March is Women’s History Month in the United States, and to kick this month off, we’re starting with the story of a woman who was important not only to West Virginia history, but American history.
To West Virginia, the ongoing strike isn’t something new. West Virginians have led the fight for better benefits and wages since the early days of industrialization. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, arguably the most widespread general strike in U.S. history, began in Martinsburg. Coal mine strikes began as early as 1880, culminated in the Mine Wars of 1912-1921, and continued well into the 1970s. The teachers went on strike once before, in 1990, though only 47 counties joined the fight. Today, for the first time in West Virginia’s history, teachers from all 55 counties stand united to represent not only their cause, but that of all state employees.
Mary Harris, a leading labor organizer during the Mine Wars, would be proud of today’s unity. Her story begins in 1837, in Ireland. Following the Great Famine, her family emigrated to the U.S. There, she met and married George Jones, a union activist for the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America. However, her husband and four children were all lost to yellow fever in 1867. She sought a new start in Chicago, but tragedy struck again. This time, it was the Great Chicago Fire. Like many others, she helped rebuild the city and in the process, she became involved with the unions. After organizing numerous strikes, she became involved with the United Mine Workers in West Virginia. Twice the State put her on trial, once in 1902 and again in 1912. The first was for contempt and inciting riots, and she was found guilty but released from custody. The second was conspiracy to commit murder. This time, she was released before the trial began. She returned to West Virginia every few years during the Mine Wars, notably in 1921, when she attempted to stop the miners’ march. This attempt failed, and the march ended with the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising since the Civil War. Following this defeat, Mother Jones left West Virginia, though she continued organizing for various unions until her death in 1930.
Despite the good work done by Mother Jones, there was also some bad. Some accuse her of acting in the interest of the unions, not the workers. For evidence, they point to Blair Mountain. Jones plainly sided with UMWA officials, calling for the march to end. However, her stance wasn’t necessarily one that supported the union officials. She could see that the miners were facing the United States Army, and if they continued, they were facing certain death. This wouldn’t have been a fate that she wanted for “her boys.”
Today, we can learn many lessons from Mother Jones. Whether you disagree with her or not, she was somebody who stood for her principles and fought for what she believed was right. That is certainly an admirable trait in an era when politicians of all parties retain their position by constantly flip-flopping on important issues. She also left behind some fitting advice, particularly in light of West Virginia’s current situation.
Perhaps her most famous quote comes from a speech to a union meeting in Fairmont. The meeting was being held to discuss the future actions of the union, and Mother Jones said to them, “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Simple, straightforward, and still used by activists today. At another event, she said that “you must stand for free speech in the streets.” Finally, after being arrested during the Paint Creek Strike of 1912, she was interviewed by a journalist and confidently stated, “I can raise just as much trouble in jail as anywhere.” True to her word, she was released after her arrest brought national attention to the strike and prompted a congressional investigation into the conditions in West Virginia. Sometimes, attention from outside the state is exactly what it takes to bring about change.
Interpret her story as you will, but in light of current events, I think that it is quite fitting.
Information from John Alexander Williams’ “West Virginia: A History” and Mary Harris Jones’ autobiography.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, barring extreme weather, will be Saturday, March 10 (not March 11 as I wrote last week) at 6 p.m. at the New Haven Library.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.