Tag Archives: Italian Hall disaster

Moses Called The First Strike

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.

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Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.

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People’s History is Alive

Cross-posted from 1913 Massacre.
I love this tweet:

This is from the Twitter account of Voices of a People’s History.

I suspect it was posted partly in response to David Greenberg’s vituperative account of Howard Zinn’s life and work in The New Republic. Greenberg portrays Zinn as a deeply flawed, philandering charlatan, who didn’t keep pace with work in his own field, and kept “aloof from the intellectual ferment of the seminar rooms, journal offices, and conferences where radical history was being born.” As for Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States, Greenberg dismisses it as “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

Zinn has always had his detractors and defenders, and plenty of people have risen to his defense. (Clement Lime wrote one of the stronger responses to Greenberg, I think.) It’s interesting to think that our film might have a place in the conversation.

But that’s not what I like so much about this tweet. If there’s one thing we discovered about “people’s history” in the course of making our film, it’s that people’s history is alive. History lives and breathes in people; their memories, the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the photographs they cherish — all those things aren’t just artifacts or objects of study, even if historians say they are.

History is at work in everything people do — and in a place like Calumet, where past troubles were never really laid to rest, history can work in mysterious ways. People talk about the past in order to talk about the present; and if they do not want to talk about the past it will find a way to assert itself in the present. People may see in the past some faint image of ourselves and our lives, but more importantly we carry the past with us; it’s our constant companion. It comforts us and causes us pain; it can be a source of pride or shame, pleasure or remorse. It can entrap us and enrich us.

People’s history is alive not because there are historians who study it, but because, like it or not, deny it or embrace it, study it or try to forget it, it’s our story.