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Chicago IL 60605
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Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument as a Labor Icon

Webtrax Admin

by Robin Bachin, Assistant Director of The Scholl Center, Newberry Library, Chicago

The National Park Service (NPS) Theme Study in American Labor History offered the Newberry Library a unique opportunity to negotiate the terrain between preservation, memory, and labor history. The process of determining national significance and finding extant sites for labor history has raised important questions about the relationship and compatibility of preservation and labor history.

Challenging the Labor History Theme Study is the need to merge the NPS criteria for preservation with recent scholarship on labor history, and make labor history visible through landmark preservation. The attempt to find a suitable site for recognizing the national significance of the 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago offers an interesting example of the difficulties in achieving this goal, but also in how doing so might help us broaden our understanding of memory, history, and authenticity.

Historians consider Haymarket one of the seminal events in the history of American labor. On May 1, 1886, close to 300,000 strikers nationwide and 40,000 in Chicago took part in demonstrations for the eight-hour day. This movement was part of an international struggle for workers' rights, and the heart of the movement was in Chicago, where the anarchist International Working Peoples' Association (IWPA) played a central role in organizing the May Day strikes. On May 4, members of the IWPA organized a rally at Haymarket Square to protest police brutality against striking workers on the South Side. As the last speaker finished his remarks, police marched in and demanded an end to the gathering. Then an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd, killing and wounding several police officers and protesters. Police apprehended eight anarchists on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. The trial and subsequent execution of four of the men--Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer, and George Engel--has served as enduring symbol of labor's struggles for justice.

The importance of recognizing Haymarket's national significance for labor history forced us to select a suitable site to preserve as a National Landmark. The site of the Haymarket meeting and bombing, in Haymarket Square on the corner of Des Plaines Avenue and Randolph Street, lacks physical integrity, as a result of the construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the 1950s. We selected the Haymarket Martyrs monument and surrounding grave sites at Forest Home Cemetery (originally part of German Waldheim Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois, to serve as the physical reminder of the importance of Haymarket. Yet, it is not only because the monument is extant and Haymarket Square is not that we chose to nominate the monument. Rather, the monument itself has become an icon of the labor movement that has taken on international historical significance beyond its role in commemorating the events of 1886.

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument was dedicated on June 23, 1893 by the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, a group organized to support the families of the accused. The monument consists of a sixteen-foot-high granite shaft atop a two-stepped base, on which stand two bronze figures. The predominant figure is a woman who is standing over the other figure, a bearded male worker. The sculpture represents Justice placing a wreath on the head of a fallen worker. As Emma Goldman later explained, "The monument served as an embodiment of the ideals for which the men had died, a visible symbol of their works and their deeds."

The dedication ceremony was accompanied by huge festivities. Over 3,000 people marched from downtown Chicago to Waldheim Cemetery. Included in the parade were trade unionists, members of German Turns, musical groups, and others who were in Chicago for the World's Colombian Exposition and were curious about the spectacle. Organizers of the dedication presented speeches in English, German, Bohemian, and Polish, and the monument was garnished with flowers and banners sent from throughout the world. [Robin Bachin is correct, except that the folks took a series of special trains from the Polk Street Station in downtown Chicago to the cemetery in suburban Forest Park. - L Orear]

Chicago's labor community has held annual meetings at the monument since the time of its dedication. Tributes to the martyrs have taken the form of rallies, parades, speeches, and wreath laying. Labor leaders visiting the monument and speaking of its symbolism have included Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Irving S. Abram. Prominent writers and poets, including Carl Sandburg, Vachell Lindsay, Ralph Chaplin, and Edgar Lee Masters commemorated the monument in their writings.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring legacy of the Haymarket incident is the continued desire of those associated with the labor movement to be buried alongside the Haymarket martyrs. Among those buried here are Joe Hill (1882-1915), William Haywood (1869-1928), Lucy Parsons (1859-1942), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), William Z. Foster (1881-1966), Emma Goldman (1869-1940), and Ralph Helstein (1908-1985).

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument has provided a symbol through which various groups have been able to create a usable past and share pride in radical heritage. While the site where the Haymarket incident took place may be more "authentic" in its relationship to the event itself, the monument and cemetery symbolize the process of creating cultural heritage through a poignant, enduring legacy of collective identity. The Haymarket Monument's historical significance lies in its ability to promote Haymarket's legacy, to structure social memory, and to link present-day struggles to the past.