Miners Day, Mother Jones, and the Union Miners Cemetery at Mt. Olive, Illinois
Miners Day is the site of a celebration and remembrance of a seminal victory of coal miners of the United Mine Workers of America over the mine bosses at Virden, Illinois in 1898. The coal company had locked the union miners out of the mine and brought in a trainload of African Americans from Alabama to be strikebreakers at the Virden coal mine. These men were desperate for work and did not know they were being hired as scabs.
Armed detectives accompanied the would-be miners on the train. As it approached Virden a gun battle broke out. Miners and guards died that day. The October 12 battle was one of many at that time (such as at Pana, IL), as miners fought for unionized mines, safer working conditions and a living wage.
The Union miners prevailed at Virden and went back to work. Illinois quickly became the most well-organized union mining state in the country, and the United Mine Workers went on to effectively organize coal mines in other mining states. Today the UMWA represents miners across the country.
Four of the dead miners in Virden were from Mt. Olive, but the City of Mt. Olive but the local business and church leaders refused to allow their burial in local cemeteries. In 1899, a one-acre cemetery site in Mt. Olive was purchased by the UMWA so that there would be a burial place for the miners who died at Virden and future miners. This established the Union Miners Cemetery, the first and only union owned cemetery in the country.
The hero of the Battle of Virden, English immigrant miner, Alexander “General” Bradley, who lived and mined in Mt. Olive, and Mother Jones, the Irish immigrant champion of miners and child laborers are both buried at the Union Miners Cemetery.
Mother Jones was not at the Battle of Virden and it is doubtful that she ever met Mt. Olive resident, General Bradley, hero of the Battle of Virden and unionizer of the southern Illinois coalfields. But Mt. Olive-born labor leader, Adolph Germer, met with Mother Jones in the early 1920s on one of her visits to the town. There she discussed the possibility of her burial at the Union Miners Cemetery. Oral histories and newspapers document Mother Jones’ visits to Mt. Olive, Staunton, and other towns in Macoupin County to support labor groups. She attended several Miners Day celebrations across the years. It is documented that in 1923 she wrote to the local miners union to ask that she be buried with the miners who died at Virden. She called those miners her brave boys.
When Mother Jones died in 1930, at the age of 93, her funeral was held at the Church of the Ascension on Main Street in Mt. Olive and she was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery, as she wished. An estimated forty thousand people came to her funeral to pay tribute to her. General Bradley had predeceased her in 1918.
Mother Jones had arrived in the U.S. as a young Irish immigrant. She married, became Mrs. Mary Harris, and had four children, all of whom died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867. The young widow and bereaved mother earned a living as a dressmaker in Chicago but lost that job in the great fire. Her life experiences motivated her to devote the rest of her long life to advocacy for better working conditions for laborers, becoming the figure of Mother Jones. She railed against child labor everywhere and particularly in the textile mills. She supported the cause of immigrant women in the dress factories and miners in the coal and copper mines. She traveled all over the United States to lend her notoriously profane voice to working people.
The Progressive Miners of America became caretakers of the cemetery in the 1930s and raised the funds for the tall monument to Mother Jones that they erected in the cemetery in 1936.
Miners Day in the Union Miners Cemetery remembers the miners who died in the Virden gun battle and it celebrates the victory of the United Mine Workers of America miners over the coal companies in 1898 and thereafter. It recalls the life of Mother Jones, miners across many generations, and the lives of contemporary activists buried there.
In the years since the Battle of Virden, the burial the Virden victims, and the burial of General Bradley and Mother Jones, the Union Miners Cemetery has grown beyond its original acre. The cemetery became the burial place for all UMWA miners wishing burial there, their families, labor organizers, and activists from Illinois and around the country. It remains in active use.
In the late 1990s the Union Miners Cemetery Perpetual Care Association charity became the caretakers of the cemetery and its legacy. An historic plaque at the gate tells the story of the cemetery.