A historical marker commemorating labor leader Eugene Debs’ imprisonment in Woodstock was unveiled to a crowd of about 50 during a presentation Oct. 21 at the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House, 101 N. Johnson St.
“When I think of Debs, I think of forgiveness,” said Woodstock Celebrates board member Kathleen Spaltro. She read a quote by Debs: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Spaltro was instrumental in bringing the plaque to the Sheriff’s House, which held Debs for six months in 1895 while he was jailed for disobeying a court order to stop a railway worker strike. (Spaltro writes a column for The Independent.)
Noel Beasley, president of the Debs Foundation in Terre Haute, Ind., said the time Debs spent under the watch of McHenry County Sheriff George Eckert in what was then the McHenry County Jail profoundly changed Debs. In addition to his influence on unions in the U.S., Debs also is known for his impact on the interpretation of First Amendment rights.
“Eugene Debs had come to a fork in the road in his life. … [Debs] came in as a Democrat and left as a socialist,” Beasley said of the man who would go on to found the Socialist Party of America and run for president five times.
The marker was granted by the Illinois State Historical Society.
“[The Eugene Debs plaque] will be the most important historical marker we will see erected this century,” said William Furry, ISHS executive director.
Steve Aavang, who portrayed Eckert at the library later that afternoon, said, “It is important to recognize history and how it has influenced us – Debs still sparks controversy today. … The world needs more men like Eckert, who are so confident in themselves that they can allow someone with opposing viewpoints to prosper.”
The $2,000 cost for the plaque, which is affixed to the Cass Street side of the city-owned Sheriff’s House, was paid for by the Illinois Labor History Society, Woodstock Celebrates and the McHenry County Federation of Teachers. The Woodstock City Council had agreed to pay $1,500 toward the plaque, but that expense later was picked up by the teachers union.
The marker encountered some resistance, including from the Friends of the Old Courthouse, whose board expressed concern that close associations between the property and Debs might scare off donors who disagree with Debs’ political views. No one present at the unveiling expressed any opposition to the marker.
Vladimir Martinez traveled from Chicago for the event.
“My father is a socialist and lives in Puerto Rico. It is in my blood to follow socialism,” Martinez said. “… The placing of this plaque had a lot of resistance. I understand the hesitation and believe it comes from misunderstanding.”