“There’s a segment of me tussling with John Stroger [the late president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners]. I was about 7. My mother had me dressed up as an Indian warrior with a feather in my head and lipstick on the cheeks for war paint.”

As his mother, Fay, looked on, Metcalfe kept playfully attacking Stroger.

“He just pushed me away,” Metcalfe said. “He was grown. He used to babysit me.”

Stroger had graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans. After the 1936 Olympics, Metcalfe Sr. became a track coach and assistant football coach at Xavier. When he entered politics, Xavier grads knew to look him up because he was committeman of the 3rd Ward.

As a congressman, he was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Metcalfe Collection is a rare look at mid-century Chicago.

“It is more difficult to find home movie collections from African-American communities,” said Nancy Watrous, executive director of the Chicago Film Archives. “This is a stupendous find. That’s not to say that more don’t exist. It’s great Home Movie Day is being done in Bronzeville. If CFA moves through the neighborhoods it becomes more personal.”

Some clips show family members gathering at their new apartment at 4530 S. Michigan. “That building and the Rosenwald [affordable housing for middle-class blacks once managed by the mother of Quincy Jones at 4618 S. Michigan] are boarded up now,” Metcalf said. “We have some dedication of the Robert Taylor Homes in 1962.”

Rep. Metcalfe was a passionate chronicler of his life and times. The Metcalfe Collection also includes 1,339 slides that have yet to be digitized.

“We’d gather in the front room with family friends,” said his son, who had no siblings. “He’d set up the screen and pull out the 8 mm projector. Sometimes the film would break. It was those little three-inch reels. Later he got an editing machine and spliced the reels together into five- and seven-inch reels. That’s why some of them are jumbled up. But when Chicago Film Archives did the transfer it enabled me to go through and pick out coherent portions.

“There’s clips of a bake sale at Howalton Day School [5121 S. Calumet] in 1961. Howalton was the first black non-sectarian private school in the nation.” The school was founded in 1946 by teachers June Howe, Doris Allen and Charlene Stratton — thus the Howalton name. Victoria Eskridge pops up as a student in the bake sale. Her late father Chauncey was legal counsel for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and represented Muhammad Ali in his draft-evasion case. The school closed its doors in 1986.

“All the history is gone, gone, gone,” Metcalfe said.

The Home Movie Day event is presented in association with the Metcalfe Collection, the DuSable Museum of African American History, South Side Home Movie Project at University of Chicago and the Forum. There are more than 400 cartons of history in the Metcalfe Collection. To learn more and to donate, visit


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