Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day in Salem: We learn some history and see how class and gender intersect

As in life, perhaps so in death.

Today two of us went out to Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery to find three graves, those of Olive England-Enright, Robert Ryan and Lucy Jellison. Our small adventure says much about the intersections of class and gender in Salem.

Olive England-Enright was the first woman to graduate from Willamette University’s law school and was the first woman to register to vote in Oregon. She graduated from WU late in life and was a leader of the local suffragette movement. She, or someone in her circle, used the telling phrase “gender-phobia” to refer to men who were resisting the push to gain the right of women to vote in Oregon in 1912. She apparently had the sympathy of Oregon’s governor.

Olive wrote and had published a remarkable book featuring poems which show a deep love for women and an interest in mystical Christianity. That book, Ceres, a harvest home festival, can still be found and has been translated into Russian. Her grave is at the back entrance to the cemetery.

Robert Ryan was a leader of Salem Local #4 of the Socialist Party in 1912. He was a farmer and lived just east of the downtown area. He had fought on the Union side during the Civil War. His grave marker has blackened with age and only records his army service.

Like us, past Salem socialists met on Sundays. They maintained an office or hall at the Commercial Hall. Unlike us, they could easily fill the armory when socialist speakers came to town. They maintained an active socialist organization rich with study and well-structured. In 1912 they were working on homelessness in Salem and were trying to get the authorities to use an easier hand in dealing with transient workers (“vagrants”).

Lucy Jellison and her children have no grave marker. She had had four marriages by 1912, all dissolved, and lived with four of her five children in a tent on North Liberty behind a house which she rented and subleased. She had a part-time job in a cafeteria. On March 1, 1912 Lucy poisoned four of her children and herself. A railroad worker was with Lucy until 2:00 AM on March 1 and then left to go to work. He reported that she seemed to be in good spirits when he departed. This tragedy stood at that time as an outstanding event in Salem’s history.

Lucy also had a teenage son who was not living at home at the time of the tragedy. He worked at Fitts, the fish company still in business on 12th Street, and made $6.00 a week. The local Progressive newspaper hinted that this was not a living wage and lightly censured Fitts for not paying higher wages. Reading between the lines, we see that Lucy’s situation was not good and that she was somewhat troubled and depressed. She and her children died with enough money on hand to pay for the cemetery plots but nothing more. Their tent may have been stolen. She wrote several apologetic notes before taking her life and the lives of her children and the newspaper ran these letters, a long letter from a friend of Lucy’s and the lengthy graveside sermon given by a kind Methodist preacher. It is notable that the minister and Lucy’s friend did not publicly condemn her.

In the wake of the Jellison deaths there was a bit of soul-searching in Salem. Salem then had just over 14,000 residents and had grown by about 230 percent over the preceding ten years. There was a feeling in the community that people weren’t talking to and checking in with their neighbors and an organization formed to ensure that people would talk and visit more with one another, a kind of predecessor to the do-nothing, why-can’t-we-all-get-along and its-all-about-communication Salem Leadership Foundation now working in Salem. Lucy’s tragedy and her transgressive actions quickly went on the back-burner. A wooden marker, now gone, and a grieving ex-husband and son were all that testified to the lives and tragedy that belonged to Lucy and her kids. Nothing now marks their graves.

Robert and Lucy are buried close to one another, Olive just a short walk away. Also close to the Jellison burial plot are the well-marked graves of the McGhilcrist family who owned the cafeteria where Lucy worked part-time. Walking from one grave to another you can see a special memorial for an Oregon governor and a founder of the Oregon Medical Society, but nothing tells you that Robert was a socialist, that Olive was a feminist and that Lucy was a despondent worker overcome by the pressures which come with the poverty still common to working people.

I wondered if the three of them ever met. They surely passed one another on the street. Perhaps they interacted in the cafeteria without knowing one another, without realizing what their contributions to the world would be and what those contributions would mean to people generations later. Robert would have had much to say to Lucy, I think. He might have told her about his dream of a cooperative commonwealth which wouldn’t consign the poor to tents and he might have tried to get her to join the Socialist Party and fight back. Olive might have impressed or awed Lucy with her manners and poems, might have tried to enlist her in the struggle to win democratic rights. Olive and Robert would have argued over class and gender politics. And Lucy might have grounded them both in her lived reality as a transgressive working-class woman.

As in life, perhaps so in death.

There are no markers here for our fallen working-class people, for the heroic and less-than-heroic who are our people, and no markers as well for the women of all classes who fought so hard for democratic rights.

Salem had at least 14 unions in 1912. Bartenders were fighting for a living wage of $18.00 a week and were trying to put two scab bars out of business. The Industrial Workers of the World was set to strike the construction companies building a complicated and far-reaching electric railroad line crisscrossing the Willamette Valley. Among their demands were special wage rates for the Greek and Bulgarian workers doing the hardest jobs. There was a socialist movement here. There was feminist movement here. There was a daily Progressive newspaper here which supported some of labor’s demands and winning the vote for women, had a decent position on immigration and reported with some sympathy on the situation of Native Americans. You didn’t learn any of this in school because there is no room for peoples’ history in the curriculum.

We have no place in the textbooks and there is barely room in the cemeteries for us. We are among the forgotten and discarded ones. We are among the wretched of the earth. 

The friendly woman managing Memorial Day at the cemetery gave us two brochures which provide an overview of the cemetery. Only one woman is highlighted as being a prominent person buried there, and there is space enough in one of the brochures to tell the story of a renowned alcoholic farmer buried there, but there is no space to tell of Olive, Robert and Lucy.

We will all die. We will all eventually be forgotten. People and time will move on until the world itself will roll like an empty walnut through space. Still, we go on because life has weight and, if you are engaged in changing the world, meaning.




As in life, perhaps so in death.

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