The Union Miners Cemetery has a “spirit-thread” of labor history connected to it. It is in Mt. Olive, a small mining-town that was once the center of a rebellious group of miners who helped to secure Illinois as the solid rock for the United Mine Workers Union. Today thousands of visitors come each year to pay their respects to the memory to Mother Jones and the spirit that guided her and the founders of the labor movement in the United States. They reflect about the connections between the past and the present. We are working to preserve these memories by preserving the monument and site.
The cemetery was established in 1899, when commemorations of the miners killed in the 1898 “Virden riot” became controversial in the established Virden cemetery. The bodies of the Virden “martyrs” were re-interred in a cemetery established as the Union Miners Cemetery by the Mt. Olive United Mine Workers local. Commemorations of these events in the following years contributed a great deal toward sustaining the sense of historic purpose that led to a generation of activism in the Illinois coal fields. They did this by claiming the kind of memorial space that was denied in other places, such as Haymarket, where police often disrupted commemorations. This built a sense of connection between past and present in the area, and made it clear that ordinary workers had changed the course of history. The role of the ordinary worker came into focus. Mt. Olive was one of the few places in the country where labor history was taught before the 1970s.
Mother Jones’ decision to be buried in Mt. Olive (see letter, left) was due to the battles that were rooted not only in the 1890s but in the 1920s and 1930s; she valued the voice of the ordinary miner, and she felt that President John L. Lewis, who the head of the United Mine Workers was eliminating that rank-and-file voice. One month after she spoke at the commemoration event on October 12, 1923, she wrote indicating that she had chosen the site as her burial place. In 1930 she died and was initially buried there, with the pallbearers being the last remaining survivors of the “Virden riot.”
Soon, a fundraising effort was underway by the miners to build a fitting monument to Mother Jones. In the heart of the depression, when miners around the country were often penniless, they donated in mostly small amounts to build a tremendous 80-ton Minnesota pink granite, 22 feet high, flanked by two bronze statues of miners. They dug the site themselves. The site itself evokes what Mother Jones meant to a generation of trade unionists.
This is a unique place in the history of the labor movement; it was the only union-owned cemetery in the country. This is a place with a monument to Mother Jones, but it also evokes the power and potential of the labor movement. It is a place of reflection and remembering, of thinking of the labor movement’s roots. It is a shrine not only to Jones but to the sacrifices that connected human rights and labor rights, a place where people wonder when and why labor lost power.
Joe Ozanic, who had been the spearhead of the original monument to Mother Jones, began an effort to get the site designated as a National Historic Site; it was designated in 1972. They built the new entrance, with the defiant declaration, “The resting place of real union people.”
In the future, we’ll be telling you more about the stories of the people on the monument. Most of them were killed in the mine wars of the 1930s. By then the miners in Illinois had rebelled and formed another union, the Progressive Miners of America. The PMA kept up the commemorations for years. In the 1980s, the Mother Jones Foundation in Springfield Illinois began a renewal of those commemorations.
Currently the caretaker of the monument is the Union Miners Perpetual Care Association. Recently, coordinated by the Illinois AFL-CIO, this group has spearheaded a fundraising drive for the restoration of the cemetery, in conjunction with Mother Jones foundation, Illinois Labor History Society. They also secured an Illinois Tourism Grant for this work. The work of volunteers remains the foundation for the preservation of the site. The site will be re-dedicated in October 2015.