Auld Lang Syne to Four We Lost This Year
At year’s end, we pause to reflect on those we have lost and commemorate their lives.
John Keiser, a native of Mt. Olive who did so much to keep the spirit-thread of history of the area alive, passed away suddenly in January of this year. The board of the museum mourned Prof. Keiser’s loss and celebrated his contribution at our May Day event.
John’s decision to become a labor historian was a product of the Mt. Olive union culture. Long before there was such a field as “labor history” in the historical profession, John decided to become one, according to his widow, Nancy Keiser. “First, he had two grandfathers, John Keiser and John Fenwick, who both worked in the mines,” she remarked. The loss of Fenwick in a mine accident was a core memory. But the culture of Mt. Olive, where labor history was taught in the schools, and children received their report cards at the Monument every year, was a key factor as well. Keiser readily recognized that miners, their families, and their communities had shaped history even if the dominant culture did not. John never forgot his roots.
John Keiser, native of Mt. Olive, a “pioneer of labor history.” Photo credit: Nancy Keiser It was a shock to attend college and find nothing in the curriculum about labor history, according to Nancy. So when John was accepted to Northwestern, he told his mentor, Robert Wiebe, that he was determined to research and write about labor’s history. His widow Nancy, who typed all his papers and books, remembered his deep commitment to his hometown and to excavating some of this hidden history, calling him a “pioneer of labor history.” His dissertation, completed in 1965, was on John Fitzpatrick, the Chicago Irish labor leader who was a key associate of Mother Jones.
Keiser eventually wrote about the role of Mt. Olive and the radical milieu of miners’ culture that created the Mother Jones monument. Nancy Keiser noted he was tremendously excited about the Mother Jones Museum and the revitalization of the Cemetery and Monument. John had helped Joe Ozanic and Progressive Miners Union accomplish the designation of the Union Miners Cemetery’s National Historic Place in 1972. He also wrote an important article that articulated the racial contours of the history, showing a willingness to critically examine racism’s role in the labor movement. John transitioned to university administration, becoming President at Boise State University in Idaho Southwest Missouri State University.
Nelson Grman, President of the Museum board, who was two years behind John in school in Mt. Olive, noted that Keiser’s passing “saddens me, but I am so glad that he knew that one of his dreams, our museum, had finally come true.”
Above: James Green, author of the Devil is Here in These Hills and Chuck Keeney, grandson of Chuck Keeney at the march on Blair Mountain, 2011. This 2011 march, which commemorated the largest worker uprising in US history, was the great catalyst for the final effort to save the site from being destroyed by mining and for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.
James Green’s loss came as a deep blow earlier this year as well. Green had turned his attention to miners and their history, winning the highest recognition of his work when the show American Experience authorized the Mine Wars, a two-hour documentary based on his 2015 The Devil is Here in these Hills. He was tremendously enthusiastic about being on our Project’s scholar’s board, but also was committing to directly helping with work at the museum. The beautiful account by Jim O’Brien gives a full narrative of Green’s contributions and motivations, a guide to seeing how much he considered his life’s work part of a tradition both inside and outside the academy. O’Brien profiles not only Green’s published works, which included Death in the Haymarket, but also shows that public history was a driving force in Green’s life.
Jim’s commitment to public history was abiding. I learned much about his character when I asked him whether he would be willing to speak at the Cork Mother Jones Festival even if they couldn’t guarantee him funding for travel or speaking. He didn’t hesitate before agreeing to it. His presentation there in 2014 will be long remembered. Afterwards he remarked that this festival was the most extraordinary experience, a masterful achievement in public history about which more people in the U.S. should be aware. He recalled that he got his start in public history through the experience of London’s History Workshop, where academics stretched the boundaries of accepted practice to connect past to present. Cork, he insisted, was in that tradition, but what they had achieved surpassed anything he had experienced in London.
Jim’s battle with cancer prevented him from speaking at the Mother Jones Foundation dinner in 2015 as he had hoped. He called me in late 2015 to ask me to tell folks that he was determined to speak at the dinner this year. I had just talked to Terry Reed of the Foundation the night before his passing (on June 3) about the plans for this year’s dinner and Terry expressed excitement about this year’s event because Green was to be the featured speaker. Green was planning to help with a fundraising letter and drive for our museum in the months before he passed. It was part of his abiding commitment.
Jim was a model public scholar who will be deeply missed
The global labor movement lost a major activist in the tradition of Mother Jones this year, and someone who was a friend of our Project. Dave Hopper was one-of-a-kind, fourth generation miner who became General Secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association during the heart of the miners battles with Margaret Thatcher, who determined to wipe the socialist influence by destroying the miners union in Great Britain.
Dave Hopper, left under the commemorative Mother Jones plaque in Cork, Ireland, 2014 Photo credit: Spirit of Mother Jones Festival
Despite pit closures and repression,Hopper fought with dogged determination for justice and compensation for miners. He revived the Durham Miners Gala, to ensure that the history of marching and celebration of working class unity might not fade. He kept alive the demands for worker power in the Labor Party that came to light this year with Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the head of the party. He kept alive the bitter truth that Maggie Thatcher had conspired to destroy the miners union and had conspired with police power to repress the miners at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984. As we learned, the true story had never been fully told.
The Cork Mother Jones Festival had recruited Dave Hopper to their events. I was glad to be at the 2014 Festival that Dave attended. I will never forget his reaction after he viewed “Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman.” He was deeply moved and declared that Mother Jones “belonged to all of us” and that he would personally do what he could to bring awareness of working class people to her life and its meaning in current struggles. He immediately ordered some of the DVDs and committed to sharing them and showing them. Speaking about the Miners Union battles, he declared that every worker must learn this history. He wanted to spread the word of the legacy of Mother Jones, he said.
We also discussed building awareness of these global connections here in Illinois. Some of the founders of the Illinois miners unions were from the Durham area, and were part of the Chartist movement that promoted collective action like street protest and memorials to demand more from their government. The miners in Illinois pushed the first successful drive to get workers elected to political office from this base. They initiated the American Miners Union, ,the first national miners union, whose anthem was “Step by Step, the Longest March, Can be Won.” That was part of the Chartist and labor tradition from Durham as well. It was made into a hybrid movement that we inherit.
We had hoped to build more connections between Mt. Olive and the Durham area through Dave, so it is with deep sadness that we mourn his loss this year.
Gene Vanderport was a friend of this Project who did much to carry on the tradition of Mother Jones. When I first embarked on the Mother Jones project as an idea only, he gave me so much needed encouragement. His loss this autumn was a terrible blow to all who knew him. For him, like for Hopper, this was a history that coursed through his veins, a global history in which he felt a responsibility to traditions of struggle.
Gene felt a direct connection to miners and this history. He was the product of Belgian miners in the Danville, Illinois area, motivated as a college student to honor his radical lineage as he became committed to “participatory democracy.” His dad was a UMWA member; he often repeated to me that he learned to combat racism first and foremost from his dad, who remarked, “we are all black” down in the mines.
Mother Jones Chapter, Central Illinois #JobsWithJustice members protest Gov. Rauner proposals to bring union-busting laws to Illinois, 2-6-15; 2nd from left, Germaine Light, Alida Graham, Gene Vanderport. Photo credit: Mark Michaels
His uncle had met Eugene Debs, and was part of the radical union, the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers, a descendant of the Western Federation of Miners that Mother Jones was so well associated with (she had actually kept financially afloat at a critical moment) as well. So he felt a responsibility to carrying on these traditions. He could have risen to top union leadership ranks if he had chosen to do so; instead, in the tradition of Mother Jones, he chose to stay close to the union members he represented and to the community of his youth.
With Gene’s encouragement, his wife Germaine Light played the part of Mother Jones in Champaign, Illinois area labor marches. They helped to designate their Jobs with Justice chapter after Mother Jones. We were honored that Germaine felt moved to be part of the October events at the cemetery this year.
Gene, who was not religious, would nonetheless have been the first to admonish us all to remember Mother Jones’ word to honor him and all of those profiled here, “Pray for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living.”