In our service to the community, we often find ourselves starting with a question posed which leads to a fascinating journey through our archives and beyond. One such question arrived via email in April, 2017 from a researcher with the National Archives of Chicago. Planning an article for the agency’s quarterly journal, Prologue, the gentleman inquired if we had a photograph of the socialist, antiwar activist Eugene V. Debs addressing an audience in Canton, Ohio in Nimisilla Park. The speech took place on June 16, 1918, five months before Armistice Day and the end of WWI. A search of our archives revealed no such photo, but a colorized postcard of Nimisilla Park and its bandstand from 1907 was found and forwarded to him.
Recently, archivist Mark Holland was doing research on an unrelated matter. While browsing the Western Reserve Historical Society database, Mark spotted the name “Eugene Debs.” Clicking on the link, he was led to the David Rubenstein Gallery of the National Archives. He was astonished to find a crystal clear black and white photograph of Debs addressing a sizeable crowd at Nimisilla Park in Canton, Ohio.
Here is the link which features the photograph:
The significance of this event is notable. Debs was known as one of the most outspoken opponents of American participation in WWI. He had started his career as a railroad laborer and eventually become the president of the American Railway Union. He converted to socialism in 1897 and ran as the Socialist Party candidate for President five times. By 1918, the US government was imprisoning socialist dissidents who were antiwar. Eugene Debs was on their radar.
The speech in Canton, Ohio was duly noted and the district attorney for Northern Ohio, Edwin S. Wetz, had stenographers record his words. Debs had chosen the Canton location as it was not far from the Canton jail where three socialists were being held in violation of the Espionage Act. During the speech he criticized the rationale of the war while denouncing the government for suppressing free speech.
He told the audience “you need to know that you are good for something more than slavery and cannon fodder.”
Debs was arrested the next day in Cleveland and charged with ten counts under the Sedition Act of 1918. After six hours of deliberation, the jury found Debs guilty on three counts, ruling that he had tried to incite refusal of military service. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. After serving 3 years, Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence.
Debs’ conviction and the ongoing arguments regarding the boundaries of free speech eventually led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Concluding, one can say that the question posed led to the uncovering of a turbulent piece of Americana, with Canton, Ohio as a part of that story. As we examine our current environment, with its own battles and controversies, we can better understand the cyclical nature of our nation’s history.