Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Debs Historical Marker in Woodstock—Celebration and Controversy

The McHenry County Court House and adjacent Jail and Sheriff's House on the right on Woodstock Square as it looked when Eugene V, Debs was held there.  From a hand-tinted post card.

On Monday the McHenry County community got the news that a long awaited state historical marker commemorating the time Eugene V. Debs spent in the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois in 1895 from an article in the Northwest Herald.  It was a cause for celebration by those who worked tirelessly over the last two years to bring it about, history buff, local progressives, and labor union supporters.  Predictably, alas, it also immediately sparked controversy and loud opposition. 
William Furry, of the Illinois State Historical Society, certainly was enthusiastic.  In a memo to the Woodstock City Council in support of the marker he wrote:
This promises to be one of the most significant historical markers placed in the state within the last 20 years, highlighting as it does Debs’s entry into national politics, the history of labor unrest in Illinois as exemplified by the Pullman strike, and one of the most important First Amendment challenges in American history.
The Council agreed and voted to approve the Marker and pay $1,500 cost of its creation and installation.  The Marker was also supported by the McHenry County Historical Society, Illinois Labor History Society, and Woodstock Celebrates, the group which spearheaded the effort to get it installed.

Who wasn’t happy? The volunteer Friends of the Old Courthouse which raises money for the expensive repair and restoration of the Courthouse and adjacent Jail and Sheriff’s House which are currently owned by the City of Woodstock.  Their spokesperson Julie Miller wailed to the press:
We feel the proposed marker can be viewed as celebrating socialism and labor unions. This may lead to the building being thought of as a monument to those ideas. Woodstock and McHenry County are culturally and politically diverse.
One suspects that fundraising concerns masked the true motive for the opposition.  After all the Marker could make it easier to obtain historical preservation grant money and will open new doors to donations by civil libertarians, labor unions, plus liberals, lefties, and progressives of all sort.  Will some curmudgeonly rich take all of his marbles and sulk way?  Sure, it’s possible.  But I am unaware of any deep pocket Koch Brothers types who were lining up to sink their dollars into an 1854 Courthouse and 1887 Jail.
Since Karl Rove famously declaredWe create our own Reality,” the idea has taken hold by erasing verifiable facts in every way possible from the public record an alternative reality based on “alternative facts  arises with complete credibility.  Whether the facts are scientific like evolution or human caused climate change or inconvenient history that challenges a narrative American exceptionalism; racial, gender, and class rightful domination of an elite; or even medical they are replaceable based on mere belief.  This trend has been growing for years and is now the official policy of the Cheeto in Charge and all of his eager minions.
My comments to posts sharing the Northwest Herald article on Facebook reflect my assessment of the situation:
This [approval of the Marker] is long overdue and eagerly awaited. But what is truly depressing is that the official spokesperson of the Friends of the Courthouse which celebrates the Square’s historic structures trying to block recognition of indisputably the most important historical even associated with the Jail. Claims that this would harm fundraising are absurd. It could, in fact enhance it. There is a thinly veiled political agenda here, and it is not that of supporters of the Marker.  It comes from those who want to erase and deny history that does not conform to their own opinions and deep prejudices. It comes from those who want to bound and gag history. Shame on the Friends of the Courthouse and on its mouthpiece Julie Miller.
Kathleen Spaltro who led the effort to acquire the plaque, said that Debs’ legacy is about more than his involvement with socialism and labor:
He is highly significant in the history of constitutional protection of freedom of speech. You can see Debs as a polarizing figure. You can see Debs as a labor leader. You can see him as a socialist. There will be people who will be attracted to Woodstock and visit the jail because of the association, but you could also reconceptualize Debs as an American whose constitutional freedoms were violated twice … and who stands for citizens pushing back.
The Northwest Herald offered one of their extremely unscientific daily on-line polls about the issue.  With a predictably skewed question that identified Debs only as a Socialist, early results ran heavily in opposition to the Marker.  But as word got out on social media over the day, the trend reversed and when the poll closed support had closed the gap and pulled ahead.
Despite McHenry County’s deep red—as in Republican, not Socialistpolitical leanings I suspect that after a nasty kerfuffle the Marker will be erected as planned and Woodstock boosters will discover it is an attraction to the historic Square.

A recreation of Deb's release from Woodstock Jail by the McHenry County Historical Society's Perkins Players last summer.  This was just one of a number of events in the county celebrating Debs including two Labor Day Rallies on the Square, a spoken word event by Jim May at Stage Left by the Opera House, and Eugene Debs and the Fight for Free Speech in World War I  with historian Ernest F. Freeberg at the McHenry County Historical Society in Union in April.  
What is the controversy about?  Well here is the wording that will be on the Marker:


The 1894 Pullman Strike and boycott of Pullman railcars led by the American Railway Union involved 250,000 workers in 27 states. It paralyzed much of the nation’s rail system and directly led to the establishment that year of a national Labor Day. The strike also brought civil charges against American Railway Union leaders for violating a court injunction against the strike. Their attorneys, including Clarence Darrow and Lyman Trumbull, defended them before the Unites States Supreme Court.

On 27 May 1895, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld court injunctions against labor strikes. The decision, “In re Debs,” sent American Railway Union leader Eugene V. Debs to a six-month stay in this building, then McHenry County Jail. The Pullman Case guided governmental response to strikes for nearly four decades. Not until the 1932Norris-LaGuardia Act did the United States Congress erase the power of courts to end strikes through injunctions.

In Woodstock, Sheriff George Eckert protected Debs from threats and the Eckert family began three decades of warm friendship with Debs. Eckert allowed Debs to use his jail time to study and ponder the plight of working-class Americans. Famous visitors included reporter Nellie Bly, Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger, and Keir Hardie, the first Labour member of Parliament.

Debs left Woodstock even more determined to fight for the working people. His time in McHenry County Jail transformed Debs from a labor leader into a national political activist, founder of the Socialist Party, and five-time presidential candidate.

Sponsored by the City of Woodstock, the Illinois Labor Historical Society, the Illinois State Historical Society, and Woodstock Celebrates, Inc.

No comments:

Post a Comment