When in 1997 Don Turner began pushing to get the city to create a permanent memorial to the Haymarket tragedy, he knew that history wasn’t on his side. For years city officials had avoided commemorating the site, near the intersection of Randolph and Desplaines, because of the stigma of anarchism and the violence associated with the event. The police didn’t want to see cop killers glorified.

The absence of a memorial at the old Haymarket Square has long irked international pilgrims and locals. The Chicago Landmarks Commission did designate the east side of Desplaines between Randolph and Lake a city landmark in 1992, embedding a small bronze plaque in the sidewalk a few years later. But union leaders, activists, and history buffs have never thought it adequately represented Haymarket’s significance. “It deserved more than that plaque,” says Turner, who retired as president of the Chicago Federation of Labor in 2002.

On the night of May 4, 1886, 2,500 people gathered near the square to protest the killing of two strikers by police the previous day. Labor activists and anarchists gave speeches in support of an eight-hour workday. As the meeting ended, 176 cops advanced on the remaining 200 spectators gathered around the speakers’ wagon near the mouth of the alley just north of Randolph. Someone still unknown threw a dynamite bomb, setting off a melee in which seven officers and four workers were killed. Hundreds of labor, anarchist, and ethnic community leaders were arrested. Eight men were brought to trial. Four were executed, one apparently committed suicide, and three were sent to prison (they were pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893). It’s now generally agreed that the trial, carried out in a hysterically prejudiced atmosphere, was grossly unjust.

Since its inception in 1969 the Chicago-based Illinois Labor History Society had lobbied the city to recognize Haymarket with a small park and monument, according to vice president Bill Adelman, a labor historian. But its campaign wasn’t getting anywhere seven years ago, when Turner, with the backing of the CFL’s executive board, the ILHS, and other groups, wrote Mayor Daley saying he’d be “willing to work with the city in any way to make this dream a reality.” He wrote again in May ’98, and this time Daley moved on it. Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg and Alderman Ed Burke fell in, and that July the city proposed an “anchor park” with artwork.

Why the thaw? “It takes a while for people to get an objective perspective on historical events and see [Haymarket] as an overall tragedy and not a polarizing issue,” says Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian. In the 1980s, when he worked for the landmarks commission, Samuelson floated the idea of a sculpture representing a speakers’ wagon to symbolize free speech. “But Haymarket meant so many different things to many people, and there was never a good consensus.”

“I think the key issue was removing the focus from the anarchists and making it a First Amendment issue–though it’s not like we still don’t have anarchists,” says Turner.

In late ’98 Turner, Adelman, Samuelson (then with the Chicago Historical Society), and city planning and cultural officials came back to the idea of a speakers’ wagon sculpture. Chicago Public Art Program project manager Barbara Koenen drew up a plan and the following year wrote a grant proposal to Governor George Ryan’s public works program, Illinois FIRST. (Koenen’s now with the city’s cultural planning division and is married to Samuelson.)

Meanwhile, Turner talked to state senate Democratic leader Emil Jones. Jones supported the project, and by 2000 the city received $300,000 from Illinois FIRST–“good pork,” as ILHS president Les Orear puts it. As proposed by the city, a park would run two-thirds of the way from Randolph to Lake along Desplaines and would include vintage-style lampposts, planters, and the original stone pavers. The sculpture would sit on the spot the speakers’ wagon occupied, a few steps northeast of the plaque and inside what’s now a parking lot; there’d be room on the base for interested parties to mount memorial plaques.

By 2002 the Haymarket Tragedy Commemoration of Free Speech and Assembly Monument was in the hands of Nathan Mason, the Public Art Program’s special projects curator. “Thousands of visitors come to the site,” he says. “It speaks poorly of the city if we let it be a barren, littered concrete slab.” (According to city documents, it’s also hoped that the park strip will “serve as a stimulus for further development in the West Loop.”)

There was once a monument in the area. In 1889 the city erected a statue of a Chicago policeman in honor of the slain officers (despite evidence that all but one were killed by their own bullets). Frequently vandalized, the statue was moved to Union Park, then back to Randolph near the newly built Kennedy Expressway, where in 1969 and ’70 it was twice blown up by radical political groups. It was finally given refuge in the Chicago Police Training Center in 1976.

This time the city tried to ensure that “everyone’s voice would be listened to,” Mason says. But though the eight-member project advisory panel included police, labor, history, and

community representatives, there were no anarchists. “Who would they choose to represent themselves?” asks Mason. Says Adelman, “I think [they] would object to anything being put there by the city, the government.”

Mark Donahue, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and one of two police officials on the panel, says he was honored to serve. “We’ve come such a long way to be included in this….We’re part of the labor movement now, too, and glad to be there.”

Out of ten area artists invited to submit design proposals this past summer, the group selected Mary Brogger to receive the $220,000 sculpture commission ($80,000 of the grant is set aside for streetscaping). It’s her first figurative commission, but “the real challenge is to make a monument that people won’t bomb,” she quips.

Her nearly 15-foot-high bronze depicts a number of blocky figures engaged in building–or is it dismantling?–a wagon. The “ascension of human activity,” as Brogger puts it, culminates in the speaker on top, symbolizing the importance of free speech. The monument, which also includes panels of text and cratelike benches, will be dedicated on July 31.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland, A. Jackson.