In 1895, following the conclusion of the Pullman Railroad Strike, Eugene Debs served a six months term in the McHenry County Jail located in Woodstock, Illinois. On Saturday, October 21, 2017, a plaque which memorializes the significance of the imprisonment and its impact on the labor movement and the free speech movement in the decades that followed was unveiled at the site of that jail. An enthusiastic group of local citizens and guests from around the MIdwest attended two forums that discussed the strike and its aftermath from a number of perspectives. Representing the Debs Foundation were Dave Rathke, Laurie Beasley and Noel Beasley.
In spite of all the efforts to keep Debs out of history books and popular culture, there continue to be important victories such as has been achieved in Woodstock. A group of local teachers, historians, attorneys and other community activists created Woodstock Celebrates, Inc. to insure the celebration of the town’s local history and then conducted a multi-year campaign to raise funds and secure the placement of the plaque at the Old County Jail. The forums provided excellent opportunities for exchanges of facts and opinions of past events and also on the struggles of workers and progressives in 2017.
A number of the participants in those events have been inspired to focus next on the placement of a plaque in the town of Pullman, Illinois. A short drive south from Chicago’s Loop, Pullman celebrates the noblesse oblige of the Pullman family by conducting tours of the “model company town” that rival a Disney theme park in fantasizing a past that never existed. There is a conscious avoidance of any mention of the strike, the beatings and murders of strikers and the role of the federal government in crushing the strike and sentencing Debs to prison. A struggle to create a monument to Debs and the workers of Pullman will be difficult given the corruption and chaos now rampant in the Illinois state government let alone the hostility of the Trump Fake Department of Labor to unions. But it is battles like this that provide a critically important opportunity to remind everyone of the “other history” of our country.