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Republic Steel 'Memorial Day Massacre' Highlighted in Lakeview Man's Book

By Howard Ludwig | January 13, 2014 6:39am
 John Hogan of Lakeview wrote "The 1937 Chicago Steel Strike: Blood on the Prairie," which details the events of the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel.
Blood on the Prairie
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HEGEWISCH — The spotlight shines brighter on certain historical events. And John Hogan thought the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel deserved more attention.

That's why the Lakeview resident wrote a book on the strike that left 10 steelworkers dead and more than 100 people wounded after Chicago police clashed with union picketers on May 30, 1937.

"The 1937 Chicago Steel Strike: Blood on the Prairie" will be published on Tuesday by The History Press ($19.99). Hogan, a former WGN reporter and spokesman for ComEd, spent a year researching and writing his latest book.

"It began with a convergence of ideas, beginning with my desire to write history, but also to look for historical events that have gone unreported or under-reported," said Hogan, who worked at Republic Steel in the summer of 1959.

 Photos of the Memorial Day Massacre shed some insight on the events that cost 10 men their lives on May 30, 1937.
Memorial Day Massacre
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The stage was set for a showdown between Republic Steel and workers demanding union representation on March 1, 1937. Industry leader U.S. Steel Corp. signed an agreement with the union, and it was largely expected that smaller steel producers would follow.

But Republic Steel chairman Tom M. Girdler was adamantly opposed to unionization. A strike was called against Republic as well as Youngstown Sheet and Tube and Inland Steel on May 26, 1937.

Fearing a clash with pro-union workers at its Hegewisch facility, Republic courted the Chicago Police Department. Cops were allowed to eat for free in the factory's cafeteria and given an assortment of weapons, including batons and tear gas courtesy of Republic, Hogan said.

A token group of picketers was allowed at the gate at the start of the strike, but police dispersed the group whenever it became too large. A massive demonstration was planned for Memorial Day — May 30, 1937. The event was billed as a family affair. Strikers set up shop at Sam's Place, a tavern and dance hall at 113th Street and Green Bay Avenue.

An estimated crowd of 1,500 people gathered at the bar about six blocks from Republic's main gate on the Southeast Side. Carrying signs and chanting union slogans, the group began marching down a dirt road toward the plant. Police were waiting with their batons drawn and vehicles set to haul away demonstrators.

Newsreel footage is unclear about what triggered the violence on that hot summer day. Some say the 264 police stationed outside the gate threw tear gas into the crowd. Others said picketers were armed and began throwing bricks, bottles and other projectiles at police.

Regardless, police drew their guns and began firing into the crowd. The bullets struck protesters in the back and side as they fled the confrontation. Police also swung batons wildly, injuring more than 100 demonstrators. In the end, 10 steelworkers were killed.

"Many guys were offering no resistance. The cops just stood above them and beat them with clubs. It was disgraceful," Hogan said.

The Cook County coroner and state's attorney exonerated the police after an investigation. But a congressional committee later blamed the bloody event on Republic Steel and the Police Department's excessive use of force, Hogan said.

The testimony of an Illinois National guardsman was included as part of this congressional inquiry. The unnamed soldier was embedded in the union crowd, often posing as a journalist or steelworker. He was then tasked with filing unbiased, written reports to then-Gov. Henry Horner.

"I was encouraged to break a little historical ground," Hogan said.

Through his research, Hogan identified the guardsman as Capt. Howard Cartwright of River Forest. His unflinching reports provided vivid accounts of protesters being beaten, gassed and clubbed during the melee.

Republic Steel eventually allowed the workers to unionize about four years after the Memorial Day Massacre. But the tragedy took much of the vigor away from the union movement, Hogan said.

A native of Chicago's Roseland community, Hogan remembers hearing whispers about the tragedy as a child. His father was a Chicago police officer, but he never discussed Republic Steel. He hopes his new book will help bring the tragedy into the spotlight.

"As a journalist, you always want to tell a good story, and preferably tell about something people don't already know," he said.