Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Eugene V. Debs Honored in Woodstock

Eugene V. Debs, bottom row far right, and the entire Executive Board of the American Railway Union were held in the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois  in 1895 following the Pullman Strike.  Pictured are Rogers, Elliot, Keliher hogan, Burns, Goodwin, and Debs.

When Eugene V. Debs was last in Woodstock, Illinois 122 years ago in 1895 he was carried from the old McHenry County Jail on the town square on the shoulders of thousands of residents and working people to an awaiting special train that took him to Chicago for an equally boisterous and even larger welcoming crowd.  The six months that he and the other officers of the American Railway Union (ARU) spent as inmates at the Jail after the epic and historic Pullman Strike of 1894 had literally changed the life of the labor leader.  While under the none-too-onerous custody of Sheriff George Eckert Debs, a Democrat and former local office holder in his Terre Haute, Indiana hometown read and studied intensely and emerged a convinced Socialist.  

The McHenry County Court House with the Sheriff's House and Jail from a hand tinted postcard circa 1910.
Now after three years of effort Woodstock Celebrates, an organization dedicated to promoting the city’s cultural heritage, will unveil an Illinois State Historical Society’s historic marker for Sheriff’s House and Jail, 101 N. Johnson Street this Saturday, October 21 at 11 a.m.  The Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) were co-sponsor of the effort and the McHenry County Federation of Teachers donated $1,500 to cover the City’s share of the cost of the   plaque.  The City Council approved the marker last May, which was required because the City owns the Court House and Jail buildings. 
Debs adresses a massive crowd on Woodstock Square after his release from jail.
No one worked harder to make it all a reality than Kathleen Spaltro who had a vision not only for the plaque but for a series of events marking Deb’s connections to Woodstock and especially his critically important role as a free speech figure.  Although originally conceived as a clustered series of events much like those honoring Orson Welles a few years ago, many of the events have stretched over the past year. These have included a public recreation of Deb’s release from Jail by the Perkins Players of the McHenry County Historical Society, The Prisoner of Woodstock stories and panel discussion featuring Steve Avang, Dr. Bill Belz, Len Kaufmann, and Jim May at the Stage Left; Eugene Debs and the Suppression of Freedom of Speech during World War One presentation at the McHenry County Historical Society in Union.  In addition Debs has been honored annually for the last three years at a Labor Day Celebration on the Square organized by local progressives and labor union representatives.

Kathleen Spaltro  was a driving force behind the Debs recognition.
But events this Saturday are the icing on the long awaited cake.
Spaltro and representatives of the Illinois State Historical Society, the Labor History Society, the Teacher’s Union, and the Deb’s Foundation in Terre Haute will all be on hand to speak.
Folks will be free for a spell to enjoy picturesque Woodstock and its attractions—check out the new mural on the pedway by Woodstock Theater before an important historical program.
Eugene V. Debs and Constitutional Liberties, 1895 and 1919 will be presented at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd Street from 2 to 3:30 pm.  Noted Debs Scholar Ernest Freeberg of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and author of Democracy’s Prisoner:  Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent was the originally scheduled speaker but just cancelled due to a family emergency He will be invited back on another occasion.  Meanwhile Kathleen Spaltro, local historian Steve Avang, and noted Woodstock attorney Gunner Gitlan will ably lead a discussion of the two United States Supreme Court cases concerning his constitutional freedoms decided in 1895 and 1919. The first Supreme Court decision, In re Debs, sent him to McHenry County Jail. The second, Debs v. United States, upheld his ten-year sentence in federal prison for delivering an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio in 1918.  Debs ran for President on the Socialist Party ticket while a prisoner held in harsh conditions at the prison in Atlanta, Georgia

After the program Avang will lead a walking tour of sights associated with Deb’s Woodstock stay and his fellow Alsatian Sheriff Eckert.

It promises to be a jam packed weekend for folks interested in social justice and civil liberties in McHenry County.  Saturday night at 7 pm the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry will present an evening of contemporary art music with Forest Ransburg, John Urban and friends to benefit the Compassion4Campers program serving McHenry County’s homeless population.  Tickets are $15 per person or $20 per couple and can be ordered in advance from Brown Paper Tickets at  or purchased at the door subject to availability.
On Sunday evening October 22 even non-religious Eugene Debs would turn out in support of the rights of immigrants now under attack in the county and around the country.  Be with him in spirit at the Interfaith Vigil for Immigrant Justice at Bates Park, 1500 North Seminary Avenue in Woodstock across the street from the current McHenry County Jail and ICE Detention Center from 7 to 8 PM.
It’s a weekend to learn, be inspired, act and resist.

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