On May 17, 2023 a crowd of over 75 people gathered at the Shirley James Plaza in Evansville, Indiana to dedicate a marker to Mary Harris “Mother Jones” and her activism in Indiana. The marker text points to important issues of the early labor movement. And this is the first official Indiana marker that concerns the labor movement struggles of Indiana workers.
All photos below are courtesy of Steve Shofstall, Labor Day Association photographer, and life member of Painters Local 156 (23 years as Business Manager), unless otherwise credited.
The front side of the marker reads: Mary Harris "Mother" Jones. Irish-born activist Mary "Mother" Jones organized workers across the U.S., demanding fair wages and safe working conditions. In Evansville, she rallied striking textile workers in 1901. She returned to Indiana often to speak on behalf of laborers and their families into the 1920s, including at the annual conventions of the United Mine Workers of America in Indianapolis.
The back side of the marker reads: Activism in Indiana. Revered by Evansville's labor leaders, Mother Jones fought for child labor laws and advocated for miners here. In 1916, she spoke before 10,000 people at the Labor Day picnic in the city. Organizing throughout Indiana, she addressed a steel strike in Gary in 1919. She believed workers deserved the full value of their labor and control of their workplaces. She died in 1930.
At the bottom: Installed 2023 Indiana HIstorical Bureau, Mother Jones Heritage Project, Bil and Kim Musgrave, Labor Day Association, IBEW LU 16, Teamsters LU 15, USWA 104, Indiana PSO
We began this project in 2021, after a conversation with Steve Bottoms, pictured above on the right. Steve is an old friend of our project. We initiated the marker application with the Indiana State Historical Bureau, which is in charge of the complex process of official approval. While there were many locations that would have been appropriate in Indiana for placing a marker to Mother Jones, Casey Pfeiffer advised us that areas such as Evansville, which had not had as many markers as other areas, would make it more likely to gain approval. We also argued that labor unions are an underrepresented group in the Indiana Marker program.
Mother Jones visited Evansville a number of times, and this was where miners were concentrated in Indiana, and so it was an easy decision to agree to try in Evansville.
But these kind of markers don't go up without a community of support. This marker’s genesis was due to our friendship and solidarity with the union people involved with the Evansville Labor Day Association. Steve Bottoms is a former miner activist who reads labor history avidly and has sought to build historical consciousness in his role there and as a member of the Operating Engineers. The Labor Day Association is the oldest existing such association. Its origins go back to 1886 and the Knights of Labor. I’ve spoken at the Labor Day Association a few times, and have recruited other labor historians to speak there, including the late James Green of Boston University and Lisa Phillips of Indiana State University. I've met wonderful people at these events, people who surprised and motivated me with their beautiful commitments to keeping a sense of labor history and its connections to broader issues.
The initial text that we submitted was vetted and approved tentatively shortly thereafter, but later there was more discussion and the text was changed a few more times. Mother Jones visited Evansville several times. The first time we've found her is in 1897, and there she was meeting with socialists and trade unionists. In 1916 she spoke for two hours to 10,000 people.
We went through three different potential locations for the marker in Evansville, but they all did not work out for one reason or another. This is a lot of work, and we couldn't have had a closer friend to the project than Steve, who kept at it until we had found one at the Gateway Plaza. This is a beautiful bike path along an old railroad line. Surely Mother Jones rode these trains on this coming into Evansville, so it was also appropriate historically.
Steve also raised $1500 of the $3300 cost for us. He had checks in hand within about 5 days of asking.
The donors are listed below. We are so grateful to all who joined in donating to the marker. In addition, we saved additional installation costs through volunteers with the Building Trades.
While we were all set to go to dedicate this in early 2022, the marker company suddenly told us that there would be long delays due to COVID-related issues that had significantly delayed their manufacturing schedule. This is a very old company, which was around during Mother Jones' time, yet for the first time in its history, they were dealing with a long list. We had to wait almost a year to dedicate this marker.
Below you can see some of the wonderful people who came to the event. These were an inspiring group of unionists and activists who care about this history, and for whom the history is not abstract.
There were Teamsters, UMWA retirees, Iron Workers, IBEW members, political officials, historians and women's history champions. Click on any photo below to see a slideshow
Steve commented a few days after the event: “So many people have told me how special this was, and I know it will inspire others."
The program book was dedicated to Bil Musgrave, who as the photo below will attest, was a big fan of Mother Jones. When I was bemoaning all the work of this project one time, Bil told me he thought what we were doing, no matter all the hard work, matter a great deal to him. Bil was a United Mine Workers of America activist who contracted cancer from the toxins of his work, due to malfeasance and negligence. He was fighting cancer when I first met him in 2007, and yet somehow he persevered to the very end. He would have been proud of this marker, too.