Mother Jones fearlessly questioned corporate rule and earned the title “the grandmother of all agitators.” She is a figure who lives on because the issues she raised are still of concern to us, still relevant in the twenty-first century.
This cemetery was originally established in September 1899, when union miners were blocked from plans to commemorate the men from Mt. Olive who were killed in what was called the Virden Riot of 1898. They set out to ensure that their "Virden Martyrs" were honored each year, that their story didn't fade. To miners in Illinois, this was the founding story of their union, one that deserved a monument--not to death, but to militancy. To learn more about the Virden struggle, visit the Virden Monument post. The cemetery was originally surrounded by a simple wooden rail fence with a wooden painted arch at the gateway. Later, the metal sign below replaced the wood arch. The speakers who came through this arch at this cemetery in the early years included socialist Eugene Debs and anarchist Lucy Parsons.
Adolph Germer, who was integral to the commemoration, was a Mt. Olive miner who was a socialist. His theory of history was the same as Mother Jones: History is made by ordinary people; radical change is made from the bottom up, not from the top down. Commemorating the rank-and-file was meant to instill a sense of destiny among a group of people often ridiculed as "ground-hogs" and unruly immigrants, whose lives had to be sacrificed to bring up the coal from beneath the earth. In contrast to that, Germer wanted miners to believe they could change the world.
This vision had led the Illinois miners to be great rebels throughout the early 20th century. Mother Jones appreciated that and sought to extend it by designating this as her burial location.
Germer moved to Belleville, Illinois, and Mother Jones visited him there. (She was only in Mt. Olive a couple of times, passing through to Springfield from St. Louis, and she spoke at one of these commemorations.)
At this cemetery, people were encouraged to envision an empowered future, where they shaped their own destiny, where people deemed unworthy became deserving, where workers' cooperatives might shape a world after coal. This was the place that women came to see themselves as worthy of dreaming of a better future too.
But by the time the gate you see here was established in 1972, many of those dreams of unions as a force in history had died. In 1972, when the National Historic Place designation was granted, Joe Ozanic led a campaign to build a new entrance, visible in the photo below.
This humble entrance established in 1972 reflected the fortunes of this small community, which had lost the mining jobs by the 1950s. Factional battles had led to loss of pensions and livelihoods. But they had kept this site preserved, a material remnant of their dreams and visions.
The monument and gate was restored in 2015 through a campaign of the Illinois State AFL-CIO.