By ROBERT KELLY
Mt. Olive, IL – The legendary Labor leader and activist Mother Jones was honored at the annual May Day ceremony here for her pioneering work to improve wages and working conditions for coal miners and other workers at a time, 100 years ago, when organizing workers was in its infancy.
Mary Harris “Mother Jones” was recognized with a procession, speeches and music at the annual ceremony in her honor May 5 at Union Miners Cemetery, where she is buried and a large monument marks her gravesite.
Her birth date is listed as May 1, 1830, and she died 100 years later in November 1930. The town is about 50 miles north of St. Louis on I-55.
The event, attended by an estimated 150 people, was followed by a performance of the musical play, “Mother Jones in Heaven” at Shale Lake Winery in nearby Williamson, IL. The play was performed a night earlier at Lafayette Park United Methodist Church in St. Louis.
THE BEST TITLE
Guest speaker Tim Drea, secretary-treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said Mother Jones considered all the hard-working coal miners of her era to be “her boys,” and that they returned the love by giving her the title of “Mother.”
She was there with the miners to support them in their strikes and protests to improve their lives, Drea said. “To be called ‘Mother’ by anybody other than your offspring is the ultimate honor,” he said.
Drea worked as a coal miner for 11 years near Taylorville, IL, where he grew up, before going to work for the AFL-CIO. “I’m very, very honored and humbled to be able to do this work, and a lot of that is because of Mother Jones,” he said. “God bless Mother Jones, and may we all be able to be more like her.”
Also buried at the cemetery is “General” Alexander Bradley, a coal miner and orator who incited Illinois miners to join a nationwide strike called by the United Mine Workers on July 4, 1897.
Wearing a silk top-hat and Prince Albert coat, Bradley recruited miners from coal camps in Belleville, Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Collinsville and other sites to join the strike. The strike ultimately included miners from West Virginia to Pennsylvania to Illinois. It established the first agreements between coal operators and the UMWA.
Jim Alderson, a retired miner who frequently portrays General Bradley, was back for an encore at the event. “Our brothers and sisters in the Labor Movement have had a long, often violent, journey in their quest for a better life,” he said, quoting Bradley.
He recalled a bloody but crucial victory for union miners in this part of Illinois in 1898, known as the Battle of Virden or Virden Massacre. Faced with a strike by the miners, the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. recruited scab strikebreakers. The company hired detectives from Thiel Detective Service Co., who were armed with Winchester rifles and orders to protect the strikebreakers.
Tensions came to a head on a train filled with strikebreakers and detectives that had stopped at Virden, in nearby Macoupin County. The strikers attempted to surround the train, but the guards opened fire. The strikers were also armed and returned fire. Seven miners were killed and 30 wounded; four guards were killed and five wounded.
“The owners eventually agreed to the miners’ demands,” Alderson said, as Bradley. “Money was provided for the widows and children of the miners who were killed.”
A UNION CEMETERY
Portraying Mother Jones, actress Loretta Williams said deadly disputes between miners and coal operators like the Battle of Virden led to the establishment of the Union Miners Cemetery. Local officials wouldn’t allow the burial at other cemeteries of miners killed during violent strikes at the time, she said.
“Our boys were dead, but they called them murderers,” said Williams, as Mother Jones. “They buried them in fields like so much trash. So the union purchased this land to bury our boys, where they can finally rest in peace.” It is the only union-owned cemetery in the U.S. Mother Jones, who had lived many places after emigrating from her native Ireland, asked to be buried there, “with her boys,” as she put it.
A highlight of the ceremony was a procession to the Mother Jones monument by the re-created Women’s Auxiliary of the Progressive Mine Workers of America. They were led by the musical group Wildflower Conspiracy, which performed Labor anthems including “Which Side Are You On?” and “Solidarity Forever.”
The ceremony was sponsored by the Friends of the Mother Jones Museum, the city of Mt. Olive, and the Union Miners Cemetery Maintenance Committee.
Mother Jones musical finds its way home
Williamson, IL – The musical play “Mother Jones in Heaven” has been performed to good reviews at small venues throughout the nation. It tells the story of Mother Jones arriving in heaven just after her death – and finding it to be a model of her favorite Irish pub.
On May Day weekend, it found its way to St. Louis, being performed on May 4 at Lafayette Park United Methodist Church in the city and on May 5 at Shale Lake Winery in nearby Williamson, IL in northern Madison County.
Vivian Nesbit, the actress who portrays Mother Jones in the one-act play, begins the action by saying she would have plenty of time to meet her deceased loved ones in heaven, but first she wanted to recall some details of her life, all the while enjoying her favorite Irish whiskey.
Original songs incorporated throughout the play help advance the story line.
HARD TIMES AND LOSS
Mother Jones tells of hard times after her family emigrated to Canada from their native Ireland and then to various places in the United States. She met her husband, George Jones, while living in Memphis, and he introduced her to the world of Labor activism. Tragically, she lost him and all of their four children to a plague of yellow fever.
Then she moved to Chicago to work as a seamstress and help organize working people.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Mother Jones turned her attention to helping the homeless and also to the overworked and underpaid coal miners and other distressed workers throughout the nation.
Having lost her own children to disease, Mother Jones adopted the oppressed coal miners as “her boys,” and they returned that admiration by calling her “Mother.”
She requested that she be buried at the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, IL, upon her death so that she could be with her boys for eternity.
“Mother Jones in Heaven” was written by Si Kahn, directed by Alice Jankell and performed by actress Vivian Nesbitt as Mother Jones, with guitar accompaniment by John Dillon. For more information about the play and future performances, go online to Motherjonesinheaven.com.