Chatting with Chapey
by Dr. Geraldine M. Chapey, Democratic District Leader
Mother Jones 100th Anniversary: Fighting To Protect Children
One hundred years ago, Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones) at the age of 73, led a march from Philadelphia to New York to draw attention to the plight of children who were forced to work long hours under very hazardous conditions in the mines and in industry. (This is a follow up to the column that I wrote on this subject last week).
On Wednesday, July 9, the New Jersey Chapter of the AFL-CIO sponsored a march and erected a memorial marker and plaque in Mother Jones’ honor in Tiger Park in Palmer Square near Princeton Borough Hall. The New Jersey Chapter has been working on this event for two years. They have been working with Betsey Means, a Chicago based historical actress of Women Lore. Betsey took on the role of Mother Jones at the Princeton site and will continue the re-enactment at 10 other sites where Mother Jones stopped during her 125-mile march. (The Times on Sunday, July 6 had a very informative article by Anne Levin on this subject, which I will share with you).
Mother Jones, in her autobiography, described herself as a trailblazer - not a humanitarian. Mother Jones was born in 1830 and lived to be 100 years old. She came to America from Ireland with her parents when she was 5 years old. She loved America because it had a constitution.
Mother Jones had a very difficult life. She had to endure great personal hardships. Prior to her marriage Mother Jones was a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. She married and had four children. In 1867, she lost her husband and the four children to the yellow fever epidemic. She picked herself up and moved to Chicago to forge ahead with her life. Trouble followed her to Chicago. She opened a dressmaking establishment and had it up and going. In 1871, it burned down in the Great Chicago fire. At this point in order to get back on her feet Mother Jones had to go to work under the deplorable conditions endured by working people for pennies a day. She turned to education and began to fight for the working poor, which represented her roots.
Mother Jones was a fiery and gifted speaker. She had a Shakespearean quality to her speeches. She spoke with passion and conviction. Mother Jones loved children. She concentrated on the Mill Children because she saw their terrible suffering. The children worked from sun up to sun down.
On Tuesday July 8, there was a re-enactment of Mother Jones’ march in Trenton. Betsey Means (the actress portraying Mother Jones) gathered local children as she brought these historical events back to life.
Charles Wowkanech, the president of the New Jersey State ALF-CIO noted that while Mother Jones is a well known figure in the labor movement, there are many in the general public who are not familiar with her work. Wowkanech is quoted as saying: "we need to let people inside and outside the labor movement really know of her accomplishments and know that because of them we’re living a better life today".
Mother Jones’ aim in her 125 mile march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York was twofold - she wanted to publicize the plight of these poor working children so that their condition would improve and she wanted to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt to impress him of the need to address the child labor problem. To her the fact that children were losing or maiming their fingers, hands, arms and legs was intolerable. She saw that they had no opportunity to receive an education or learn to read and write.
Mother Jones’ march did publicize the plight of the children. Newspapers from all over the country carried her crusade. However, even though she wrote to President Teddy Roosevelt she never did have that meeting in Oyster Bay.
The march took place in June and July 1903. It was the spark that led to the passage of child labor laws in 1906 in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Subsequently these laws became the basis of federal legislation. That is the living legacy of Mother Jones.
Mother Jones’ work is still an inspiration to people today. She is well known for saying - "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living".