Mother Jones Museum
The Mother Jones Museum, located in the Mt. Olive City Hall, is dedicated to raising awareness of Mother Jones and the value she placed on worker rights, as well as her connection to the global movement for human rights.
Mary G. Harris Jones, best known as Mother Jones since 1897, was a Cork born Irish immigrant who moved to Canada during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1849. Starting as a schoolteacher, Jones became one of the most outspoken social and labor rights activists of the 19th and 20th centuries and greatly influenced the landscape of labor in the modern era.
Mary received her education in Toronto and, though she had not yet completed school, she qualified for a teaching position at a convent in Monroe, Michigan and took it on August 31, 1859 at the age of 23. Unsatisfied with her position, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee where she met her husband George E. Jones, an organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders which eventually became the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America.
George Jones’ union represented workers specializing in building and repairing steam engines, mills, and other industrial goods. The couple had four children in Memphis, Mary meanwhile taking on a job housekeeping and continuing dressmaking.
After losing her husband and four children in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, an illness primarily transmitted through mosquito bites, Mary Jones moved to Chicago and continued her business as a dressmaker until, in a stroke of even more unfortunate luck, her shop was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Jones, determined, helped rebuild the city with her fellow business owners and workers, soon joining the Knights of Labor. She assisted in organizing labor strikes- dangerous affairs that often led to altercations with the police shooting protestors. The Knights of Labor grew quickly, attracting over a million members- the largest union organization in the country at the time.
Government and industrial institutions began to fear anarchy and the social change demanded by labor organizations soon turned counteractive after an unknown aggressor threw a bomb into an altercation between the Chicago Police and striking workers. The Knights of Labor union was devastated by the event and ceased to exist soon afterwards.
When the Knights of Labor union collapsed, Jones became invested in the United Mine Workers union, leading strikes, picketing, and encouraging workers to maintain strikes in the midst of firm opposition including strike breakers and violent militias hired by the mining companies. Her movement fought for better working wages, safer working conditions, the end of child labor, and many workers rights taken for granted in America today.
By 1897, Mary Jones had started to be referred to as Mother Jones by the workers, often young men and children, who she supported. She became known as “The Miner’s Angel” to those that followed her movement but also as the “Grandmother of All Agitators” and “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” by wealthy capitalist industrialists who did not approve of the drastic change in the working landscape influenced by labor unions.
The mine owners did not accept the workers’ terms without a fight. During the late 1800s to early 1900s, mine owners often forced their workers to labor grueling hours without rest, forced them to buy from company owned stores, live on company owned land in company owned homes, and offered poor pay without any of the benefits afforded to modern day workers. Poor working conditions, injury, and death on the job were commonplace and quality of life for miners was little less than a misery- but the mining companies had grown rich off the backs of this unregulated and low earning workforce- and they were not pleased with the upheaval brought by union organization.
The mine companies hired private mercenaries like the Pinkerton National Detective Agency as strike breakers, employed armed militias to attack and kill workers, and effectively declared war on labor organization. Mother Jones was often involved in physical and literal battles over worker’s rights- some degenerating into all-out warfare, mine companies fighting striking workers, sabotaging and even killing each other for days and weeks at a time.
Through grit, determination, and blood, the will of the people finally won and unions gained a stronger foothold in America, worker’s rights slowly molding into the labor rights of today. Jones continued to fight for labor rights into the 1920’s until her death on November 30, 1930 at Silver Spring in Maryland. After a funeral mass in St. Gabriel’s of Washington D.C. Mother Jones was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois alongside miners who died in the 1898 Battle of Virden. She called these miners, killed in the strike-related violence “her boys”.
In 1936, miners had saved up nearly $16,000 and purchased nearly 80 tons of Minnesota pink granite and built the Mother Jones Monument with two bronze statues and a 20 foot pillar with a bas-relief of Mother Jones at its center.
On October 11, 1936, also known as “Miner’s Day” and “Mother Jones Day”, an estimated 50,000 people came to pay their respects to Mother Jones and the labor movement. She remains a powerful testament to the will of the worker and of class struggle and is remembered as one of the staunchest supporters of union labor in American history.