~No, I am not related to Mary Harris Jones, just in awe of her.
Born in County Cork, Ireland in 1837 to a tenant farmer and his wife, Mary Harris moved with her family to Toronto, Canada, and then to Michigan while still a child.
In her twenties, she relocated to Chicago and then Memphis, Tennessee where she met and married George Jones. Jones was a member of the National Union of Iron Moulders and introduced her to the concept of an organized group of laborers who fought for improved job benefits. While her husband worked with the iron moulders, Mary Harris Jones worked as a seamstress in a dress shop, and took care of their four small children.
Tragedy struck in 1867 during one of America’s epidemics of yellow fever. Within the span of weeks she lost her husband and all four of their children to the disease. Devastated, she left Memphis and returned to Chicago where she persevered in establishing a small dressmaking business that catered to women of means.
When the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out over three square miles of downtown, it also took her shop, her belongings, and all her savings. Almost destitute and completely alone once again at the age of thirty-four, Mary Harris Jones sought out a group where she thought she might find some kindred spirits—the Knights of Labor.
Established in 1869, The Knights of Labor started in Philadelphia with a few garment workers and soon grew to a membership of 28,000. Their main goal was to petition for a 8 hour work day (instead of 10-12) and the elimination of exploiting child labor.
Mary Harris Jones believed in those same goals, and also believed she could convince other workers to join the organization. By 1886 however, the Knights of Labor had slowly dissolved due to internal politics. Four years later, a new group—the United Mine Workers— would emerge as a fledgling union and Mary Harris Jones would be ready to assist them in their efforts.
Committed to using her skills as a charismatic speaker, she spoke out tirelessly to miners–encouraging them to lobby for better working conditions. She especially wanted to see an end to child labor where children as young as 8 were already committed to a life of drudgery in mines and mills alike. By 1892 she worked her way up in the United Mine Workers Union by being a dynamic organizer and educator for the workers.
Standing at only 5 feet tall and always dressed matronly in black with lace at the collar and wrists, she would slightly adjust her black hat decorated with lavender ribbons, smooth her hair, and then march out on stage. Her performances were riveting. A passionate speaker whose energy could whip a crowd into action, she truly believed in the cause of helping the downtrodden and the underrepresented. Arrested more than once and jailed on multiple occasions, she went right back to campaigning for miners’ rights as soon as she was released, and soon earned the nickname of ‘Mother Jones’.
As if her persona on stage was not enough, in 1903 she led 100 children on a march from the teeming textile mills of Philadelphia all the way to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Theodore Roosevelt. The children carried placards which read, “We want to go to School!” Although the President did not meet with her, the crusade of marching children garnered the amount of publicity she had hoped for.
From the late 19th century onward, strikes among the nation’s coal mines led to unprecedented violence with miners always caught in the middle between the union and the coal companies. Mary Harris Jones was always there, on the forefront, urging the miners not to back down, but to fight for their rights.
At the age of 87, she took up the cause for working women as well. In one of her last public acts, she went to Chicago to strike alongside the female dressmakers who had been black-listed because of the discrimination grievances they had brought to light.
No records exist about her exact birth date, but it is believed that she died at the age of 93. The facts do stand that she died in November of 1930, already having voiced her desire to be buried with the miners from the 1898 riots in Virden, Illinois.
Child labor was abolished eight years after her death by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he signed the Fair Labor Act in 1938. To this day, the United Mine Workers Union still campaigns for the safety rights of American miners, honoring the over 100,000 American coal miners who died in work related accidents in the 20th century alone.
I paid tribute to another strong woman, Ellen Canavan, in my new novel Cut From Strong Cloth, which has garnered outstanding five-star ratings on Amazon. I would be delighted if you choose to read Ellen’s story. It may be ordered at www.amzn.com/1940553024.
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~ Linda ~