By CARL GREEN
East Alton, IL – Will the Greater Madison County Federation of Labor members support the big May Day festivities coming up at the Mother Jones Museum in Mt. Olive?
They better – they have marching orders from Mother Jones herself.
Loretta Williams, the actress who has made a name for herself by portraying the Labor heroine in all her fiery glory, turned up at the Federation’s March 24 meeting in full Mother Jones regalia to draw the Federation into supporting the first Mt. Olive International Mother Jones Festival on May Day (May 1), with a range of scholars, entertainers and Labor leaders participating.
“You came from good stock – you didn’t come from good stockholders!” Williams said as Mother Jones, speaking to the Federation members. “You’ve got courage. Do you want fair wages? Do you want equality? Do you want justice? You’ve got to stand up and organize! Stand together in solidarity! Stand with our brothers and sisters! Be brave, have courage and ask for forgiveness later!”
She was met with rounds of enthusiastic applause.
THE MUSEUM BOARD
Williams was accompanied by two members of the Mother Jones Museum board, Joann Condellone, or Edwardsville, and Gordon Hayman, business representative for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Locals 493 and 143. Condellone is also on the Union Miners Cemetery Committee, which preserves the unique union-owned cemetery that was established for miners killed in the nearby Battle of Virden gunfight in 1898 between union miners and scabs. Both groups are sponsoring the festival.
When Mt. Olive wouldn’t honor the unionists with burial in the town cemetery, the United Mine Workers established the Union Miners’ Cemetery next to it.
Mother Jones later asked to be buried there as well, so she could be with “her boys” following her death in 1930. A memorial monument was later erected there honoring Mother Jones and the miners killed in the Battle of Virden.
HOW ‘MOTHER JONES’ CAME TO BE
Born Mary Harris in Cork County, Ireland, the woman who would become Mother Jones immigrated to North America with her family as a child to escape the Irish potato famine. She spent her early years in Canada and trained to be a dressmaker and teacher.
In her early 20s, she moved to Chicago, where she worked as a dressmaker, and then to Memphis, Tenn., where she met and married George Jones, a skilled iron molder and staunch unionist. The couple had four children, Catherine, Terence, Elizabeth and Mary. She lost her husband and all four children during a yellow fever epidemic in 1867.
Mary Harris moved back to Chicago and found success as a commercial dressmaker.
But tragedy struck again in 1871, when she lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire.
From 1890 to 1904, she worked as an organizer for the United Mine Workers, battled child labor practices and helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. She returned to the Mine Workers in 1911, but left again in 1922 after a disagreement with John L. Lewis.
BURIED WITH ‘HER BOYS’ IN MT. OLIVE
Her funeral in Mt. Olive, about 40 miles north of St. Louis on Interstate 55, was attended by 40,000 people, and in 1936, more than 50,000 people came to the town for the dedication of the Mother Jones monument.
Now her Illinois supporters are hoping to create another milestone event with the festival on May 1. Part of it will be dedication of a new Mother Jones memorial bench facing the monument, in memory of Anne Feeney, a singer of Labor songs who died last year.
The bench also will include the names of Mother Jones’ husband, George, and her four children, Catherine, Terence, Elizabeth and Mary –– all of whom were buried in unmarked graves in Memphis, Tenn. during the yellow fever epidemic.
The bench dedication will mark the first time they have been so honored, Condellone said.
“Our board is full of local people and retired union people,” she said. “We work closely with the Mother Jones Museum to keep the history alive – to let people know how much of the American middle class grew out of the sacrifice of those immigrant coal miners in those prairie towns, digging coal.
“We’re just going to celebrate our history,” she said.
Representatives of Cork, Ireland, Mother Jones’ birthplace, are expected for the festival, along with scholars from the coal states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.
The cemetery committee is still collecting donations for the bench and the festival. For more information, Condellone can be reached at email@example.com.
First Mt. Olive International Mother Jones Festival, May 1
The Mt. Olive International Mother Jones Festival will begin with a May Day program at noon on May 1 with dedication of the Mother Jones’ Children Commemorative Bench at Union Miners Cemetery, 5602 Mt. Olive Road, north of the town, which is just east of Interstate 55. Speakers will be actors performing as Mother Jones and Alexander Bradley, plus Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea and United Mine Workers District 12 Vice President Steve Earle. Mother Jones’ birthplace, Cork, Ireland, will send greetings, and music will be performed by Wildflower Conspiracy and Nick Krumwiede.
To get there, take the Mt. Olive exit from I-55, follow Illinois 138 into town and turn left at Lake Street.
The first Mount Olive Street Festival will be held downtown from 2 to 5 p.m. with:
- Mother Jones Museum visits
- Magician Randy Thompson
- Off the Wall Tacos food truck
- Author Elizabeth Rodenz discussing her book, Josephine, about coal mining in western Pennsylvania and Mother Jones’ involvement in the 1910-1911 strikes there.
- Author Ginny Savage Ayers discussing her book, Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks.
- Dr. Fawn-Amber Montoya, editor of Making an American Workforce, discussing her oral history work with immigrant families in the coal fields.