From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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December 16, 1888

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The state legislature provided for compulsory education in 1883. Children between the ages of eight and fourteen were required to attend school at least twelve weeks each school year. Exceptions were made for children with physical or mental disabilities. Parents or guardians of children not in compliance with the law could be fined between five and twenty dollars. This act was strengthened in 1889 when a provision for the appointment of truant officers was added. Chicago truant officers reported that for the 1889/90 school year nearly 17,500 children had been investigated. Of those 7,380 were placed in public day schools, 983 in evening schools, and 1,436 in parochial or other private schools.

The American Federation of Labor, the national organization to which the Chicago Trade and Labor Assembly was affiliated, was organized on December 8, 1886 by Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser in Columbus, Ohio. The AF of L quickly succeeded the Knights of Labor as the country's premier labor organization. Unlike the Knights the AF of L did not involve itself in politics. By stressing working conditions and economic gains, Gompers' organization was able to improve the plight of its members pragmatically.

The Chicago Trade and Labor Assembly was active in representing its members in the affairs of Chicago's schools. In 1893 there was a bitter debate over special subjects being taught in the classroom. Many objected to costly instruction in clay-modeling, drawing, music, physical culture and the German language. They argued that more time should be devoted to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. The Assembly responded that if the special courses in question were judged necessary for wealthy children in private schools, then they were necessary for the children of working people in public schools.

Points to Consider

What was the Trade and Labor Assembly advocating in this document?

Why would a labor organization take a stand in favor of compulsory education?

Why would there be a general impression that the working classes were opposed to compulsory education?

What was the Trade and Labor Assembly and what did the emblem on its letterhead mean?

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