History program honors her and Mother Jones
By ROBERT KELLY
Collinsville, IL – One of the brave and dynamic women who helped build the Labor Movement in this region was Catherine “Sister Katie” DeRorre, who worked on behalf of mining families through much of the 20th century and has become known as “Good Samaritan of the Coal Fields.”
DeRorre, born as Caterina Bianco, was honored March 23 in a Women’s History Month program at the historic Blum House in downtown Collinsville, along with Mary Harris “Mother Jones.”
“We are looking at women of action,” said Joann Condellone, an historian from Collinsville and one of the event organizers. Early women Labor organizers in America would sometimes lose their fights, she said, “but they did not lose their ideals.”
DeRorre was an organizer and activist in the Progressive Miners Union Auxiliary who lived most of her life in Collinsville. DeRorre gave her voice and actions to help the coal miners of southern Illinois until her death of cancer at age 64 in 1960.
“She was a woman who lived a life of energy and service, and she belongs to Collinsville,” Condellone said.
DeRorre was an Italian immigrant who moved to the United States as a young child and became a self-proclaimed “left winger,” Condellone said. She was on the first executive board of the Progressive Miners Auxiliary of Illinois. She also was one of the organizers of the League of Women Voters in Collinsville and on its executive board.
The Progressive Miners eventually lost representation rights for southern Illinois coal miners to the United Mine Workers. But DeRorre and her fellow activists had made their mark.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
DeRorre was honored in a ceremony in Collinsville on June 4, 1956, as “a good Samaritan of the coal fields” at a “Sister Katie Day” sponsored by a group of former Progressive Miners members. A monument in her honor was dedicated in Holy Cross Lutheran Cemetery in Collinsville. The monument, where she and her husband, Joseph DeRorre, are buried, is still maintained by the cemetery.
Before she moved to Collinsville, DeRorre and other activist women opened a lunch kitchen in Du Quoin, IL, for hungry children, and within weeks they were serving 100 to 150 children per day.
She continued opening her home to the hungry and needy after moving to Collinsville. She was noted for serving everyone, regardless of race or religion, during those segregated times.
DeRorre was quoted in miners’ news publications as telling a rally in Belleville in the late 1930s, “No discriminations are made by the Auxiliary. No matter whether they are American or foreign, Negro or white, children of PMA miners or UMW men, they are treated alike,” at her soup kitchens.
Some of her story was covered in an extensive oral history interview given by her daughter, Catherine DeRorre Mans, to University of Illinois- Springfield researchers; a transcript can be found on-line at ideals.illinois.edu.
One of DeRorre’s grandchildren, Catherine Mikus of Springfield, IL, attended the event. She said has only vague memories of her activist grandmother, whom she saw only occasionally.
Mikus was 11 years old when DeRorre died. But she said she did remember that her grandmother’s home in Collinsville was always a loud, welcoming place for everyone who wanted to stop by, whenever they wanted to stop by.
“They also had boarders,” she recalled. “Back then, coal miners took in boarders to help pay their bills. They didn’t earn enough at the mines.”
The March 23 event was sponsored by the Italian Cultural Association of Southern Illinois, the Collinsville Historical Museum, the Collinsville Memorial Public Library and the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, IL.
The Blum House was decorated for the program by posters on immigrant women writers created by students of English teacher Amber Robins at Roxana High School.
‘MOTHER JONES’ APPEARS
Mary Harris “Mother Jones,” a much better-known Labor activist, was also celebrated at the event. Originally from Ireland, Mother Jones crusaded throughout the nation for better working conditions. She campaigned for the United Mine Workers, founded the Social Democratic Party and helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World before her death in 1930.
She worked with the Knights of Labor, often giving speeches to inspire the workers during strikes. She helped coal miners in Pennsylvania in 1873 and railroad workers in 1877.
Mother Jones was portrayed in period clothing at the Collinsville event by Loretta Williams of Jerseyville, IL, who has mastered the Irish accent and fiery speech of the union activist.
Williams, speaking as Mother Jones, said, “A reporter asked me, ‘Where is your home?’ I said, ‘My home is wherever my shoes take me – wherever there is injustice.’
“History repeats itself,” she added. “There are two classes of people. There are the workers and there are the robbers. Which class are you?”
Mother Jones is buried at Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, near the miners for whom she campaigned so tirelessly. A large monument in the cemetery and the museum in the village hall recognize her accomplishments.
THE DEADLY FIRE
The Blum House program also included a recounting of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the worst in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and 23 men, trapped in the factory by locked doors.
The fire spurred the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union to mobilize to improve conditions for garment workers. The building that housed the factory was designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.