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In the early 20th century, author Upton Sinclair called Mother Jones “the walking wrath of God.” Over the past decade, NIU history professor Rosemary Feurer has been determined to make sure the labor activist gets her proper due.
“Mother Jones was the most important female labor activist of the early 20th century,” Feurer says. “She was the lead organizer of the United Mine Workers of America and helped to end child labor. Yet she is largely forgotten.”
Feurer’s latest effort to make sure Mother Jones’ memory endures will be realized with the unveiling a historical marker and small exhibit at 1 p.m. Monday, Dec. 11, at the busy Coalfield Rest Area along Interstate-55, about 15 miles south of Springfield.
The marker commemorates the work of Mother Jones and the actions of coal miners who marched to improve labor conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The event will follow a noon wreath-laying ceremony at the Mother Jones Monument in Mount Olive’s Union Miners Cemetery, where Mary Harris “Mother” Jones is buried. An Irish immigrant who overcame terrible life tragedies, Jones chose to be interred there to honor the memory of the regular folks who built the labor movement.
Feurer, an expert on U.S. labor history and conflict, will be among the speakers at the ceremony for the marker dedication. The rest area is a fitting site, she says.
“We wanted to bring the history of Mother Jones and the role of miners in Illinois and U.S. history to a wider audience,” says Feurer, who serves as director of the Mother Jones Museum and Heritage Project, which sponsored the marker.
Over the past decade, with seed money from NIU and help from university students, she also has launched a virtual museum on Mother Jones; worked with communications professor Laura Vazquez to produce a documentary film, “Mother Jones: America's Most Dangerous Woman”; opened a small bricks-and-mortar museum in Mount Olive; and has researched and is writing a biography of the labor leader.
The 2007 film was a key catalyst for the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in Cork, Ireland, an annual event first launched in 2012, Feurer says.
“The Cork community warmed to her, partly because we have live footage of Mother Jones in the film, and they could hear the local inflection in her voice. Cork has long been called the Rebel City, and they think she owed some of her rebelliousness to her hometown in Ireland.”
Jones’ personal story was filled with tragedy. After moving to Memphis and marrying, she lost her husband and four children to yellow fever. She later moved to Chicago, where her dressmaking shop and all of her possessions were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871. She spent much of the remainder of her life without a permanent home, even while rising to become the most well-known national labor activist of her time.
“I don’t see Mother Jones as a flawless person, but I think this little old woman’s determination to change labor conditions and change the world was very impressive,” says Feurer, who herself grew up in the small coal-mining town of Freeburg, Ill.
“To think that ordinary people have that capacity impresses me the most. Her absolute faith in the potential of human beings is without parallel. So she’d appreciate that the project shows how ordinary men and women made history.”
The effort to place a marker at the rest stop was done in conjunction with the Illinois State Historical Society and other partners. NIU creative services worked with Feurer to design and produce the indoor exhibit for the Coalfield Rest Area.
“Public history involves collaboration, and we are grateful for the many people, including those at NIU, who have worked to realize this project,” Feurer said. “Two-thirds of our state has coal under it. So we felt it made sense, with this marker and exhibit, to highlight the human history of coal in Illinois.”
Others expected to make remarks during the marker dedication include Brian O’Brien, consul general of Ireland to Chicago and the Midwest; William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society; a representative of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office; and Dennis Surgalski, whose father labored as a “breaker boy” sorting coal as a child.