Some of you know that I returned to grad school this semester to work on a Masters in Appalachian Studies. When I mentioned to my personal physician that I was going to grad school, she high-fived me and told me she was proud of me. It was a cute, lighthearted moment that seems so far away go now, but in truth was only in January.
I admit going back to grad school seemed a bit questionable. It wasn’t like another degree was going to make me more marketable as a writer, as an educator, or in any other capacity. The likelihood that I would be able to earn back the monies spent on such a degree was nil to none.
But that’s not the point, Tim insisted. The point is to keep on learning.
And I have done that.
Grad school forces you to read things you might not otherwise read. It forces a person to think about matters that might not have ever occurred to them. Well, it’s not only grad school that does that – any schooling should, from kindergarten on up.
I’ve done a lot of reading over the course of the past couple of months. Novels. Academic books. Essays. Poetry. All of it has required me to reflect upon the writer, the writing, the history behind it all.
One of the most remarkable stories I happened upon during all of this learning is the story of Mother Jones. Many of you probably already know her story. I, however, did not. (Do you ever feel shame for not knowing something you think you should have known? I do.) I feel like I should have known Mother Jones’s story, given I wrote three novels set in Appalachia that covered a time span between 1940s to 1980s. Sigh.
Mary Harris was born in Co Cork Ireland in 1837. Some list her birth at 1830. Either way, she was but a child when the great potato famine drove the Harris family out of Ireland. The family – her parents, Helen and Richard, and four siblings – settled first in Canada in the 1840s, where Mary received her education.
In her early 20s, Mary took a job teaching at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, with the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She didn’t stay there long, however. She moved to Chicago for a brief stint as a dressmaker – “I preferred sewing to bossing around little children,” Jones said – before she accepted another teaching position in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1861, Mary met George Jones, an iron moulder and member of the Iron Molders Union. The couple had four kids – three girls and a boy – within six years. (I had four kids under the age of 5 once – also three girls and a boy -so her life as a young mom resonates with me). But her role as a young mother of four children was short-lived.
In 1867, the third outbreak of Yellow Fever hit Memphis. The mosquito-born epidemic had hit the city before in 1828 and 1855. The number of infected doubled with each outbreak. In 1828 – the first outbreak – there were a reported 650 cases with 120 deaths (in a city that had less than a 1,000 in population). In 1855, there were 1250 cases with 220 reported deaths. In 1867, there were 2500 cases with 550 deaths.
Five of those deaths included Mary’s four children and her husband. All dead within a week’s time.
I once interviewed a man who lost his wife, mother and daughter in a horrific head-on car crash. I was struck by a comment he made during the course of our interview, “I lost my past, my present and my future when my mother, wife and daughter died.”
I cannot fathom the pain of grieving so many people at once, I told him. A man of a deep and abiding faith, I remember he said that the thing that offered him the most solace at the time was music. He would go to his office at the university and listen to classical music.
Mary Harris Jones was only 37 years old, the ages of my own twin daughters, when she lost her entire world. Her babies and her beloved. She must have questioned why she was spared. At that time so little was known about Yellow Fever or its causes. It would move into a city and those who could afford to would flee, fearful for their very lives. The disease was marked by fevers, chills, hemorrhaging, yellowing of the skin, and black vomit – blood and stomach acids.
I try to imagine what Mary Jones’s life was like during that week her family died. How did she attend to each one? What prayers did she pray? What curses did she hurl at God? How many tears did she weep? What did she do with all her fears as the first in the family fell ill? And where, oh, where, did she find hope in any of this? How did she find the strength to do anything other than lay down and die herself?
In the midst of her grief, she returned to Chicago, to her work as a dressmaker. Imagine going to work everyday in a dress shop that catered primarily to privileged class of women who had little to no idea of the heartache that Mary had lived through. The tears she shed. The loneliness she endured. The faith that must have been shattered.
She had only been in Chicago a mere four short years, barely time to get her bearings, when the Great Chicago Fire that killed 300 people and wiped out 3 square miles of the city’s business district destroyed Mary’s dress shop and her home, taking with it every memento of her dead husband and children.
Only her life was spared.
In her 41 years of life, Mary had lived through a deadly famine, a deadly epidemic and a deadly fire. She had lost her native homeland, her husband, her children, her livelihood, and the roof over her head.
No one could have blamed Mary had she gone stark raving mad. I believe I might have if put in her situation.
But Mary did what the best people do – she found strength to go on. Maybe her faith carried her. Her belief in a Creator who loved her. Or maybe it was the notion that she must have been spared for some greater good that drove her. Or maybe it was the Irish stubbornness in her that refused to capitulate to the capriciousness of fate that propelled her forward.
I hope she had friends around her, lifting her up, offering her a bed to sleep in and a warm meal to eat. I hope she had someone in her life who listened to her, and hugged her tight when the despair overtook her. I hope that when she prayed she felt the nearness of God.
It was not long after the Chicago fire, that Mary Harris Jones began the work that would define her life and seal her place in history as “one of the most dangerous women in America,” as the defining voice for labor unions and workers rights throughout the country.
A brand she embraced wholeheartedly, always dressing in black, a symbolic nod to all that she had lost, the despair she knew all too well.
Loud. Foul-mouthed. Fearless. Mother Jones helped organize labor unions throughout the country. Her shoes, she said, were her address. She went wherever she was needed, helping to motivate workers to use their collective power through unions to better their working conditions, their livelihoods, their communities. She fought for and alongside coal miners, railroad workers, and mill workers. She lead marches of miners and marches of children working coal mines and textile mills.
She disdained the rich and powerful and made her friends among the poor and despairing.
Mother Jones declared she would speak truth where ever she pleased and she did. She feared no one. Why should she? She had spent a lifetime losing everything she loved. What more could anyone take from her?
So she spoke up for children who were working in the lint-filled textile mills of Georgia and the Carolinas: “In Georgia where children work day and night in the cotton mills they have just passed a bill to protect song birds. What about the little children from whom all song is gone?” she asked.
She lost more battles than she won but that didn’t slow her down. She was boots-on-the-ground during the mine wars of West Virginia, exhorting the miners to not despair, to fight the rich mine owners. A fight that continues across mine country to this day as National Public Radio has documented so well. (Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce in the Trump administration, is one such mine owner. He mistreated his own employees to the point of death).
“The miners lost because they had only the constitution. The other side had bayonets. In the end, bayonets always win,” Mother Jones said.
Mother Jones was an early day Molly Ivins on heavy-doses of steroids.
Despair makes some people give up. They drink themselves to death. Or they hole up and hibernate until life passes them by. But, thankfully, for a goodly number of women, despair just pisses them off to the point of action.
“I am not a humanitarian,” Mother Jones insisted. “I’m a hell-raiser.”
It was a role she felt all women should be called to.
A role that she lived out without apology to anyone.
“If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout Freedom for the working class!”
As people the world over lose loved ones, lose jobs, lose their sanity to a pandemic that threatens our past, present and future, the vision of a transformed Mother Jones keeps returning to me.
She went from teaching in a convent to converting a population of despairing people into fierce protesters. She gave voice to the voiceless. She was afraid of no one but many a powerful man feared her because she had the power to inspire. To give the people a vision.
May God grant us the spirit of Mother Jones for the days ahead.
“A lady is the last thing on earth I want to be. Capitalists sidetrack the women into clubs and make ladies of them.” ―
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN (Mercer University Press).