[On May 4th, 1886, a labor protest and rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in support of a nationwide strike turned into a confusing, bloody mess. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for the Haymarket Affair, leading up to a special weekend post on one of our most important current scholarly voices on labor.]
On two existing ways to better remember Haymarket, and one I’d love to see.
One way to remember the Haymarket Square protest and rally, bombing and violence, and trial more fully and accurately would be, quite simply but crucially, to engage with all the primary texts and contexts to which I’ve hyperlinked throughout the week’s series. While there are and will remain the unanswered questions and ambiguities about which I wrote on Wednesday, the fact of the matter is that there are many many texts and resources through which we can learn a great deal about the lead-up to May 4th, the events of that day, and all its aftermaths and legacies. One of the blessings and curses of my principal public scholarly goal—adding to our collective memories—is that there is a literally endless supply of histories and stories, figures and texts, that can and should be better remembered, and I know it can be difficult for any one American (much less all of us) to engage with them at length or in depth. But we don’t have to do it all day every day to make it part of our collective communal experience, and even an occasional dip into the primary sources and resources would help us think about Haymarket and its contexts and meanings.
Public memorials offer another set of resources for collective memory, although with Haymarket, as is so often the case, there are competing memorials that demand nuanced response and engagement. Sculptor Johannes Gelert created a memorial to the fallen policemen in 1889, and it stood in Haymarket Square for nearly a century before being moved to Chicago Police Headquarters in 1972. Sculptor Albert Weinert created the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in 1893 to honor the anarchists convicted and executed for the bombing; it stands in Forest Home Cemetery (originally the German Waldheim Cemetery) where the men are buried. To some degree bridging the gap between these two competing memorials is the most recent work, artist Mary Brogger’s 2004 sculpture of a fifteen-foot wagon meant to commemorate the impromptu stage from which the Haymarket rally speakers delivered their remarks. The September 2004 ceremony that unveiled Brogger’s monument featured both labor activists and the president of Chicago’s police union, suggesting the possibility at least of a shared communal history that does not pit the subjects of Gelert’s and Weinert’s memorials against each other quite so overtly or necessarily.
Popular culture has its own role to play in our collective memories, and on that level I have to admit being disappointed with (from what I’ve seen) the lack of Haymarket stories in our cultural works. For example, the life of convicted anarchist August Spies, whose concluding statement to the judge and jury I quoted in yesterday’s post, would make for a wonderful TV miniseries. Born in 1855 in a ruined mountain castle in Germany to a forestry official and his wife, Spies immigrated to the US in 1872 as a teenager (after his father’s death), worked as an upholdsterer while gradually becoming more and more deeply involved with radical labor and socialist activism and journalism, and spoke at the May 4th Haymarket Square rally. While in prison awaiting execution Spies met and married the young journalist and labor activist Nina van Zandt. Moments before his November 11th, 1887 hanging, he cried out, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today,” some of the most compelling last words in American history. His is only one of many Haymarket stories, of course, but telling it would open up those other stories and histories as well. Just another potential screenplay I’ll add to the imaginary pile, I suppose!
Special tribute post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Haymarket histories or contexts you’d highlight?
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