On the second floor of the house on North Eighth Street in Terre Haute, Indiana where Eugene Debs lived and died, amid such memorabilia as his marriage license, the bed where his friend James Whitcomb Riley regularly crashed and a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital signed by socialist hero Victor Berger, there is a quotation on display:
"It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it."
“Pretty relevant in the context of this election year,” the director of the Eugene Debs House and Museum, Allison Duerk, observes with a smile. “You may have seen this a lot on social media.”
Indeed, one gets the feeling, touring this 116-year-old white Victorian edifice in the heart of the Indiana State University campus, that application to our time has gone viral here.
Pick your burning topic of 2016.
Working class woes and child poverty amid unprecedented national prosperity.
The unfinished battle for women’s equality.
Wars flaring across the globe and between police and citizens in American cities.
A wild national election with a strong socialist (or at least democratic socialist) contender and serious talk of his forming a third party.
A state bicentennial celebration giving rise to new perspectives on Hoosiers once disparaged, dismissed or despised because of their race, gender, ideology or defiance of the law.
“We need to aggressively claim him as an Indiana son,” says James Madison, the noted Indiana University historian and author, a member of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission. “He is as significant as any Hoosier historical figure. He’s a fantastically interesting guy.”
And no relic, Madison would add. Nor, down deep, a revolutionary bent on violent overthrow of the ruling order.
“He was a great speechmaker. And he attacked The Man — the corporations, the two major political parties. In some ways that’s relevant to today. You see it in some of what Bernie Sanders has been doing. Debs was a part of the forces that moved both parties somewhat to the left. Things that the era called progressive — an end to child labor, compulsory education — are forms of government intervention for the public good that are under attack today.”
Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) managed to climb and descend the entire ladder of
public regard in his lifetime.
He was branded an enemy of the human race by The New York Times when a union he headed went on strike, against his advice, and landed him in prison.
He was pardoned by President Warren G. Harding, and invited to the White House, after serving two years of a 10-year sentence for another dubious crime — this time, espionage, for a speech urging resistance to the World War I draft.
A school dropout at age 14, Eugene Debs went on to found a national industrial union and co-found the Socialist Party USA. He ran for president five times, one of them from a prison cell. Self-educated into one of American history’s most eloquent orators, he was embraced as a prophet and reviled as a radical traitor for advocating such extremes as the eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage and workplace safety rules. His funeral drew 5,000 mourners.
The house he and his wife, Kate Metzel Debs, had built in 1900 reflects the full complexity of Indiana’s most obstreperous icon. Amongst original furniture, it displays photographs, books, busts, trophies, posters, pamphlets, gavels, letters, copies of the Socialist Party’s Appeal to Reason newspaper (which Debs edited) and hundreds of other artifacts reflecting both the international fame he earned and the costly dues he paid.
The key to a prison cell is in the mix. So is an absolutely jaw-dropping photo of Convict No. 9653 holding a bouquet of flowers, posing in the yard of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Ga., flanked by fashionably dressed members of the Socialist Party, accepting nomination as its 1920 candidate for president of the United States.
The “Gentleman Socialist” who counted Hoosier poet Riley as a drinking buddy and once served in the Indiana General Assembly regularly received correspondence — and gifts — from prisoners, whose rights and treatment he fought for as vigorously as any of his causes. Among the many convict tokens in the Debs house collection is an exquisitely carved cane that’s now on loan to the Indiana State Museum in observance of the Bicentennial.
Graced with handsome hardwoods, stained glass and multiple fireplaces, “It’s a nice house,” Duerk says. “It cost $4,500, which would be $70,000-$80,000 today. Actually, Gene got some criticism for it when he was running for president — ‘How can you say you’re for the working class?’ There’s a good answer for that. As secretary-treasurer of the National Brotherhood of Railway Workers he was paid an average salary. By no means was he a One Percenter. He used his family inheritance (his French immigrant parents made it in the grocery business) to build and furnish it.”
The period elegance of the two stories of living and working space gives way with stunning effect on the third floor, whose walls explode with sweeping murals of Debs and his times painted by the late ISU professor John Joseph Laska.
Here is Debs hosting women’s rights champion Susan B. Anthony. Here are portraits of Debs’ idols among labor and human rights figures: Walter Reuther, Dorothy Day, Marcus Garvey, and Karl Marx.
Here is Debs, doomed to a prison stretch that would ruin his health, delivering his thunderous closing statement to an Ohio court, capped by the immortal lines: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
It was in prison, Duerk notes, that Debs read Marx and became convinced capitalism and its reigning political parties were fundamentally averse to economic justice — and peace. While presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stops short of that revolutionary stance, he’s a stated devotee of Debs; and Duerk says a number of visitors to the Terre Haute house identify themselves as Sanders supporters.
Keeping the house a living museum has been the mission of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation; formed in the early 1960s by academics, labor leaders, attorneys and other Debs admirers. From the time of Kate Debs’ death in 1936 until then, the property had been a professor’s home, a fraternity house and an apartment building. All users treated the space well enough, but restoration and development into a museum took extensive work that began in 1965. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Exact figures aren’t kept, but Duerk estimates 500 visitors a year.
Blessed with an approximately $500,000 endowment, the foundation “is in pretty solid financial shape,” says Benjamin Kite, the foundation’s treasurer. “We’ve been able to carry out the care of his legacy. We want to do more. We want to set up a scholarship program.”
The flagship program is the annual Eugene V. Debs Award, whose roster of recipients since 1965 reads like a Who’s Who of the American Left — A. Philip Randolph, Coretta Scott King, Norman Thomas, Studs Terkel and Ralph Nader among them. This year’s honoree is Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist who famously staged a lengthy protest outside then-President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch after her soldier son, Casey, was killed in Iraq.
RELATED: Activist Sheehan wins Debs award
Steeped as it is in historical significance — and the strife that so often accompanies the making of the memorable — the Debs house endears itself to its operators and many visitors for the sense it lends of the firebrand’s approachable, Hoosier homeboy side. Kate Debs is a vital part of that presence.
“She was often characterized as cold and removed — ‘an adversary in the house.’ That’s not a very accurate representation,” Duerk says. “What she did was make sure Gene had a sanctuary. She would turn away visitors to protect his privacy.
“She was very much a woman of her time, responsible for the upkeep of the home. But she was ahead of her time as well. She had her own investments.”
As James Madison sees it, a woman whose husband wrote her every day on his travels, with the salutation “Dear Ducky,” could hardly be the wife of a bomb-thrower.
“Lots of people described him as a raving radical. I’d say he wasn’t. And if you want to see his ordinary qualities, his humanity, where he came from, that house is well worth a visit.”