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Plans for Mother Jones statue in Chicago spark backlash

After a bloody conflict over the Christopher Columbus statue in Chicago’s Grant Park, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot commissioned a special commission to examine the city’s public monuments, in a project she said was “a project of racial healing and historical reckoning.”

As part of their findings last yearThe Chicago Monuments Project has offered support for a statue honoring Irish-American labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who spent part of her life in Chicago in the 1800s.

Now Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is moving forward with a plan to erect a Mother Jones statue on Water Tower Place inside Jane Byrne Park, named in honor of Chicago’s first female mayor.

This plan, however, was criticized by Kathy Byrne, the late mayor’s daughter, who argues that the plaza is too small for a statue and that it is inappropriate to honor a woman who opposed giving other women the right to vote in a park named after the city. first female mayor

The ongoing conflict highlights the challenges public officials face as they tackle public monuments across the country and the historical figures they represent. Chicago has public art that celebrates mythical women rather than actual women, which the city hoped to address by honoring Jones. But Kathy Byrne said the choice of location was deafening.

“The decision is not only deeply humiliating, but in an age when we’re removing statues because of past oppression, it’s really stupid that we’re erecting a statue celebrating someone who is fiercely opposed to the voting rights of half the population,” said Kathy Byrne.

Mother Jones was born in Ireland, moved to North America, became a teacher, and married an ironworker. Her husband and four children died in a wave of yellow fever, and she moved to Chicago as a tailor. She later became a labor leader, working with organizations to demand economic justice, and at one point was named “America’s most dangerous woman” by a prosecutor for her fierce advocacy.

He was also controversial at the time for his other stances. In an interview with the New York Times on women’s suffrage, Jones said, “I’m not a suffragist. I literally have no sympathy for women’s suffrage. During my long working life on these questions, I have learned that women have no place in political work.

Northern Illinois University professor Rosemary Feurer, who has worked with a broad coalition for years to retrieve the statue, acknowledged the anti-suffrage comments, but said Mother Jones’ track record was more nuanced.

“She came to believe that economic power, particularly power at the point of production, was the main way to achieve better conditions and greater equality for women,” Feurer said. She said many times that she believes women are equal and therefore she has every right, she should get every right. Every woman, including working-class women, had no doubt that voting was the way forward.”

Feurer believes that Mother Jones deserves a monument to labor leadership.

“There is very little representation of working class women anywhere in the United States. When we have statues of women, this is very rare. He was a powerhouse,” Feurer said. “Chicago is a union city and the labor movement has occasionally seen it as iconic.”

Elliott Gorn, professor of history at Loyola University and author of “Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” is affiliated with the DeKalb-based Ana Jones Heritage Project, which organizes exhibits on Jones and raises money for the sculpture.

“We were delighted when the group didn’t choose the Water Tower location, but when the city offered it to us,” Gorn said. We found it positive that the site was named after Chicago’s first female mayor; It was like a place where women could be honored, a place of solidarity. The idea that there was some kind of conflict never crossed our minds.”

Jane Byrne was a pioneer for women in the police. She overthrew Chicago’s tough Democratic machine and the “gang of bad guys” she said ran City Hall in 1979. She lost her reelection bid to Harold Washington four years later.

During her only term in office, Jane Byrne initiated the Taste of Chicago and crowd-pleasing celebrations such as Blues Fest, inspired the Navy Pier and Museum Campus redevelopment, and “The Blues brothers.”

He was also a volatile leader, prone to publicity stunts such as the month he spent in the old Cabrini-Green housing estate, and presided over teachers, the CTA, and firefighters’ strikes. As soon as he took office, Byrne became close to his once-villained insiders, alienating the coalition of voters that helped make him the city’s first female mayor and paved the way for defeat.

But Byrne’s legacy was largely ignored for decades after he left office in 1983. City councilors renamed Byrne’s Water Tower park and Circle freeway intersection in his honor until 2014, months before his death. Kathy Byrne told city councilors that the famous park where the Water Tower survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and much of the area burned meant a lot to Jane Byrne. when they approve the renamebecause the former mayor lived nearby for decades and that helped inspire him through tough times.

“My mom lived right across from that park for many years when she was mayor and both before and after, and she said that whatever the problem in the city, whatever the crisis that broke out, she could do it. Look and see the Water Tower and say, ‘You survived the fire and the city was left and you made it,'” said Kathy Byrne.

But Mother Jones had a personal connection to the Great Chicago Fire: After her husband and four young children also died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867, she returned to Chicago, where she had lived briefly, and worked as a physician. tailor. But his shop was destroyed in the fire, putting him on a traveling path where labor activism and advocacy for striking workers began.

Initially, advocates of a Mother Jones statue pushed for a site on Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive near the Chicago Riverwalk. However, the city decided to place it in Jane Byrne Park instead. Roughly one-third the size of a typical Chicago city block, the park is relatively small, but located in one of the highest-profile spots in the city along the Magnificent Mile. Kathy Byrne said she did not object to a statue of Jones being erected elsewhere in the city.

Kathy Byrne has dabbled in politics by co-chairing Illinois Auditor Susana Mendoza’s 2019 mayoral campaign, raising money for President Joe Biden’s 2020 and 2024 presidential campaigns, and chairing the Illinois Judicial Lawyers Association.

Kathy Byrne also said the city’s Freedom of Information Act denied requests for information about the site selection. “The logical reasoning is veiled,” she said.

Through a spokesperson, Erin Harkey, Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, declined to be interviewed. Her office issued a statement that did not address the core of Kathy Byrne’s concerns.

“After several internal discussions, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events chose Jane Byrne Park as the location for a memorial to Mother Jones,” the city’s statement said. “DCASE will continue to work with the Mother Jones Heritage Committee and other stakeholders to develop this project. Also, including a new informational signage program and a possible exhibit at the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower, the late Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne We will make every effort to revive its legacy in the park, named in honor of . ”

Public monuments have been a hot topic of discussion for years across the country, including in Chicago. In the midst of a national debate about race in America in 2020, Columbus was put under scrutiny as statues in the United States were demolished and local governments stopped celebrating the holiday in his name. Although Chicago was one of the cities where monuments were removed, Lightfoot at first opposed their removal and later insisted that the Grant Park statue should eventually be returned.

Still, he set up a memorials commission aimed at broader discussion.

The city’s monuments project had four main goals: to catalog monuments and public art on city property and related institutions such as the Chicago Park District; Filling the advisory committee “which will determine which parts require attention or action”; propose new monuments or public art; and creating a dialogue about Chicago’s past. Part of the problem is the lack of representation for women and people of color.

Women and people of color are not completely absent from the city’s public art. Many appear among the large-scale, digital faces of sculptor Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. In addition, a statue of award-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks was unveiled on the South End in 2018. And the Harold Washington Library Center contains numerous artistic tributes to Chicago’s first Black mayor.

But the city has little respect for women – including the park for Jane Byrne and potentially the statue for Mother Jones. Kathy Byrne worries that splitting the location will lead to overcrowding and confusion.

“We have very few things named after women, and you’re going to put a statue of a woman in one of the few places,” said Kathy Byrne. “People will be confused to think this is a statue of (or) Jane Byrne, or they’ll think it’s Mother Jones Park and not Jane Byrne Park.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

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