The 80-year-old Mother Jones Monument off Route 66 in Mount Olive, Illinois, was rededicated Saturday in front of a crowd of more than 300 people after the union activist’s grave was restored, according to the Peoria Journal-Star.
More about the monument in Union Miners Cemetery — the nation’s only union-owned cemetery — in Mount Olive:
The 22-foot pink Minnesota granite obelisk honoring Mother Jones became weathered since it was erected in 1936, said Amy Rueff, resource director at the Illinois AFL-CIO. She said a little more than $76,000 was raised over a 15-month period beginning in the fall of 2013.
An additional $43,000 matching tourism grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity helped with the restoration and other improvement projects around the cemetery, which dates from the 1890s, Rueff said.
The Forest Park-based Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio did the restoration. More than $10,000 in donated union labor also went toward the project, Rueff said.
The rededication included an actress who portrayed Mother Jones in period costume.
Mount Olive also is home to the Mother Jones Museum at 215 E. Main St.
And what was Mother Jones’ connection to the cemetery? Several striking miners killed during a confrontation with mine security guards during the “Battle of Virden” in Virden, Illinois, in 1898 eventually were interred in Mount Olive, and Jones said she wanted to be buried with them when she died.
Mother Jones’ decision to be buried in Mt. Olive 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.”
Mother Jones, whose real name was Mary Harris, was an Irish immigrant. Her husband and four children died from a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, and she lost her home during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She became a union activist starting in the 1890s. And, as this part of her history shows, she was far ahead of her time:
One of the Jones’ key contributions was building workers’ commitment to unionism that bridged racial and ethnic divisions. She condemned white supremacists in the union movement, and argued for instance that the black miners of West Virginia were the best trade unionists. In the southwest, she argued Mexicans and Italians should be the base for the movement. When an African-American woman, impressed with Mother Jones commitment to their cause, suggested she would kiss Jones’ skirt hem in gratitude, Jones replied, “Not in the dust, sister, to me, but here on my breast, heart to heart.”
A friend observed that Jones “is above and beyond all, one of the working class… Wherever she goes she enters into the lives of the toilers and becomes a part of them.”
The percentage of union membership in the United States is only about 11 percent now. But the impact of unions continues to loom large for American workers, with the 40-hour week, weekends off and the end of child labor.
(Image of the Mother Jones Monument via the Illinois Digital Archives)