Today is October 12th, Coal Miners Day. It used to be a big deal in Illinois, a day of commemoration when thousands of miners took a day off from work, joining their families to celebrate the heritage of mine community unionism.
It marked the day when miners were killed in Virden, Illinois fighting the Chicago coal empire that sought to defeat the unions established during the living wage strike of 1897. By the end of that day in October 1898, 13 were killed, but they had stopped the designs of the Chicago-Virden Coal Company barons. You can read a little more about it here.
The cemetery owner at Mt. Olive didn’t like the idea of the commemorations, so in 1899, the bodies of the miners from Mt. Olive who died in that battle were disinterred and re-buried in the the Union Miners Cemetery of the United Mine Workers local, and from that point on, the union established rituals and commemorations that built a sense of union heritage and rebellion in the southern regions of Illinois. It’s a story that isn’t much known anymore, but was part of a folk heritage elaborated on in a confusing way since the mines in the area have closed down. Union Miners Cemetery was a unique place, a site of a “spirit-thread” of history.
Later, Mother Jones asked to be buried in the cemetery, with the notion that by doing so she would use her fame to ask people to remember the ordinary men and women who built unionism in Illinois and the United States. At the time, 40,000 people attended her funeral. Mother Jones was a folk hero at the time. She fought for democratic, inclusive unionism, the kind able to build a new civilization based on the worth of every human being, males and females, white and black, citizen and non-citizen, waged and unwaged labor.
That’s our purpose too–to not only recover the struggles associated with Mother Jones, but to remember the ordinary people who contributed to making history. And to think about the struggles for power that were at the heart of mine community unionism. These communities deserve more than the dustbin of history, living in a secondary status because power resides at the top. Most of them struggle to survive as coal is mined with less labor or the mines have shut down.
The Mother Jones Foundation in Springfield, Illinois has kept the day alive since 1984, long after most of the coal miners who had vivid memories of the origins of the day were gone. Last week folks gathered for the commemoration (and miners in earllier times didn’t always commemorate on the exact date). “Pray for the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the Living,” we proclaimed, following Mother Jones’ famous words.
I find it fitting that we launch this new website and our effort to make a museum in Mt. Olive Illinois, where the Union Miners Cemetery is now a national historic place, 115 years after the first commemoration. Our project seeks to remember this history, to think about its relevance to the present. We seek to establish a museum in Mt. Olive, as well as labor trails that would go from Pullman, where Mother Jones got her start, down to southern Illinois which was devastated by the decline in coal mining, but which is roiled by some of the same issues of lack of economic and resource control that roiled people in the era in which people rebelled more than a century ago.
For now, we invite you to explore what is there. Click all of the drop down menus to see what we have posted.