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Despite controversy, Woodstock to honor Eugene V. Debs with Old Courthouse plaque

Socialist leader was held at Woodstock jail for six months in 1895

WOODSTOCK – The city plans to recognize socialist leader and civil rights activist Eugene V. Debs with a $1,500 plaque on the Old Courthouse, despite some concern that the association will scare off donors.

Debs founded the Socialist Party of America, was a five-time presidential candidate and was president of the American Railway Union.

He was imprisoned at the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock for six months after disobeying a court order that tried to stop him from leading a railway worker strike.

The Woodstock City Council plans to honor his memory with a plaque, but the nonprofit group Friends of the Old Courthouse is against the idea. The organization has said it will make it more difficult to secure funds for the restoration of the historic buildings.

The marker honoring Debs will be one of the most important to be placed in Illinois in the past two decades, William Furry, with the Illinois State Historical Society, said in a memo to the Woodstock City Council.

“This promises to be one of the most significant historical markers placed in the state within the last 20 years,” he wrote, “highlighting as it does Debs’s entry into national politics, the history of labor unrest in Illinois as exemplified by the Pullman strike, and one of the most important First Amendment challenges in American history.”

Julie Miller of Friends of the Old Courthouse said she was concerned that the marker was too politically charged and might not only hurt fundraising
efforts, but also turn off potential users of the site.

“We feel the proposed marker can be viewed as celebrating socialism and labor unions,” she said. “This may lead to the building being thought of as a monument to those ideas. Woodstock and McHenry County are culturally and politically diverse.”

Woodstock Celebrates Inc. board member Kathleen Spaltro has led the effort to acquire the plaque, and she said that Debs’ legacy is about more than his involvement with socialism and labor.

“He is highly significant in the history of constitutional protection of freedom of speech,” she said. “You can see Debs as a polarizing figure. You can see Debs as a labor leader. You can see him as a socialist. There will be people who will be attracted to Woodstock and visit the jail because of the association, but you could also reconceptualize Debs as an American whose constitutional freedoms were violated twice … and who stands for citizens pushing back.”

The 250-word polycarbonate historical marker will cost about $1,500. That money will come from the city’s tax increment financing fund, according to city documents.

What will the marker say?

Here is the text approved by the Illinois State Historical Society:

EUGENE DEBS AND OLD MCHENRY COUNTY JAIL

The 1894 Pullman Strike and boycott of Pullman railcars led by the American Railway
Union involved 250,000 workers in 27 states. It paralyzed much of the nation’s rail
system and directly led to the establishment that year of a national Labor Day. The strike
also brought civil charges against American Railway Union leaders for violating a court
injunction against the strike. Their attorneys, including Clarence Darrow and Lyman
Trumbull, defended them before the Unites States Supreme Court.

On 27 May 1895, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld court injunctions against labor
strikes. The decision, “In re Debs,” sent American Railway Union leader Eugene V.
Debs to a six-month stay in this building, then McHenry County Jail. The Pullman Case
guided governmental response to strikes for nearly four decades. Not until the 1932
Norris-LaGuardia Act did the United States Congress erase the power of courts to end
strikes through injunctions.

In Woodstock, Sheriff George Eckert protected Debs from threats and the Eckert family
began three decades of warm friendship with Debs. Eckert allowed Debs to use his jail
time to study and ponder the plight of working-class Americans. Famous visitors
included reporter Nellie Bly, Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger, and Keir Hardie, the
first labour member of Parliament.

Debs left Woodstock even more determined to fight for the working people. His time in
McHenry County Jail transformed Debs from a labor leader into a national political
activist, founder of the Socialist Party, and five-time presidential candidate.
Sponsored by city of Woodstock, the Illinois Labor Historical Society, the Illinois State
Historical Society, and Woodstock Celebrates, Inc. 

Source: Woodstock City Council memo

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