A small crowd gathered in the rain at the cemetery on the outskirts of Bessemer City, North Carolina, their feet covered in the red clay mud common in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. A young millworker named Katy Barnett broke out into song:
We leave our home in the morning,
We kiss our children goodbye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.
And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away. . . .
Now listen to me, workers,
Both women and men,
We are sure to win our union,
If all would enter in.
I hope this will be a warning,
I hope you will understand,
And help us win our victory,
And lend to us a hand.
It is for our little children,
That seem to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.
But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear,
Let’s stand together, workers,
And have a union here.
Most of the mourners were likely familiar with the ballad, known as “Mill Mother’s Lament,” but it held new meaning on this rainy September day. The song’s writer, Ella May Wiggins, lay in the primitive casket below as her children, mostly too young to understand what was going on, innocently placed flowers upon it.
The pregnant mother of five, millworker, and balladeer had been murdered just days earlier on September 14, 1929. Ella May, who dropped the Wiggins from her name after her husband abandoned the family, had been riding with twenty fellow National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) members in the back of a pickup truck heading to a rally to organize in Gastonia, the next town over. A blockade of trucks forced the group to turn around on their way into town. As they headed back home to Bessemer City, they were ambushed from all sides by gun-toting anti-union thugs paid by the mill owners and backed by civic and business leaders.
Ella May Wiggins and the Loray Mill
Like many Gastonia-area millworkers, Ella May Wiggins had been lured to the region by employment agents promising a better life in the epicenter of the Piedmont textile industry. Born in 1900, she had been raised in the Appalachian Mountains of nearby Tennessee, where her parents worked in lumber camps and on tenant farms. While times were good at the Piedmont mills during the World War I boom, production slowed after the armistice, and the Loray Mill, located in Gastonia, was sold to the New England–based Manville Jenckes Company.
The new owners switched the cotton mill’s output to tire fabric and implemented cost-cutting measures known as “the stretch-out.” Workers were downgraded from hourly pay to piecework, forced to toil more hours for the same pay, and prevented from leaving during work hours (previously, nursing mothers had been allowed to run home to feed their children during their often-twelve-hour shifts). Between 1927 and 1929, the workforce at Loray was slashed from 3,500 employees to 2,200.
In early 1929, the Communist Party’s NTWU sent organizer Fred Beal to Gastonia to assess whether the mill could serve as a testing ground to break into the heavily nonunion South. Beale believed it could be, if given the proper financial and party support.
There had been signs of budding militancy. Hundreds of weavers had walked off their posts at the Loray Mill in March 1928, and elsewhere in the region, even nonunionized textile workers were making headway. A strike broke out on March 12, 1929, at the American Glanzstoff and Bemberg rayon plants in Elizabethton, Tennessee, spreading to thirteen other mills before workers’ demands were met.
Encouraged by the glimmers of revolt, Beal and the NTWU moved quickly. The first Loray strikers walked out on April 1, 1929, after five workers were fired for “attending a speakin’. ” Women were at the center of the rebellion: sixteen-year-old millworker Ruby McMahon, Scottish-born NTWU organizer Ellen “Nellie” Dawson, NTWU deputy Vera Buch (sent to stiffen up her male counterpart Beal), communist organizer Sophie Melvin (later Gerson), and strikers Cora Harris and Ivy Fulbright all made waves. Later, journalist and folklorist Margaret Larkin and Mary Vorse collected Ella May’s songs, and proletarian author Grace Lumpkin based her book To Make My Bread on the strike.
City leaders responded to the unrest by calling in the National Guard. Mill management evicted picketing workers and their families from company housing, forcing strikers to join a growing tent city. A few weeks into the strike, unknown attackers destroyed union headquarters and the strikers’ food supplies. Then on June 8, deputies broke through the picket line of women and children and raided union headquarters without a warrant. The police chief, Orville F. Aderholt, was killed in a shootout, further angering opponents of the strike.
In early September, three union workers were kidnapped, and one flogged, in a wave of anti-union violence that spread throughout the region after a mistrial was called against those accused of Aderholt’s death.
The battle was reaching a fever pitch.
“Orphaned by Mob Violence”
Although Ella May worked at the American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City — not the Loray Mill in Gastonia, where the strike had broken out — her experience, and the demands of workers there, were similar. She earned just $9 a week, laboring for six ten- or twelve-hour shifts while her children slept. By her late twenties, she had already buried four children, and the family often lacked proper health care or nutrition.
Refusing to live in overpriced company housing under the thumb of management, Ella May resided in the African-American neighborhood of Stumptown, where she relied heavily on her neighbors after her husband vanished. She ruffled many feathers when she integrated the NTWU branch in Bessemer City, arguing for equal pay not just for women and children working in the mills but for her black neighbors as well. (Nearly half of the workers at American Mill were African American, while most at Loray were white.)
With her knack for writing labor and protest ballads — set to the tune of traditional songs familiar to the many mountain folk working in the mills — Ella May quickly became a recognizable voice in the local union movement. She was a fixture singing at rallies throughout the region, often with her children in tow. She spoke the millworkers’ language and knew their pain.
But her prominence made her a target of the anti-labor opposition. And on September 14, she was gunned down.
If the American public was not already paying attention to the violent news that had been streaming out of Gastonia for weeks, images of the five Wiggins children, unbathed and shoeless, staring into the camera under headlines like “Orphaned by Mob Violence,” surely got their attention. Rarely had there been a more perfect martyr.
Immediately following Ella May’s death, the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense swooped in and began planning her funeral. Party leaders made their way to North Carolina with plans to speak, knowing the strike was potentially in jeopardy.
The party printed thousands of copies of a flyer calling for worker solidarity:
Organize to resist the murder terror of the Manville-Jenckes company and its state authorities. Organize worker defense committees in every mill. Build the National Textile Workers Union. Defend our 13 workers who face the electric chair. Disarm the murder thugs of the mill owners. Leave the mills. Attend Ella May’s funeral. Let the mass protest as she is buried be only the beginning of our new drive for one hundred percent organization of the textile industry.
The Defeat and Its Causes
That goal of 100 percent unionization was never reached. The strike crumbled after Ella May’s death.
After months of protesting for better conditions and receiving little response but violent retaliation, many strikers and union organizers were demoralized. Those who continued to organize textile workers in the Piedmont region were met with yet more repression. Just two days after Ella May was buried, a mob of fifty vehicles chased union speakers out of Blacksburg, South Carolina, about twenty-five miles from Gastonia, and then brought their rampage to Bessemer City. Two weeks later, on October 2, 1929, drunk deputies fired on striking workers at the Baldwin Mills in Marion, North Carolina, injuring dozens and killing six.
And for strikers, there seemed to be no recourse for the violence they faced. Although numerous people were charged with manslaughter in Ella May’s murder, which occurred in broad daylight with many eyewitnesses, the perpetrators were let out on $1,000 bonds, paid for by Manville Jenckes Company. In the end, five men, all employees of the Loray Mill, were prosecuted for second-degree murder for her death. The jury acquitted them all. The four Loray employees who had been indicted in the kidnapping case of union organizers were also acquitted. By comparison, despite a lack of evidence, all seven of the union members charged with Chief Aderholt’s death were found guilty.
In addition to the long arm of repression, other factors undercut the unionization effort: organizers’ lack of understanding of Appalachian workers; racist fears of black workers organizing; a local history of vigilante justice and lynch law; “welfare capitalist” programs that provided workers extra amenities, from company camp retreats to a baseball team and picnics; and good-old-boy networks of white civic and business leaders committed to maintaining the region’s reactionary social order.
One of the biggest reasons the movement failed locally, though, was the public’s overwhelming fear, and misunderstanding of, communism. Beal, sensing this aversion, warned George Pershing of the Community Party’s Daily Worker to tone down his speeches and pamphlets in Gastonia — local newspapers were playing on people’s concerns.
In reality, very few workers could have recited the Communist Party’s platform or would have proclaimed themselves communists. They joined the Gastonia union drive for one simple reason: they wanted a better future for themselves and their families.
One More Strike
As the Great Depression ripped through the country, workers couldn’t afford to pay union dues, let alone feed their families. Relief appeared to come on June 16, 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which, among other measures, set work days at eight hours, eliminated child labor, fixed minimum wages around $12 per week for textile workers, and guaranteed workers’ right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Many believed the new law still favored business interests over workers, however, and argued for further action. Although the United Textile Workers of America (UTW) had been planning a wave of strikes, their plan was accelerated by a group of impatient workers in Alabama who started without them in July. The UTW then called a nationwide strike on September 1, 1934.
The Gastonia Daily Gazette’s afternoon edition that day warned citizens: “We do not want a repetition of the 1929 troubles. Goodness knows, this county and city received too much unfavorable publicity from that summer. We have not been able to live it down for five years.” And yet the movement started, a bit more organized than in the past, with fleets of cars traveling through the southern countryside organizing textile workers. The week opened with Gastonia’s first-ever Labor Day parade and ended with all 104 mills in Gaston County closed.
But the police and mill owners were also better organized, with teams of hired bodyguards and the National Guard at the ready. In Honea, South Carolina, six picketers were shot by police and another dozen wounded. Areas in New England also reported deadly violence. Over 300,000 textile workers picketed nationally. Amid spiking violence, President Roosevelt organized a committee to investigate. It recommended the strikers return to work. The workers’ momentary hopes were dashed.
After the 1934 strike, Gastonia was largely bereft of labor action. Manville Jenckes sold the plant to Firestone in 1936. Another wartime boost sustained good times for a while, followed by the automobile boom of the ’50s. As the rest of the South deindustrialized, the now-renamed Firestone Mill managed to keep its doors open.
There was one other constant: the bosses’ strident anti-labor stance. When the former Loray Mill finally closed its doors in 1993, it was still a nonunion shop.
Despite its failure to achieve “100 percent unionization,” the strike at the Loray Mill remains an important moment in working-class history as one of the longest and largest walkouts to hit the South. The strike’s martyr, Ella May, who never even worked at the Loray Mill, has inspired generations of workers, organizers, and writers, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and author Wiley Cash, who penned a best-selling novel about the strike in 2017 called The Last Ballad. Unfortunately, the strike’s defeat also foreshadowed future abortive attempts to crack the anti-union South (most notably, Operation Dixie after World War II), which guaranteed the region would remain a haven for low wages and union busting.
Today, the Loray Mill sits recently renovated, turned into lofts, office spaces, an event venue, and a history museum covering the nearly century-long history of the space and the people who interacted with it. Millennials and retirees alike hoping to escape the congestion and prices of Charlotte are flocking to Gastonia, a town still hurting but now healing from recent decades of economic hardship.
The housing in the old millworkers’ village is also beginning to see turnover, with longtime workers pushed out by commuters. A small, poorly worded historical marker recognizing the strike sits almost a block away, dwarfed by the mill itself, easily lost in the landscape. While police chief Aderholdt has numerous memorials throughout town, those trying to erect a statue of Ella May have faced resistance, with plans to now move the monument to Bessemer City.
As Gastonia continues to gentrify and turnover its population, will the new residents understand the significance of this place? In a changing world in which unionization is seeing a surge, how would Gastonia react today?