MARTYR OF LORAY MILL: ELLA MAY AND THE 1929 TEXTILE WORKERS’ STRIKE IN GASTONIA, NORTH CAROLINA
By Kristina Horton
McFarland & Co., 224 pages. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-7864-9964-9
Reviewed by Jim Burns
On the 14th September, 1929, a truck carrying striking mill workers to a meeting in Gastonia, North Carolina, was ambushed by armed vigilantes. During the confrontation between the strikers and the vigilantes shots were fired by the latter and Ella May, a 28 year old union activist and a mother of several children, was killed. She was well-known to all the people present, not only for her work on behalf of the Communist-led National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), but also because she composed and performed songs which highlighted the situation pertaining to the cotton mills, and what the union was attempting to do in terms of improving pay and conditions for its members.
The Loray Mill strike, as it was known, attracted world-wide attention, no doubt because the Communist Party adroitly publicised events as the dispute intensified. Journalists and others went to North Carolina to report on events there (Loray Mill was not the only location where strike action took place, but it seemed to be the one that caught everyone’s imagination) and, reporting aside, two of the main strike leaders later wrote books narrating their versions of what happened, and six novels based on what took place in Gastonia were published in the 1930s.
The textile industry in the South developed after the Civil War. Prior to that the economy had largely depended on producing and exporting cotton, something that was facilitated by the availability of free labour that slavery guaranteed. When slavery was abolished it made sense to use the “abundant and easily accessible cotton” for the production of textiles. Mills sprang up across the Southern states and workers were needed for them. Initially, many of the mills were local in the sense of often being started by people with a stake in their communities. Kristina Horton says that “Stock was made available to locals in small incremental shares, which resulted in the common citizens’ ability to own a piece of the mill.” Workers were drawn from hill communities and from the small farms which, Horton says, been “decimated during the post-Civil War era.” If cheap labour was easy to find among blacks for picking the cotton, it was also easy to find among impoverished whites for turning it into textiles. Wages were much lower in Southern mills than they were in those in Northern states. It perhaps needs to be noted that whites predominated in the mills, and if blacks were employed they were usually in menial jobs.
According to Horton, “mill owners felt like they had a paternal relationship with the factory workers they employed.” They built houses for their employees, installed churches and schools, hired doctors and welfare workers, provided playing fields and community buildings, and opened company stores where the workers could shop for their needs. Horton qualifies this list of seeming-benefits by pointing out the “mill communities that were conceived and built by mill owners were a source of pride for both the owners and the local town community members who financed them. Drinking and promiscuous sexual behaviour were discouraged.” But, when asked about the “benefits” provided by the owners, many workers were of the opinion that they were financed by paying low wages and that they would prefer to see benefits in their pay-packets and not in the form of churches, etc. I’m reminded of an old poem by Will Herford (“Welfare Song,”): “Kindergartens, nurses,/Bathtubs, books, and flowers,/Anything but better pay/Or shorter working hours.”
Not everyone welcomed restrictions on their actions, particularly if they had come to the mills from their own farms or hill communities where independence was prized. It may be worth adding a note at this point concerning religion. There’s an illustration in Martyr of the Mill showing the four major churches catering for the Loray community: Loray Wesleyan, Loray Baptist, West Avenue Presbyterian, West End Methodist. There might be some significance in the fact of these institutions all being of the kind that would likely always remind the workers of the need to work hard and lead respectable lives. In other words, to reflect the bosses’ attitudes and those of the local middle-class.
In time control of the mills passed out of the hands of local people and into those of Northern owners whose interest in the well-being of their employees was of less concern to them. “Welfare” declined but so did wages. But unionisation did not develop, not only because local authorities were firmly opposed to it and made life difficult for organisers, but also because workers themselves tended to be suspicious of outsiders coming in to tell them how to act to better their pay and conditions. This did not mean that strikes were unknown, but they were frequently spontaneous affairs arising out of a strong sense of community and which threw up their own leaders. Even when unions did manage to establish some form of foothold in the mills there were always problems caused by Northern organisers not understanding the interests and habits of Southern workers.
By the late-1920s conditions had worsened in the mills and the time seemed right to start attempts at unionisation. Ella May worked in a mill in Bessemer City, not far from Gastonia. Unusually, it did have a high proportion of blacks in its work-force. It was a waste-mill and its poor working conditions and low-pay tended to deter whites from going there unless it was absolutely necessary. Ella May was perhaps something of an oddity in that, unlike most Southern whites, she seems to have got along well with many blacks. Horton says that, in addition to Ella’s willingness to live alongside blacks and socialise with them, they could clearly see that she was as poor as they were. Her relationships with blacks, and her attempts to get them to join the NTWU, were probably factors in her being singled out for special attention once strikes began.
It wasn’t just the Loray Mill that went on strike. As Horton has it: “Strikes swept across the Piedmont in the early months of 1929. In North Carolina, there were strikes in Pineville, Forest City, Lexington, Draper, Danville, Marlon, and Charlotte, as well as Bessemer City and Gastonia.” She adds that thirteen mills in South Carolina went on strike, as did one in Tennessee which attracted national attention because of the way that vigilantes tried to smash attempts at unionisation.
The NTWU was aware of what was going on in in the Southern states, but its headquarters were located in the North and so were most of its members. It had been formed because of a change of policy (essentially determined in Moscow) by the American Communist Party. Prior to 1928 communists were encouraged to join existing unions and attempt to exert their influence and ideas among members. But the policy then changed to one of establishing “dual unionism,” with the NTWU one of the first of the new unions. It was decided to start organising in the South, Horton asserts, because “Southerners, for the most part, had a similar dialect, the majority were Protestant, semi-educated, uncultured in the sophisticated sense, and were ignorant of Communist themes and doctrines.” They would, Party leaders believed, be receptive to NTWU attempts to organise them. Horton also thinks that strikes in the South were more likely to attract attention than these in the North where unions and their activities were fairly commonplace.
NTWU organisers were sent to Gastonia, where the Loray Mill employed over two thousand workers. Among them was Fred Beal who had worked in mills in the North and had led strikes in Lawrence and New Bedford. Another organiser was Albert Weisbord, who had been educated at Harvard and was respected in Party circles for his intellectual understanding of socialist values. But, as Horton records, “the Southern community was not impressed when he came down South and shared these values with them during the Loray Mill Strike. The Gastonia Gazette described Weisbord as ‘an East Side Russian Jew, (who) knows as much about American ideals as Hottentot.’ “ This kind of smear was to become typical of local reporting of the strike, with Jews, communists, and foreigners, singled out for special attention. Fred Beal could at least claim to being American born and having worked in mills since he was fourteen. He would still meet opposition, not only because of his Communist Party membership, but because he was an outsider. Horton describes how he tried to get a job in a mill in Charlotte, but was told by the owner that he never hired a Yankee or any other foreigner because they put “too many strange ideas in the heads of mill-hands,” like asking for an eight-hour working day.
Once the strike in Gastonia got under way Beal was active in trying to sign up member of the NTWU. His bosses at Communist Party headquarters pushed him to include blacks in his operations, though he himself was more aware of the difficulties this presented. With the exception of Ella May and a few others, most people just didn’t want to work alongside or even co-operate with blacks in opposing management attempts to break the strike.
He also faced other problems because of the way that the strike was reported in the Daily Worker where some of its more-inflammatory statements were picked up and used by the Gastonia Gazette in its comments on the motives of the NTWU and its communist leaders: “It is a party that seeks the overthrow of capital, business, and all of the established social order…….It has no religion, it has no colour line, it believes in free love.” Further fuel was added to the fire when George Pershing, a fiery young communist, arrived in Gastonia and began to make statements about the long-term aims of the Communist Party being to establish “control of the country by the workers.” For Fred Beal, struggling with the practicalities of union organising and running a successful strike, talk of matters beyond the immediate was just a distraction.
As the strike progressed, and tensions between the strikers and the local police developed, units of the National Guard were called in to maintain order, though this led to scuffles between strikers and soldiers, with arrests being made. It was around this time that Ella May became involved with the NTWU. She attended union meetings and Horton says that although “she did not always speak, she did always seem to have a song ready. After union business was done she would perform for the strikers. Her music was personal and emotional and the crowds loved it.” In an appendix to Martyr of the Mill there are the words of some of Ella May’s songs, along with other examples of strike songs and the like. As with so many similar songs (look at the IWW Little Red Songbook) she set her words to familiar tunes. “All Around the Jailhouse” used the melody of the old hobo song, “All Around the Watertank, Waiting for a Train,” and “The Big Fat Boss and the Workers” was sung to the tune of “Polly Wolly Doodle:” “The boss man wants our labour, and money to packaway,/The workers wants a union and the eight hour day.”
Reactions to the strike were becoming more hostile and violent. There were raids on a store that had goods for the families provided by the International Labour Defence (ILD), a communist-controlled organisation that raised funds for striking workers. And strikers were evicted from company homes. Pickets were attacked. It was noticeable that, although they could often be easily identified, none of the perpetrators of violence against strikers were ever arrested and charged. And a bloodier incident occurred when the local Chief of Police, Orville Aderholt, was killed in a confrontation between armed strikers and equally-armed deputies. It was never satisfactorily proved who actually shot Aderholt, and suggestions were made that it was a bullet from a deputy’s gun that killed him. Nevertheless, several union leaders, including Fred Beal and Vera Buch, were arrested and charged with murder on the basis that, as strike organisers, they were culpable.
Kristina Horton doesn’t say much about Aderholt’s death, but John A. Salmond’s Gastonia 1929 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1995) does go into more detail and gives the names of those, besides strikers, who may have been responsible. But at the time it was firmly believed that Aderholt, a well-regarded figure in Gastonia, even by many of the strikers, had been killed by union members. When the trial of Beal and several others (charges against Vera Buch were dropped) went ahead the jury soon found all the accused guilty and the judge sentenced them to lengthy terms in prison, with some facing seventeen to twenty years inside. Beal and four others jumped bail, which they had been granted pending an appeal, and helped by the Communist Party in America, fled to Russia.
This isn’t the place to trace what happened to them, but Fred Beal eventually became disillusioned by what he experienced in the Soviet Union and returned to the United States. In 1938 he arranged to surrender to the North Carolina authorities and start serving his sentence. But he was less than four years in a prison farm and was paroled early in 1942. His book, Word from Nowhere (my copy was published by The Right Book Club in 1938) tells his story, though when Beal wrote it he was anxious to show that he was a firm anti-communist. For another view of the Gastonia strike it’s worth tracking down Vera Buch-Weisbord’s A Radical Life (Indiana University Press, 1977). She was critical of Beal’s activities during the strike and believed he should have been a more-prominent figure on picket-lines and during demonstrations. It’s perhaps only fair to suggest that had he been he would probably have been singled out for immediate arrest or worse.
It was obvious that the strike at the Loray Mill was on the verge of collapse. Ella May and others continued to be active, and as mentioned at the start of this review, on the 14th September, 1929, she was in the back of a truck heading for a meeting which had, in fact, been cancelled. When groups of armed vigilantes caught up with the truck and turned it back Ella May was killed. As with the death of Police Chief Aderholt, no-one was ever identified as the killer, though Kristina Horton does name several men who were present and almost certainly used their guns. Seven men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kill Ella May, but a grand jury decided that there was insufficient evidence to indict anyone. Even the judge presiding said he was “amazed” by its findings, and beyond Gastonia there was outrage at Ella May’s death and the failure to take any action to determine who killed her. There was eventually a trial during which one man in particular was identified as the probable killer, but the jury quickly acquitted all the defendants.
The NTWU did try to use Ella May’s murder for propaganda purposes, but a couple of week after the shooting they called off the strike, leaving local activists without any further support. The strikers drifted back to work, having gained nothing from their weeks of struggle. Many were so disillusioned by the NTWU’s failure to achieve anything that, when a strike broke out once more in Bessemer City and the NTWU sent organisers, they were run out of town by the strikers and not by the vigilantes.
Horton says that “The majority of the NTWU’s Gastonia leaders, who were so revered by the Communist Party in 1929, either voluntarily left the organisation disenfranchised or were removed from their positions forcibly, blamed for the Gastonia failure.” Like Fred Beal, Vera Buch and her husband Albert Weisbord, became disillusioned with the Party and left to start their own tiny radical group. Horton gives a brief description of further strike activity in the South in the early-1930s, including events at Marion, North Carolina, when pickets were tear-gassed and, as they retreated, were fired on. Five strikers died, all of them shot in the back, and ten were wounded.
I first came across references to the Loray Mill strike many years ago when reading histories of American labour struggles. And I admit to a degree of distant identification with the strikers. I grew up in a mill town in Lancashire, England, and my mother and elder sister both worked in a local mill. When I was sixteen and left school in 1952 I went to work there myself, though I stayed only a couple of years before deciding that the army had more to offer. Obviously, working and social conditions in England in the 1950s were vastly different to those in North Carolina in 1929, but I’d experienced the noise and heat of the spinning and weaving sheds, if only briefly, and it gave me an insight into what life must have been like for mill workers in all places over the years.
Kristina Horton’s book gives many more details about Ella May’s personal life than I’ve mentioned, which isn’t surprising considering that she is her great-granddaughter. She has family details that add colour to her story. She refers to the six novels based on the Gastonia events. They were Mary Heaton Vorse’s Strike (1930); Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire (1932); Fielding Burke’s Call Home the Heart (1932); Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread (1932); Myra Page’s Gathering Storm (1932); William Rollins’s The Shadow Before (1934). That Ella May clearly had an impact (Vorse and Lumpkin had met her during the strike) is shown by the fact that each novel has a character based on her.
I found Martyr of the Mill fascinating and recommend it to anyone interested in labour history. It may be that some people will think that the situations it describes are no longer with us, but it’s only recently that I read reports in the press about a strike at a mill in India where strikers were shot by police. Locations may change, but the basic ideas of the struggle for decent rates of pay and working conditions are always the same.