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Hibernian Chronicle 98 years ago: Mother Jones confronts the president

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Ninety-eight years ago this week, on July 7, 1903, Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones, left Kensington, Pa., to begin a remarkable journey. With her were hundreds of maimed children — victims of unsafe labor conditions in factories and mines. They were walking to dramatize the need for a national child labor law. Their announced destination, Jones knew, was sure to generate headline news: President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home at Oyster Bay, Long Island.

She was born Mary Harris into a poor farming family in rural County Cork. Her father, Richard Harris, immigrated to the United States first and sent for his family in 1850. In her teens, Jones trained to become a teacher and landed her first job at an elementary school in Michigan. After a stint in Chicago as a dressmaker, she moved to Memphis and resumed teaching.

In 1861, she married George Jones, an iron molder. She gave birth to four children, but all died along with her husband in the yellow fever epidemic in 1867. Jones returned to Chicago and reestablished herself as a dressmaker. Again tragedy struck when her business was consumed in the Great Fire of 1871.

In the years of toil that followed, Jones grew increasingly concerned about the growing gap between the rich people for whom she worked and the poor people with whom she lived.

"The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me," she said. "My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care."

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She began to attend labor rallies and read labor-related literature and by the mid-1870s Jones was a labor organizer. The first strike she helped organize occurred in Pittsburgh, against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in 1877. The carnage that resulted (more than 100 workers killed) when state militia and police attacked workers in Pittsburgh and other cities appalled her.

So began her career as one of America’s most famous labor agitators. For the rest of her life she traveled the country, from trouble spot to trouble spot, organizing unions, leading strikes, and giving inspirational speeches. As she got older, workers took to calling her "Mother" Jones and by the late 1890s she was one of the best-known figures in the labor movement, and one of the most controversial. Small in stature, she stood large in the eyes of both the workers she served and the employers she chastised.

One of her most effective initiatives involved the crusade against child labor. Before the industrial revolution, children had always worked on family farms and in family workshops. But with industrialization, work and household were separated and many poor families sent their children into factories and mines to help make ends meet. There they worked long hours in unsafe conditions for a fraction of the pay earned by adult men. By 1900, as many as 2 million children below age 15 were at work (13 percent of the total U.S. workforce).

Ten thousand of them worked in the textile mills of Kensington, Pa. When Jones arrived there to support a strike, she was horrified by the condition of the emaciated child workers, many of whom had lost fingers and limbs in machinery. Casting about for a way to mobilize public opinion against child labor, Jones hit upon the idea of the children’s march to the President’s house. Today we have grown used to the idea of activists pulling stunts on TV and at public events to draw attention to issues like AIDS of the environment, but in 1903 it was a radical proposition — especially by a woman.

At a rally held just before the commencement of the march, Jones gave a speech to a crowd of supporters and newspaper men.

"Philadelphia mansions," thundered the 66-year old agitator, "were built on the broken bones and quivering hearts of children."

They set off on their 125-mile walk on July 7. Along the way the group of about 500 adults and children stopped at rallies held in their honor. In New Jersey, Jones spoke before an economics class at Princeton University. "Here’s a textbook in economics," she said to the privileged students, pointing to a deformed child.

In the end, President Roosevelt refused to meet her. But he didn’t have to, for Jones had accomplished her mission. The story (and pictures) of the maimed children marching against the "crime of child labor" had become front-page news.

"The universities discussed it. Preachers began talking. That was what I wanted," she later wrote in her autobiography.

In the coming years, dozens of states passed laws against child labor, and mandating minimum levels of public education. A federal law against child labor did not come until the New Deal.

Mother Jones kept right on going after the summer of 1903. For the next 27 years she was found giving speeches, testifying before Congress, and leading strikes. Despite her advanced years, she was repeatedly arrested and confronted with threats against her life. She was 91 years old when she worked her last strike.

Jones always attributed her fearlessness and radicalism to her Irish heritage.

"I was born in revolution," she once said, referring to her childhood in Ireland when Daniel O’Connell led his crusade and the Young Irelanders staged their rebellion.

The "Angel of the Mines" died at age 94 in 1930. In his eulogy, the Rev. J.W. McGuire said, "Wealthy coal operators and capitalists throughout the United States are breathing sighs of relief . . . Mother Jones is dead."

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

July 4, 1895: a parade of the anti-Catholic American Protective Association in Boston touches off a riot. One Irish Catholic opponent is shot and killed by an APA marcher.

July 8, 1871: the infamous corruption of Tammany Hall "boss" William Tweed and his cronies is exposed by the New York Times.

July 10, 1997: the IRA declares its second cease-fire in three years, setting the stage for the peace process to move forward.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

July 4, 1826: prolific songwriter ("Oh! Susanna") Stephen Foster is born in Lawrenceville, Pa.

July 8, 1770: nationalist Mary Ann McCracken is born in Belfast.

July 10, 1867: humorist and social critic Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley) is born in Chicago.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.

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