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The Samuel Gompers Memorial

The destination of this bike ride was the Samuel Gompers Memorial, which is located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 10th and L Streets (MAP), near Mount Vernon Square in northwest D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood. The Samuel Gompers Memorial, built in 1933 only nine years after his death, is comprised of a bronze statue by American sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken, and a small municipal park.

Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, England, into a Jewish family which had recently emigrated there from Amsterdam. Although his family was extremely poor, at the age of six Gompers was able to attend a Jewish free school, where he received the basics of an education which most children in his socio-economic class did not. His scholastic career was a brief one though, and he had to go to work at an early age. He originally apprenticed as a shoemaker before moving on to work in his father’s cigar-making trade. Then in 1863, when Gompers was only 13 years old, he and his family moved to New York City in an attempt to escape the poverty of the lives in England.

Gompers again went to work as a cigar maker, and the following year joined Cigarmakers’ Local Union No. 15, the English-speaking union of cigar makers in New York City. After working for a couple of years, the 17-year old Gompers married his 16-year old co-worker, a girl named Sophia Julian. In an effort to support his rapidly increasing family, Gompers went to work for a more prominent cigarmaker, David Hirsch & Company. Gompers later called this change of employers “one of the most important changes in my life”, because it was there that he was taken under the wing of Karl Laurrell, the former secretary of the International Workingmen’s Association. Under Laurell’s mentorship, Gompers began to believe in the organized economic movement of trade unionism rather than his previously held, more simplistic ideas within unions’ socialist political movement.

In 1881, with several other union leaders, Gompers helped found a loose organization of like-mined unions, known as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which would in 1886 be reorganized into the American Federation of Labor.  Gompers was not only one of its founders of the AFL, he also went on to become its first president, a postion that he held, except for one year, for the next thirty-eight years until his death.

Under his leadership, the AFL became the largest and most influential labor federation in the world. It grew from a marginal association of 50,000 when it began in 1886, to an established organization of nearly three million members in 1924, earning it a place in American society and history. It was these roles as the founder and the first president of the AFL that Gompers would come to be considered by many as the most significant single figure in the history of the American labor movement, and earn him the nickname “The Grand Old Man of Labor.”

The memorial to this historic figure in American unionism is maintained by the National Park Service, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.  It features Gompers dressed in period garb and seated, with papers on his lap. He is surrounded by six allegorical figures representing the American labor movement. The seated male to his right is symbolic of the overthrow of industrial exploitation by education. The seated female figure located on his left symbolizes the protection of the home. The two standing women represent Justice, while the two principal background figures, men standing and shaking hands, denote Unity and Cooperation.  Various other symbolic figures and objects are also included in the memorial, such an angel, a baby, and a locomotive engine.

The memorial also contains several inscriptions which were taken from speeches made by Gompers. The first of two main inscriptions is located to Gomper’s right on the statue’s base. It reads, “No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion if we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, United, is invincible. There is no way whereby our labor Movement may be assured sustained progress in determining its policies and its plans other than sincere democratic deliberation until a unanimous Decision is reached. This may seem a cumbrous, slow Method to the impatient but the impatient are more concerned for immediate triumph than for the Education of constructive development.”

The other main inscription is on the base of the statue to his left, and reads, “So long as we have held fast to voluntary principles and have been actuated and inspired by the spirit of service, we have sustained our forward progress and we have made our labor movement something to be respected and accorded a place in the councils of our republic. Where we have blundered into trying to force a policy or a decision even though wise and right, we have impeded, if not interrupted the realization of our own aims.”

Gompers died in December of 1924 in San Antonio, Texas, where he had been rushed by train after falling ill in Mexico City while attending the inauguration of the new president of Mexico.  Staying true to his life’s work of fighting for shorter working hours, higher pay, safe and clean working conditions and democracy in the workplace, his last words were reported to be “Nurse, this is the end. God bless our American institutions. May they grow better day by day.”

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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Comments
  1. Deborah says:

    I have the October 7, 1933 Official Program of the Dedication of Samuel Gompers Memorial Monument. Interested?

    Like

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