Closed School Biographies: Samuel Gompers


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Close up of Samuel Gompers statue

In a previous post I examined Anthony Overton Elementary school at 221 E. 49th street.  This “Closed School Biographies” post, written just before the Chicago Teachers Union “Day of Action” on April 1st, embraces the spirit of solidarity to focus upon Samuel Gompers of the renamed Gompers Elementary at 12302 S. State Street. The school was appropriately renamed after Jesse Owens which I examined in a previous post.

With that renaming, Gompers has by no means become forgotten figure, but with labor and unions in the news I wanted to tip my red cap to Mr. Gompers’s legacy.  Gompers still has a park dedicated to him on the north side of the city at Foster Avenue and Pulaski Avenue.  In fact, a statue of Gompers, dedicated in 2007, stands in the southwest corner of that intersection.  At the base of said statue sits a box of cigars which honors his election as president of the Cigarmaker’s Union in 1875.  Gompers rose through the union ranks and eventually founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was president of that organization for decades.

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Gompers’s cigars


Interestingly, Gompers had a great many struggles organizing here in Chicago and had many conflicts with the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) during and after World War I.  “Reconfiguring many of the arguments of local Irish and radical groups, the CFL became a center of antiwar agitation after the outbreak of war in Europe.  Its opposition to the AFL’s preparedness and mobilization polices stimulated a critical controversy between local officials and Samuel Gompers.”1   This reminds me of how intensely labor was embraced not just in Chicago, but throughout the United States.  Unions had so many sub-factions split along isolationism, globalism, socialism, communism, immigration issues and ethnicities.  The fact that “AFL membership grew from 150,000 to 2,900,000,”2 alone shows his skill at uniting those factions, but also the country’s previous commitment to labor.
With the Chicago Teachers Union marching and rallying at places like the Juvenile Detention Center and the Cook County Courthouse and jail I am reminded of an oft repeated quote from Gompers’s 1893 What Does Labor Want? speech delivered here in Chicago, “We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright.”3

Such things aren’t just wanted, but needed in Chicago today and the rest of our nation.

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Chicago Teachers Union outside Cook County Courthouse on April 1st



1        McKillen, Elizabeth.   Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy 1914-1924, Cornell University Press, 1995. Page 15.

2   Chicago Park District website:

3         Gompers, Samuel. What Does Labor Want? A Paper Read before the International Labor Congress, Chicago, IL. September, 1893.

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