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Strikers shut down St. Louis in 1877. A new play tells their story

Actors run scenes from a newly coming play based on the St. Louis General Strike of 1877.
Bread and Roses Missouri
Actors run scenes from a newly coming play based on the St. Louis General Strike of 1877.

Twelve-year-old Courtnei Morris recently learned about the plight of St. Louis workers in 1877. At the time, the city’s streets were bustling and pollution was rampant. And workers were mistreated — among them were children who would work up to 12 hours a day.

“It was very shocking to me at first that they used to work for that long,” Courtnei said. “Eleanor, she's used to working in the flour mill, but by the end of the play she ends up getting a new job.”

Eleanor, also a 12-year-old girl, is the character Courtnei portrays in a new original play about the St. Louis General Strike of 1877 called “1877.” The strike is a pivotal moment in St. Louis labor history. It involved hundreds of railroad, factory and transit workers who were able to grind commerce to a halt.

“The wealth disparity was so stark, the poverty was so systemic here, that workers across all trades transcended their divides and organized around common interests,” explained playwright Colin McLaughlin. “They stood up against child labor and they fought for an eight-hour workday, and they organized across a dozen languages. St. Louis was and is a city of immigrants and refugees, and it became this really incredible example of solidarity and people power.”

Missouri Historical Society
Railroad workers attempted to stop guarded trains in East St. Louis during the 1877 railroad strike. The strike led to workers seizing control of St. Louis' government.

The original play, which premieres Thursday at the Missouri History Museum, tells the true story of the strike with six performers who portray 30 different characters.

Josh Mayfield is one of the actors. He portrays a main character named Jonah, a longshoreman who wrestles with the idea of joining the strike, knowing that if he does it will put his ability to provide for his younger sister, Eleanor, in jeopardy.

“Whenever I think about Jonah, I think about a person who has dealt with overwhelming amounts of loss and has had to overcome being put in a situation where they have had to grow up very quickly and take on a lot of responsibility at a very young age,” Mayfield said. “But he's also a man that has so much dignity that you would never know that those hopes were snatched away from him. He's a very complex character, and Colin did a fantastic job of making sure that those layers of character were very seen.”

Directed by Jess Shoemaker, “1877” is the latest production of Bread and Roses Missouri, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that tells the stories of workers and their families through the arts.

To hear more about “1877” and the strike that inspired the new original play, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Strikers shut down St. Louis in 1877. A new play tells their story

Related Event

What: Bread and Roses Missouri presents “1877”
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.