Miners’ history should take center stage in southwestern Illinois


MINERS’ HISTORY BUFFS, Mother Jones fans take part in the celebration at Union Miners Cemetery. – Robert Kelly photo

Mt. Olive, IL – Communities in southwestern Illinois must continue to cultivate their vital role in the history of the Labor Movement and the coal miners, speakers at the annual Miners Day celebration here said.

A smart way to promote the area would be to build extensively upon the tourism opportunities already here, several speakers said. These towns, so important to coal mining in the U.S., are spread along historic Route 66 – just off Interstate 55 and about 45 miles northeast of St. Louis.

About 60 people attended the celebration on Sunday, Oct. 10, at the Union Miners Cemetery, where the Labor leader Mother Jones is buried along with “her boys” – men killed on Oct. 12, 1898, in the nearby “Virden Massacre” or “Battle of Virden,” in which union miners fought strikebreakers and their armed guards. Eight miners and five guards were killed and many others were injured.

One of this year’s speakers was Helaine Silverman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Her work focuses on cultural heritage and museum practices.

“Let’s not forget that you have a huge international market here because of the famous Route 66,” she said.

Silverman also has interests in archaeology and the development of cultural research and tourism at historic places. She is the director of the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy, or CHAMP, and has done research at museums and historic sites around the world.

Mt. Olive is a special region to her. “It’s become a real passion for me personally,” Silverman said. She proposed creating urban parks for tourists and further development of the old Mt. Olive City Hall on East Main Street into a recognized mining museum and research center. A cafe and welcoming center also could be established there, she said.

Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said the Union Miners Cemetery and the Mother Jones Monument at the cemetery already are worthy of a larger promotional effort. The celebration was held at the monument to one of history’s greatest Labor leaders. “The martyrs of our movement are buried here,” Drea said. “We have to remember our martyrs and what they did for the movement.

“Mother Jones was selfless, and we should be, too,” he added. “We have to keep moving forward for justice – everybody gets a piece of the pie.”

Drea said the state AFL-CIO would use its influence to help continue development of tourism and promote the significance of the Mt. Olive area. He stressed his personal support, noting he had worked as a coal miner for 11 years near Taylorville, where he grew up. He went to work full time for the AFL-CIO when he left the mines, eventually rising through the ranks to become its state president.

Silverman, Drea and other speakers at the celebration dedicated a new commemorative plaque at the monument. The plaque cites union members’ struggles to establish the cemetery and Mother Jones Monument. It notes that the cemetery is the only union-established and union-owned and maintained cemetery in the United States. The cemetery gave union miners the final resting place they deserved after their long fight for fair wages and better living conditions, the plaque notes.

At her own request, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was buried beneath what is now her monument at the cemetery. She asked to be buried with those she called her “brave boys.” Her request was honored upon her death in 1930.

Mother Jones was an international Labor leader but had a special place in her heart for the coal miners who died for their cause in the Battle of Virden. The miners fought for their lives that day and eventually won better wages and working conditions, but at the cost of some of their lives and of serious injuries from gunfire.

Speakers at the commemoration stressed that the work of honoring the miners is done only by non-profit groups and volunteers who get no regular compensation for their hours of donated time and donated equipment and construction materials.

Anyone wanting to donate to the cause may go online to motherjonesmuseummtolive.org or motherjonesmonument.org or by calling the Mt. Olive City Hall at (217) 999-4261.

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