I was surprised to see a sign for the “Mother Jones Monument” in Mt. Olive, Illinois today. For a number of years I had subscribed to Mother Jones magazine, but it had been years since I thought of Mother Jones, who was born Mary Harris in 1837 and died in 1930. Turns out that she is buried in Mount Olive’s Union Miners Cemetery, along with many coal miners who were killed as a result of strikes against coal mine companies in the 1930’s. Mother Jones, whom one West Virginia District Attorney once called, “The most dangerous woman in America,” became well-known for advocating on behalf of the rights of coal miners and children. She also played a pivotal role in campaigning for the 8 hour day.

Seeing the Mother Jones Monument reminded me of my Grandfather Lucian C. Spears (1898-1978). For most of his life, Grandpa lived and worked in Southwestern Virginia (Scott and Lee Counties). From the 1920’s until the mid-1950’s he spent his day’s underground, doing the dangerous and back-breaking work as a coal miner. In 1954 he was caught in a mine cave-in and literally had his back broken. Eventually, he was healed and was able to walk again, but he never went back into the coal mines. In his later years he suffered from Black Lung disease as a result of his many years of breathing coal dust.

I was lucky to have grown up living near my Grandpa and Grandma Spears, both of whom I dearly loved. Lucian C. Spears was a tall, strong, quiet man who would do whatever he could for anyone. Years before I had ever heard the term “servant-leader,” I was blessed to grow up with such a splendid example. And while I don’t recall him ever speaking about Mother Jones, I do recall him speaking fondly of John L. Lewis, the noted head of the United Mine Workers of America who helped to secure collective bargaining rights and health and retirement benefits for coal miners and others. Grandpa was not the kind of person to talk about how difficult life had been working in the mines all those years, but it was impossible not to sense it.

In 2007, I travelled back to Southwestern Virginia for some genealogical research. I drove up into the mountain to Bonny Blue, Virginia, one of the coal mines where my Grandpa had once worked. It had been closed for many years after the seams were worked out, but new coal mining extraction techniques had recently prompted it to re-open. I drove up to the gate and managed to get the guard to let me in (after signing a paper stating that I understood I was entering a dangerous work area at my own risk!). Dangerous it was, with large coal trucks and other machines rumbling in and out.

I found a relatively safe place to stand out of the way, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my Grandparents to have lived in one of the shotgun shacks that the company rented to the miners and their families. My father had been born there in 1933.

While coal mining has always been dangerous work, the lives of miner’s and their families were gradually helped by UMW leaders such as Mother Jones and John L. Lewis. I was encouraged to think that Mother Jones made a difference, and that people cared enough to remember her struggles on behalf of many of us.

--Larry Spears [Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010]