St. Louis' role in the labor movement's early days highlighted in 'Dangerous Women' exhibit
A new St. Louis Public Library exhibit, “Dangerous Women,” explores the stories of Mary Harris Jones, a.k.a. Mother Jones, and Fannie Sellins. The two Irish immigrants were leaders of the early labor movement at the turn of the 20th century — and St. Louis played a major role in their life’s work.
“[Sellins] learned the power of solidarity in the strike that they held against [the Marx & Haas Clothing Company] and they won,” said Rosemary Feurer, director of the Mother Jones Heritage Project. “She became a national organizer by going after the St. Louis business industry.”
St. Louis was a “hub of a growing socialist-oriented labor movement” during these times when child labor ran unchecked and factories with poor working conditions lined the garment district on downtown’s Washington Avenue, Feurer said. The organizing and eventual violent death of Sellins on Aug. 26, 1919, eventually attracted Jones to St. Louis as well.
“Mother Jones saw herself in Fannie Sellins. They were both Irish American women on the left wing of the labor movement and trying to rouse their fellow workers,” Feurer said.
Jones wished to be buried at the Union Miners Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, less than 50 miles from St. Louis, as a show of respect and solidarity for the union miners who lost their lives in the Virden Mine Riot in 1898.
“[The] willingness of workers to defend themselves against [strikebreakers] is what she thought was necessary, and also to take rank-and-file control of the labor movement. So it's the idea that ordinary people built the labor movement and not the leadership. That was her final message to the world,” Feurer said.
What: “Dangerous Women: Mother Jones and Fannie Sellins”
When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday-Saturday until Jan. 7
Where: St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63103)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.