Thanks to the Internet and an endless stream of on-this-day (#OTD) social media posts, ordinary people are never far from history. Such is the case of my friend Glyn Robbins, a UK social justice activist and scholar immersed in housing and labor history and practice. Glyn recently read a post commemorating the anniversary of the death of 20th century labor activist Marry Harris “Mother” Jones (1830-1930).
Mother Jones emigrated to Canada from her native Ireland as a child. As an adult she worked as a schoolteacher and seamstress in Michigan and Chicago. In 1861, Harris married an ironworker and union member George Jones. In the 1870s, she began attending labor meetings and she became increasingly vocal.
Over the next several decades, Mother Jones traveled widely speaking on behalf of workers and supporting their demands for fair wages, hours, and working conditions. For more on Mother Jones, visit the Mother Jones Museum website for a curated collection of links and stories about her life,
“I didn’t know she was buried near you,” he wrote to me on Facebook. “I was told by local labor movement folk that Mother Jones is buried near Silver Spring.” He included a link to an Irish news article titled, “Remembering Irish-born Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones on the anniversary of her death.”
Naturally, I got a little curious. I knew that she had spent her last years in the Washington, D.C., area. But, my familiarity with the Mother Jones story didn’t go too deeply into her personal life. My friend’s message got me to thinking: If Mother Jones did die in Silver Spring, where is the site? Was she really buried here? A warm late fall day and some spare time after doing research at the Library of Congress gave me the cover I need to pursue a little extra-curricular research.
The short replies to my questions were no and no.
Two Hunts for Mother Jones
The answers to Glyn’s original questions were easy to track down. My first stops were Google, online newspaper archives, and some digitized biographies. One of the first Google results led to an encyclopedia.com article that declared Jones died in Silver Spring. The Encyclopedia Britannica had the same information. Though most contemporaneous sources reproduced local newspaper reporting on Mother Jones’ death, i.e., that she died near Silver Spring, by the late 20th century, writers had shortened things to simply “Silver Spring.”
Mother Jones didn’t die in Silver Spring. In fact, she didn’t even die in Montgomery County, Maryland, where sprawling unincorporated Silver Spring is located. She died just across the county line in Prince George’s County, Maryland in a community that today is known as Hyattsville or Adelphia. Back in 1930, it was still rural as residential subdivisions began encroaching from the south.
Google also led me to the most authoritative source on the place where Mother Jones died. In 2001, labor historian Saul Schniderman wrote an illustrated article for Labor’s Heritage titled, “Mother Jones’ Final Sojourn.” The article was the culmination of a multi-year informal research project to learn about the place where the labor activist died. Like myself, Schniderman had lived in Silver Spring for many years before he read that Mother Jones died there.
“I grew up in Silver Spring and back in the seventies I was working as a library technician at the University of Maryland,” Schniderman told me in a December 2018 interview. “I saw a book called Only a Miner by Archie Green, which is just a fabulous book about coal mining folklore … there was some sort of program in there about Mother Jones.”
Green was a folklorist best known for collecting occupational folklore and he had written about the folksong, “The Death of Mother Jones.”
The program, Schniderman recalled, said that Mother Jones had died in Silver Spring: “I had absolutely no idea and that’s what kind of got me on my quest.”
After some old-school analog research in the University of Maryland libraries and other Washington area repositories, Schniderman quickly discovered that Mother Jones had died near Silver Spring.
Mother Jones in the Hills of Maryland
Schniderman’s research led him to Hillandale Baptist Church, a brick building on Powder Mill Road in Adelphi, Maryland. The church was built in the 1950s in a parcel formerly owned by Lillie Mae and Walter Burgess. Mother Jones had befriended the Burgesses in the 1920s during one of her frequent stays in Northwest Washington at the home of Terence Powderly.
After Powderly died in 1924, Mother Jones eventually went to live on the 20-acre farm that the Burgesses owned. In 1930, shortly before she celebrated her 100th birthday, a census enumerator visited the farm and recorded her stay. According to the census taker, Mary Harris was a “guest” in the Burgess home. She gave her age as 99 and told the census worker that she was widowed and not employed.
On May 1, 1930, two weeks after the census visit, the Burgesses opened up their farm to hundreds of people who came to celebrate Mother Jones’s 100th birthday. The party was covered by newspapers across the United States and it was captured in a brief newsreel created from footage shot during the event.
Mother Jones lived another seven months. She died in the Burgess home November 30, 1930. Widowed in early 1932 and struggling to pay her debts, Lillie Mae Burgess capitalized on the fame her farmstead acquired during Mother Jones’s final years. Five months after her husband died, In the summer of 1932, Burgess began advertising in Washington newspapers for boarders. “Mother Jones Rest Home. The home which sheltered the late Mother Jones, patron saint of the workers, is now open for all who need care and rest,” read the first ad published in the Washington Evening Star on June 5, 1932. A month later, Burgess was advertising to hire a woman as a general worker who was “white, clean, refined, settled.”
Money troubles continued to plague Burgess. In 1935 she began selling off portions of the farm that she and her husband had owned since 1924. In 1952, she sold the home and moved into a nearby residence. The new owners operated it for a year before selling the property to Hillandale Baptist Church. Burgess died in 1956.
With the farm dismantled, the house replaced by a church, and the Burgesses dead, Mother Jones’s time there became part of the community’s folklore. In 2000, Schniderman, who by then was working at the Library of Congress, collaborated with other labor history enthusiasts to have a historical marker placed near the church.
Commemorating a Labor Hero
The marker on Powder Mill Road became the first commemorative marker in Maryland dedicated to labor. “Out of who knows, hundreds of historic markers in the state of Maryland, that’s the first one to unions and working people,” Schniderman said. “There are other sites of industry and whatever. There’s another one now in Baltimore about the railroad strike in .”
The 2000 ceremony at the marker was the first of several annual events held each May Day to commemorate Mother Jones. Organizing the events, which included speakers, folk music, and a wreath laying became too much for Schniderman and he discontinued them. He still visits the site at least twice a year to clean the marker. I asked him if he gets lots of queries about Mother Jones and the site. “No, you’re the first in many years,” he replied.
In 2003, Prince George’s County opened the new Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School in nearby Adelphi. “This is a school, by the way, that’s populated mostly by immigrants, mostly from Latin America, but it’s a predominantly immigrant school,” Schniderman explained. A feminist history website deftly connects Mother Jones the Irish immigrant to the community’s contemporary population:
Most of the school children there are recently-arrived immigrants from Latin America. Mother Jones, herself an immigrant from Ireland in the 1840s, is adorned in an exhibit case, in the school library and in the hearts of the students and their parents who know about “Madre Jones.”
The school proudly shares the story about its namesake. “In that school if you go in there, they have in their like trophy case … when you walk in, they have a whole display about Mother Jones,” Schniderman said. “It’s been there for years and when I retire, I’d love to go find somebody to go in there and do some preservation work.”
I suspect that my friend Glyn and Saul Schniderman would have lots to discuss if they were ever to meet out by the marker near the old Burgess farm where Mother Jones died — near, but not in, Silver Spring, Maryland. Thank you Glyn for giving me the idea to take this little winter detour.
© 2019 D.S. Rotenstein