The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
The current print edition of the Reader features an article by Kim Kelly about The Little Red Songbook, a collection of labor anthems by Joe Hill, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. If you’ve read it, you know that today is May Day, or International Workers’ Day, and you know what songs to sing to celebrate.
The current print issue also features a story by Jeff Huebner about one of the city’s first monuments to Martin Luther King, a mural by the artist Eugene “Eda” Wade, and how that mural has somehow gone missing. Huebner is not just a journalist but a scholar of public art—there are few people who know more about Chicago’s murals—and he has, over the years, gone on many other quests to find the city’s lost monuments. In 1993, he tried to find the site of the Haymarket Affair, something that also came up in Kelly’s story.
The short version of the Haymarket Affair is that on May 4, 1886, workers, labor leaders, and anarchists gathered in Haymarket Square, a particularly wide stretch of Randolph near Desplaines in the West Loop. They intended to rally in support of an eight-hour workday, and, more significantly for the events that followed, to protest a police attack the day before on workers who were striking at the McCormick Reaper plant. There were 2,500 people in the square that day (the space, Huebner writes, could hold 20,000), and a group of police officers on the outskirts. The rally was peaceful until later in the afternoon, after the crowd had dwindled to about 200, when a police officer requested the protestors disband. Someone—it was never determined who—threw a bomb at the cops. (Historians believe it was the first time dynamite had ever been used in the United States.) A riot ensued. Seven police officers and four bystanders were killed. Six months later, eight men, some of whom hadn’t even been present at the rally but all of whom had ties to the labor movement, were convicted of starting the riot.
“Haymarket was a big, traumatic event in the history of Chicago, and it’s been a sore spot in the psyche of city officialdom and the business establishment,” says [Illinois Labor History Society president Leslie] Orear, a former Chicago headquarters staffer of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen International AFL-CIO, and one of the original volunteer members of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee of the CIO. “The business establishment has long forgotten it; it doesn’t give a rip anymore. It’s mostly been a problem of the city. . . . It’s all a part of a deliberate amnesia. Our story is that Haymarket was a police riot—nobody did a damn thing till the police came. Their story is that [the incident] saved the city from anarchist terrorism. Our position doesn’t dishonor the police. But I can see how the police might be sensitive about it, and the city doesn’t like to rock the boat.”
Consequently, the city was never quite sure how to commemorate the event. Huebner traces the various attempts. A statue of a cop, intended to symbolize not just the seven officers killed at Haymarket but also every other Chicago cop who had died in the line of duty, was installed at the site of the event in 1889, but it was widely abused by labor sympathizers (to put it kindly; it has the dubious distinction of being the most-bombed statue in Chicago history). Today it stands in front of police headquarters in Bronzeville, a more natural home. There’s a memorial to the eight men convicted in the trial, but it’s not at the site; instead, it’s at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park where seven of them are buried. Huebner described it as “less a publicly accessible historical monument than a decorative grave obelisk.”
In March of 1992, nearly two years before Huebner published his story, the city had declared the site at Randolph and Desplaines a historic landmark site, but there was still nothing, not even a plaque, to mark the spot. The Illinois Labor History Society was hoping for something grander, perhaps a park.
Now, nearly 25 years later, there’s still no park. There is, however, a bar. And also a marker: a statue by Mary Brogger that depicts workers addressing an imaginary crowd from atop a wagon, just as the speakers at the rally did in 1886. The statue was dedicated in 2004 by Mayor Daley and a group of union leaders—including the head of the Chicago police union. And there it sits, halfway down the block, encroaching only slightly onto the sidewalk, the Kennedy roaring by only a few feet away. And doesn’t that just show how uncomfortable we still are with this part of our history. (Would we even put up a statue now, given the current tension between citizens and the police?)
As the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano wrote in his story “Forgetting,” about his own quest in the mid-80s to find a physical remnant of the Haymarket Affair, “no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.”