Mother Jones: Labor Leader, Immigrant American

The "grandmother of all agitators" originally hailed from Cork, Ireland.

A friend recently posted a picture of Mother Jones, the famous labor leader, online. I reminded her that this most famous of women defenders of workers was herself an immigrant. You may know the magazine named after her, but what do you know of Mother Mary Harris Jones?

Mother Jones began her autobiography with the words; “I was born in the city of Cork, Ireland.” She was born in 1837 and baptized as Mary Harris at St. Mary’s Cathedral. She wrote of her family:

My people were poor. For generations they had fought for Ireland’s freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle. My father, Richard Harris, came to America…, and as soon as he had become an American citizen, he sent for his family.”

Mary was not yet a teenager when the Great Famine began to kill off the Irish. An English midshipman who landed in County Cork wrote about what he saw there:

20 bodies were buried this morning, and they were fortunate in getting buried at all. The people build themselves up in their cabins, so that they may die together with their children and not be seen by passers-by. Fever, dysentery, and starvation stare you in the face everywhere.

In 1847, at the height of the Famine, Mary’s father sailed for America. He got work in Vermont first. He then moved to Canada to work as a railway laborer and teenaged Mary joined him there after having endured the Great Hunger of the late 1840s in Ireland which claimed a fifth of the population.

Although Mary Harris was poor, her illiterate parents placed a strong emphasis on education. Rather than putting their children out to work to support the struggling family, Mary was sent to a teacher’s college and her brother entered a Catholic seminary. He became a priest and her first job was teaching at a Catholic school.

The Catholic school was in Michigan, and so, at the age of 23 she immigrated again. On the eve of the Civil War, she headed to Memphis to take another teaching job and when Tennessee seceded the following year, 1861, she found herself in yet a fourth county, the rebel Confederacy.

Over the next half century, this immigrant woman would win fame leading the fight for workers’ rights. In 1903, for example, she organized a march of children working in the coalmines of Pennsylvania from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay to confront Teddy Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill on Long Island. The children chanted, “We want to go to school, not to the mines.”

Carl Sandberg would write that, “She is a wonder,” and Clarence Darrow said “her deep convictions and fearless soul always drew her to seek the spot where the fight was hottest and the danger greatest.”

Hellraising immigrants like Mother Jones made America a better place for everyone.

For more on this remarkable woman, please read:

Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America By Elliott J. Gorn

The Autobiography of Mother Jones

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.