By Elizabeth Rose
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc., Winter 2022-23
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer working with the largest healthcare workers union in Connecticut, District 1199/SEIU, and the Greater Hartford Labor Council. He has researched and written extensively on current political issues and local people’s history, particularly the forgotten stories of workers, for a variety of publications. Steve conducts city walking tours, workshops, and lectures in classrooms, churches, bars, union halls, and picket lines. He created the website The Shoeleather History Project (shoeleatherhistoryproject.com) which documents and explores progressive organizing from Hartford’s grassroots. I spoke with him in July about the project, which was selected as one of Connecticut Explored’s 20 for 20 Game Changers.
Steve Thornton: When I retired, I went to work seriously about developing my website, writing new stories, and then ultimately publishing a couple of little books and doing a lot of public speaking, and feeling totally unsure of myself. Because I don’t consider myself a writer or historian.
I do think it’s important to use history as a tool, to teach and to inspire and to learn lessons from. I worked on the left for a long, long time, and [I realized] that unions and peace groups and civil rights groups and women’s organizations, they’re all on the right track, but they have no idea where they came from. And so they have nothing to draw on. You know, it’s like they’re like trees without roots.
Elizabeth Rose: Can you give me an example of that?
Steve Thornton: Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, nursing home workers from my union were trying to figure out how to win safety procedures and fair wages. So they started organizing, I think maybe maybe 30 homes together. And my friends in the union called me up and said, “Would you talk to the workers about this, the ones who were going to get involved in this?” And it turned out to be mostly a history of how nonviolent resistance and nonviolent direct action has been so critical to progressive movements. So abolition, suffrage, the labor movement, the civil rights movement – all those movements that in some ways changed our world – how they all depended on, as one of their biggest tools, getting arrested.
And so I used examples that they might know, and I connected them to the two older examples that they should know but don’t, about their own [union], what 1199-ers have done before.
And, the most important thing I think I said was, “Don’t think of these campaigns and movements as something outside of yourself or in the past, because once you’ve done this, you are now part of this, you’re in the same river flowing along with them. And in 20 years, people are going to be talking about you the same way.” And you could literally hear people taking a breath [on Zoom], because they had never considered that they would be doing anything that important.
Elizabeth Rose: Since you were not trained as a historian or writer, what have you taught yourself along the way about researching historical topics?
Steve Thornton: I remember when I was working, I would take off a week a year, maybe two weeks. And I would sleep for a couple of days and then I’d get up and I’d go to the state library because I knew they had their microfilm. And I was just, I was, I was in nerd heaven.
And my job, I think my job is to turn them into stories. There’s a historian [Marcus Rediker] that I know a little bit and I know his work a lot. And he said what he does is, he writes big stories into a little story. There’s a little story and there’s a big story inside it, which seems like it’s not possible. But what he’s saying, I think, is that there’s a particular incident that’s happening, but it relates to something universal. And so in my writing, I’ve always tried to have it make sense to me, first of all. And link it to other people’s struggles.
We think that the big peace movement, the big labor movement, the biggest suffrage stuff, the biggest civil rights stuff happened somewhere else. But I eventually learned that everything that happened out there happened here, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes inspired by what happened outside.
Elizabeth Rose: What makes the walking tour such an important vehicle for sharing these stories?
Steve Thornton: Uncovering working people’s history is one thing, but making sure it doesn’t stay on the shelf and get dusty is a whole other thing. So everything that I’ve figured out, every story I’ve come up with, I’ve had to figure out how to present it. And if I can be physically in the space that they were, these people that I’m studying, that I’m talking about, and if I can bring other folks to that, and say, “This is the place where it happened,” I do it with a mind to connecting the story to the sense of place.
Elizabeth Rose: How did you come up with the name “Shoeleather History Project”?
Steve Thornton: Shoeleather history, because you don’t have to wear your dress shoes in order to learn it; because it’s a long road, sometimes muddy, sometimes bumpy. But if you want to get through it, you’ve got to really be committed to learning all the facts.
History is under our feet. “Dig where you stand,” which is from Sven Lindqvist, the Swedish author in the 1970s. He came up with a movement called Dig Where You Stand, and it was for working people to actually research their own history and then to use it to put them into action somehow.
Elizabeth Rose is the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford and a contributor to Connecticut Explored. She thanks Steve Thornton for the interview, which was conducted on July 11, 2022.