A plaque for Eugene V. Debs, the influential labor leader who was imprisoned in Woodstock in 1895, will be dedicated during a ceremony Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House, 101 N. Johnson St.
The marker from the Illinois State Historical Society will commemorate Debs’s imprisonment and explain his subsequent impact on American society. It will be mounted to the side of the city-owned Sheriff’s House.
Debs, a five-time presidential candidate who founded the Socialist Party of America, was sent to what was then the McHenry County Jail for violating a court injunction against the 1894 Pullman Strike as a leader of the American Railway Union. His six-month incarceration in Woodstock “transformed Debs from a labor leader into a national political activist,” the plaque’s text will read.
“Debs always claimed it was his experience sitting in the Woodstock jail that led him to create a third party,” said Ernest Freeberg, a historian and professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who is author of “Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent.”
Woodstock’s Kathleen Spaltro is one of the major proponents of the marker, having written an application for it to the state historical society.
In addition to being known as a union leader, “current interest in Debs also stems from recognition of the significant part he played in the development of protections for constitutional freedoms,” wrote Spaltro, who writes a column for The Independent. “Although the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against him twice, these decisions are now seen as mistaken violations of Debs’s constitutional rights. By standing up to the federal government of his day, Debs earned the respect of every American who values the liberty of citizenship and resists its diminishment for the convenience of government.”
Woodstock Celebrates, the Illinois Labor History Society and the McHenry County Federation of Teachers covered the fee for the marker.
The dedication ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. outside the Sheriff’s House. Speakers will include Gunnar Gitlin, president of Woodstock Celebrates; Duane Peiffer of the McHenry County Federation of Teachers; Tom Suhrbur of the Illinois Labor History Society; Noel Beasley, president of The Debs Foundation; and Will Furry of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Following the dedication, Freeberg will be discussing and signing his book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, during an event beginning at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd St. A walking tour of sites will follow the book signing.
“I think it’s wonderful that Woodstock is acknowledging its place in this history,” Freeberg said. “I think it’s a great way to recover a really important piece of the story of how Americans developed rights to free speech and how the idea of justice for working people evolved.”