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MONROE - Elementary school students got a lively lesson in labor history last Thursday from "Mother" Jones impersonator Gladys McKenney.
Mrs. McKenney arrived before Kelly Davis' Custer Elementary class in the black dress, lace blouse, and black hat typical of Mary Harris Jones, the heroine of the labor movement better known as Mother Jones.
The live presentation was the culmination of weeks of study by Monroe County fourth graders examining the struggle for workers' rights. The event was videotaped so other students can share the experience.
Mrs. McKenney described the great triumphs and bitter indignities the iconic labor figure encountered as she led industrial strikes across the United States during the first two decades of the 20th Century.
"I go wherever there's a fight against oppression," she said. "My address is just like my shoes, they go right with me."
Mother Jones' tirades against oppression earned her the title of "The Most Dangerous Woman in America" by a U.S. district attorney and "Mother" among industrial laborers across the country, according to the AFL-CIO. She also taught briefly in Monroe.
The district's fourth-grade students are especially interested in learning about the youngest members of the labor movement. For weeks, students have been paging through photographs of young strikers who petitioned for the right to attend school, said Mari Treece, a social studies consultant for the district.
"Children connect with other children," she said. "It never occurred to them that there were kids anywhere [who] didn't have the right to go to school."
Mother Jones took a particular interest in the fate of working children after losing her own four children to yellow fever, Mrs. McKenney said. Mother Jones led teams of boys known as the "Breaker Boys" to demand the right to fair wages and an education.
"How would you like to work 12 hours or 14 hours in front of a blast furnace?" Mrs. McKenney asked the students.
The live presentation was supported by the Monroe County Labor History Museum and the Monroe County Council CIO Social and Welfare Association.
Mrs. McKenney did a repeat performance later in the day for fourth and fifth-grade students at Lincoln Elementary School.
A Rochester resident, Mrs. McKenney began impersonating Mother Jones after retiring from a long career as a history teacher.
She was inspired by the spirit and courage of the early human rights crusader who led groups of men against powerful industrialists at a time before women were allowed to vote or own property, she said.
"If you don't remember anything else," she told students, "remember Mother Jones' courage.
"Remember how fortunate you are now to be in school here," Mrs. McKenney said.
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