If one thinks of the southern Piedmont as a rough area stretching from Danville, Virginia, to Birmingham, Alabama, then Gastonia, North Carolina is located at its center Gaston County, of which Gastonia is the county seat, had by 1929 come to contain more textile plants than any other county in the world, and some Gastonians proudly claimed that there were more looms and spindles within its hundred-mile radius than in that of any others southern city. Few doubted the boast, for since 1880 both the county and the city had undergone a profound industrial and economic transformation. Originally dotted with small and not particularly profitable farms, Gaston County had both the natural and the human resources, in its abundance of water and its large potential labor force to make the transition to a textile center with extraordinary rapidity. Working the land had always been hard there, and thousands of unsuccessful farmers were only too ready to furnish the manpower for the mills. Though in 1929 there were still some forests to be found in Gaston County's gently rolling landscape, and its most fertile land was still being farmed, the dominant features of its flattish topography were "cotton mills and industrial villages."
In 1920, Gastonia had a population of 17,000. The 1920s had been a time of substantial construction in the city, resulting in a downtown area of solid business enterprises, including both stores and office blocks, as well as an impressive array of public buildings, all brand spanking new. The radical journalist Mary Heaton Vorse commented after her first visit that the town gave the impression of "having sprung from the earth fully equipped." Gastonia had "a new city hall, a new courthouse, a new county jail," and "a splendid new high school," each of them fine, solid structures. This decade had seen a boom in residential construction as well, mainly due to the conspicuous consumption of the town's elite. The mill owners and managers increasingly moved away from their mills and built themselves huge, beautiful, lavishly furnished homes in the city's uptown area. These houses were removed both physically and conceptually from the mill villages where the bulk of Gastonians lived, and the town's leading professional people - the lawyers, the doctors, the real estate agents, and the clergy - generally followed the mill owners' example. Gastonia, then, was a town clearly divided by class, as aerial photographs of the time show. In the uptown area of these photographs one sees the large, elegant houses with their commodious gardens, divided by the business center and the railroad tracks from the drab, identical mill villages. Dominating the mill-district landscape is the huge, ugly Loray Mill, the largest in the whole South, located in West Gastonia. The mile of road separating town and suburb amply illustrated the community's class division. This road began at the large houses with their pleasant gardens and ended at the gates of the huge brick mill. Behind the mill lay its village, "a flock of little houses all alike, perched each one on brick stilts," Night and day, wrote Vorse, "men women and children from the little houses go into the mill. It is their whole life." Gaston County's smaller centers - Bessemer City, Belmont, and Mount Holly - presented much the same aspect. They were all divided communities: the owners and those which they did business will lived on one side of the tracks, the mill workers on the other, and they met increasingly rarely. They would meet in 1929 as a wave of violent strikes swept through the Piedmont's textile communities. This book is the story of the most famous of these. The violence that accompanied the strike at the Loray Mill; the fatal shooting of Gastonia's police chief, Orville Aderholt, and the strike's balladeer, Ella May Wiggins; the international outcry at May's death and at how the state failed to punish her killers yet imposed savage sentences on those strikers accused of the police chief's murder; and the determination of the militant Communist Party of the United States to use these events to further world revolution have together given them a particular resonance that has resolutely refused to fade away over the years. Even today, the town of Gastonia is deeply divided over what to do with the now-abandoned Loray Mill. For some it is a symbol of a violent past best forgotten; for others it is the site of the most significant event in the town's history and should therefore be preserved. The purpose of this book is simply to tell the story of the events of 1929. I have no overarching thesis to present, though some perspectives will, I hope, arise from the narrative that follows. If anything, I think this work reinforces those historians who still insist on the power of class as an explanatory factor in the historical process, but in the hope that a well-cold story has a justification of its own, I have tried to minimize my intrusions into the tale.
The study had its genesis in the Empress of China restaurant, in Melbourne's Chinatown. After a splendid meal, Professor Robert Allen of the University of North Carolina, Dr. Lucy Frost of La Trobe University, and I began to talk about the South Bobby and Lucy are both southerners and grew up in smallish cities - Lucy in Maryville, Tennessee, and Bobby across the mountains in Gastonia. As they talked about shared experience, and particularly as bobby recalled his growing childhood awareness that he lived in a town in which something terrible and occurred, something never to be talked about openly, we all decided that one of us had to try and unravel the Gastonia story. I got elected to the job. I remember that night with great warmth, and I thank then both for their continuing encouragement as I went about my allotted task. Bobby turned over his own Gastonia files to me, including several taped interviews with strike participants that he had made when he was student at Davidson College, while Lucy carefully read the completed manuscript making several important suggestions toward its improvement.
My friends Bill and Christina Baker, or the University of Maine, also encouraged me to begin this work, and they have been greatly supportive throughout its gestation. Tina too grew up in Gastonia and has talked to me often about the way her increasingly frequent inquiries about the town's "secret' were always gently by firmly discouraged. Both of the Bakers had also interviewed strike participants, and they generously made their tapes available to me. It was through them, too, that I met Si and Sophie Gerson - survivors of that tumultuous year, 1929 - whose vivid recollections have formed such an important source for this book. My thanks to all these people is profound. Such generosity with time, memory, and resources has turned the business of research into pleasure.
Thanks are also due to the myriad archivists and libraries at Wayne State University La Trobe University, the Chicago Historical Society, the Perkins Library at Duke University, and especially the Southern Historical and North Carolina Collections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for their labors in locating material for me and their patience in answering my many queries. Moreover, the research could not have been done at all without the considerable financial support of the Australian Research Council and the research fund of the La Trobe University School of Humanities. La Trobe's Outside Studies Program Committee generously approved an extended period of leave, during which much of the research and the bulk of the writing was completed.
My friends and fellow scholars Jan Jackson, Bruce Clayton, Bill Breen, Jack Cell, Alan Frost, and Tim Minchin all read the manuscript at various stages during its completion, and the book benefited greatly as a result. During 1993, Alan Johnston, of Deakin University, and Richard L. Watson Jr., my mentor at Duke University, were constant sources of encouragement and advice, as Anthony Wood, of Monash University, has been throughout. Laraine Dumsday unflinchingly went about the task of translating my scribblings into readable sentences, and did so with rate skill, high good humor, and sound comment. At the University of North Carolina Press, Lewis Bateman has been a source of encouragement from the beginning of the project, and Christi Stanforth's skilled editing has greatly the manuscript. My colleagues in La Trobe University's history department were, as always, unfailing in their support and keen in their constructive criticism. Few scholars have such a felicitous atmosphere in which to work. My thanks to them all, and to those many friends whose continuing support one can only accept with bemused gratitude.
My greatest debt, as always is to my family to my children and grandchildren. Much of the research and writing for his book, to my great good fortune, has been done with my grandchildren close at hand Bill, Hilory, Lim and Tom Washington, of Burlington, North Carolina, and Lucy and Robert Henningham, of Melbourne and Cairns, have all shared joyously and irreverently in its making, and in doing so they have taught me much about priorities. The five others will readily understand why the work is dedicated to my youngest grandson, Robert John Ralph Henningham, who is so special to us all.
Chapter One: The Setting
Ella Ford was raised by her grandparents in the mountains of western North Carolina, and she married while still in her teens. She and her husband tried to farm in the hills, but it was "hard living." They simply could not make do, and that, she said, was "why we went down to the better mill one winter." Many mountain people did that at first, working in the mils during the winter and then going back to their farms for the growing season. But as times got harder, fewer and fewer returned to the farms. They had "got into the habit" of being mill workers and town dwellers, according to Ella.
She got work at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, by far the largest mill in Gaston County. There she did various jobs, sometimes making as much as twelve dollars a week. The work was hard, however, and the conditions were increasingly unhealthy. Moreover, things were always changing the same money, while others found their jobs reclassified as piecework, which resulted in a serious drop in income. The stretch-out system had come to Loray, and it "wasn't long before two beam boys were doing the work of seven." Machinery replaced workers in many departments, and soon "one man was doing the work of three under the old system. They cut all thru the mill."
The workers resisted the change as best they could. In 1928 the manager who had introduced the most severe of them was driven from the town amid great public celebration. "But other managers came," Ford said, the stretch-out gathered pace, and the workers remained bewildered and angry. Despite the shortage of jobs, they would often "get talking about a strike." In 1929, the strike came.
There were hundreds of thousands of people like Ella Ford in the southern Piedmont, people who made the always difficult and often painful transition from farm to factory. As historians Jacquelyn Hall, Robert Korstad, and James Leloudie stated with great definition, "textile mills built the new South," changing the lives of all that they touched. "Beginning in the 1880s," they wrote, "business and professional men tied then hopes for prosperity to the whirring of spindles and the beating of looms." The post-Civil War destruction of the region's independent farmers was the key to this growth. Merchants made money out of the tenant and share-cropping systems that replace one-owner farms, and with this capital they built mills - hundreds of them. The dispossessed white farmers provided the labor and soon the southern textile industry was "underselling northern competitors" so successfully that "by the end of the Great Depression, the Southeast replaced new England as the world's leading producer of cotton cloth, and the industrializing Piedmont replaced the rural Coastal Plain as pacesetter for the region."
The twin keys to the spectacular rise of the southern textile industry were cheap labor and the availability of local investment capital. As Gavin Wright has written, "The spread in tenancy and the decline in farm size increased the number of farm families for whom factory work seemed an acceptable alternative. From the 1870s to the end of the century, employment grew at nearly 10 percent per year with no detectable upward pressure on wages." By the turn of the century, southern mill owners were able to pay their workers at rates between 30 and 50 percent below those of their New England counterparts, a decisive competitive advantage. By this time the mill boom had enveloped the region, and every little town wanted its own mill. Textile mills became a matter of such civic pride that the bulk of the capital to finance their building was raised locally; stock was sold in small amounts to small investors to whom local boards of directors were responsible. Wright was one of a long line of commentators on the industry's growth to draw attention to the disadvantages of this mode of development. With their local perspectives and limited experience, these first mill men, as Broadus Mitchell long ago pointed out, were like "a set of blundering children, some a little more apt than others." Yet without this local involvement, this intense civic boosterism, it is doubtful whether local industry could have taken root as completely as it did.
Of course, the workers had much to learn, too; they had to make the conversion from an agricultural to an industrial way of life. Here the key institution was the mill village - management's answer, in industry historian James Hodges's words, to "the practical problem of assembling a workforce in small towns and rural places." As Hall and her colleagues have observed, "nothing better symbolized the new industrial order than the mill villages that dotted the Piedmont landscape." The industrial development of the expectations as well as practical considerations," these "mill hills" certainly made it easier for management to control their workforce. Because of their unincorporated nature, no taxes needed to be paid on them, and those who lived there played no part in local politics. Yet the villages also "reflected the workers" heritage and served their needs." By the 1930s this village system was in decline, and when most commentators looked on them, they saw misery, oppression, and squalor. These things certainly always existed in mill villages; yet to those who worked and lived there, the village also became home - a neighborhood where friendship were formed and developed and a distinctive and sustaining culture evolved. By 1905, "`one long mill village' ran along the are of the southern Piedmont."
The family labor system too "helped smooth the path from field to factory." Women and children had always been essential to farmwork, and the mill owners understood this fact and adapted it to their own needs. "They promoted factory work as a refuge for impoverished women and children from the countryside bred family units rather than individuals, and required the labor of at least one worker per room as a condition for residence in a mill-owned house." Yet at the same time, these strategies fit in with the needs of working families, who wanted a place where the members could all work together as they had done on the farm. Moreover, as Hall and her colleagues have pointed out, this ability to move as a family from farm to factory and, indeed, to combine the two, like the people in Ella Ford's story did, gave these first factory workers a sense of freedom, of an "alternative identity" that enabled them to resist, to a degree, the demands of management. Their children, however - again like those in Ford's narrative - "eventually came to the mills to stay."
The mill village was obviously a certain of managerial self-interest, yet it also provided the space within which the distinctive mill workers' cultures Hold provided and "familiar ways of thinking and acting" could be gradually transformed into a "new way of me. Both contemporary observers and later analysts of village society have been far too inclined to describe it as essentially thin, lacking sustenance, and breeding an apathetic, irrational social type that could be easily controlled by mill interests. Now we know better. Hall and her team have described a vital evolving cooperative culture, one of considerable variety and strength, and much more than the sum of management's designs. The mill-village culture represented "a compromise between capitalist organization and worker's needs."
Not all of the recent writing on mill-village culture provides such a positive view of its main characteristics or of those who made it. I. A. Newby, David Carlton, and Douglas Flamming, for example, have each stressed the virulent racism of the villagers - something Hall and her colleagues have tended to ignore. In his superb Plain Folk in the New South, Newby describes a singularly unattractive world but at the same time remains deeply sympathetic to those who lived in it. Life was often nasty, brutish, and short there; Newby is particularly convincing in his contention that the often shocking living conditions in the villages caused health problems that had immense economic and social consequences, problems whose legacy persists to this day, Moreover, the sustaining qualities of egalitarianism and individualism in the rural culture that mill villagers had left behind were not those best suited to enable them to comfort their employers in a disciplined, cohesive way as they sought some means of improving the condition of their lives. Flamming, too, talks of the "darker implications" of mill-village life, in particular of its coercive aspects, especially in the area of accepted behavior. Moreover, social isolation too often led to violence - to workers' venting their hostility not on their employers or on hapless African Americans but rather on their fellow workers. Nevertheless, he argues, though such disputes were both frequent and disruptive, they did not necessarily mean that community feeling did not exist or even that the notion of "family" is hopelessly romantic. Rather, they simply signify that, as in most communities, life in mill villages was at times riven by tension between individuals, families, or competing social groups. Essentially, Carlton, Newby, and Flamming all share the view of Hall and her team that what developed in these mill hills was much more than the sum of the owners' wishes. Rather, the villagers created their own world, their own common culture. "Neither docile nor foolhardy," writes Robert Zieger, "millworkers relied primarily on themselves, regarding the plans of union organizers and the programs of government bureaucrats skeptically, forever weighing these instruments of change against the likelihood of deterioration in their circumstances." To this wariness may be added a similar skepticism toward the blandishments of their employers.
What about the workplace itself? Here the owner obviously had more control. Work in the mill, with its repetitive tasks, closely supervised and governed by rigid notions of time, bore little resemblance to the slower rhythms of agricultural life. It was dirty, and the workday was long (though perhaps not particularly long for farm folk, who were used to working from sunup to sundown), but the pay was better. Furthermore, in the first decades of the industry's growth, the potential harshness was moderated somewhat by fairly relaxed work patterns. There was often time to talk, to eat lunch in a leisurely fashion, even to slip home to check on the younger children - an important consideration, given that women represented a large percentage of the labor force (49.9 percent in 1890, 45 percent as late as 1900). Sometimes, if the occasion warranted it, workers simply walked off the job. Elections were usually celebrated in this manner, as was the advent of a singular attraction, such as a circus. Often these practices resulted from the fact that the workers had direct access to the owner; there was an element of personal involvement which, while doubtless paternalistic, at least afforded workers some chance of directly influencing the conditions under which they labored, either to protest the decisions of a supervisor considered ??? unjust or even at times, to influence policy directly. Management, anxious to keep production levels up, would often accede to such limited demands. Moreover, when demand for labor was high, workers always had the opportunity to move elsewhere. Owners and managers came to know the limits of their authority. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the decision, even in times of labor shortage, to restrict black labor in the mills to janitorial tasks. The extreme racism of the white workers would not have permitted otherwise. It may have made good economic sense, as Flamming points out, to have hired African Americans for more advanced work, and many textile leaders were anxious to do so. Those who tried, however, "quickly learned that such efforts were counterproductive." Violence, walkouts, and political action was the inevitable result, as workers successfully fought to keep blacks out of the mills.
The balance between the positive and negative aspects of mill work - a relatively relaxed work pace versus long hours and low wages - was not a stable situation, however. Even in the early years of development, there was unrest from time to time, as some workers turned to either the Knights of Labor or the National Union of Textile Workers to defend their interests. A succession of strikes around the turn of the century, culminating in the Haw River strike in Alamance County, North Carolina, suggests that the secure world desired by the manufacturers was always ripe for the shattering. Yet unionism was scarcely a significant factor in the textile industry prior to World War I. When workers attempted to control their labor conditions, they were much more inclined to do so on their own. Shortage of labor and, hence, the ability to move on gave them a bargaining power that was independent of any organization and much more attuned to the individualism of their cultural roots. When workers protected their conditions of labor, then, it was much more likely to be through spontaneous, often personal action than through concerted, union-directed protest.
In response to such manifestations of unrest, owners answered not by repression or union-bashing except in quite isolated instances, but by making it more difficult to move. In part, this move forced wage rates upward. Between 1902 and 1907, for example, "the earnings of male weavers in South Carolina rose by 58 percent, those of female weavers by 65 percent, and those of spinners by 138 percent,' while the cost of living rose by only 9 percent. There were other means of increased competition for labor as well: inducements of all kinds were offered to entice workers from one mill to another. Finally, manufacturers made real efforts to improve the quality of life in their villages; they built better houses with modern plumbing, beautified the surroundings, and provided a range of social and recreational services for their employees, from holiday camps to company-sponsored "welfare work," all in an attempt to bind their workers to them and thereby bring stability to the industry. To a limited degree, in the decade before World War I, these measures worked. As Wright pointed out, "the mill-village, family labor system" - the expenditure on welfare work in order to promote stability - "did have a certain internal logic," as long as times stayed good.
Times were certainly very good during the First World War. The wartime demand for cotton cloth sparked another boom, so there was another round of mill construction, while existing mills started to operate around the clock, further stimulating the demand for labor in a tight wartime situation. The inevitable result was that wages throughout the Piedmont rose to new heights, often tripling in the years between 1915 and 1920. Any relationship between farm and textile wages was now well and truly shattered, prompting further movement to the mills.
The boom continued till 1920, when it broke with dramatic suddenness. Wartime overexpansion was compounded by several other factors. Lucrative foreign markets were lost due to the Harding administration's tariff policies and the development of the industry in other parts of the world, such as India. Changes in women's fashions added to the trouble. "Young women in the 1920s hiked their skirts six inches above the ankle, then all the way to the knee, causing consternation among their elders and panic in the textile industry." The Great Depression, which for the rest of the country did not begin until much later in the decade, for textiles started with the armistice and did not let up.
The response of the managers was to cut costs, which translated into an attack on the wage gains of the past few years. Somewhat to the managers' surprise, the mill hands fought back, for heightened wages had brought heightened expectations; moreover the war boom had altered the composition of the mills' labor force. Family labor was on the decline; more and more of the operatives were adult workers supporting themselves, men and women living independently of families; and an increasing percentage were male - a trend that accelerated as the troops returned from overseas. These workers comprised the first generation to see the mills as providing a permanent vocation and no longer as simply supplementing farm income, thus the wage cuts impinged directly as their sense of self-worth.
From 1919 to 1921, industrial strife rocked the Piedmont as workers flocked to join the AFL's United Textile Workers (UTW), which before the war had had no presence in the South at all. Locals grew so rapidly that as workers fought to preserve their incomes, the central office could not keep up with the process. Manufacturers were equally determined not to give an inch to union demands, and the industry was convulsed by a wave of strikes, sometimes accompanied by violence from both sides. Aided by the business downturn, which soon transformed labor shortage to labor surplus, management proved to be stronger than labor. In North Carolina managers were always able to call on the state, through the use of the state militia, to keep the plants working. The local unions, inadequately supported by the UTW central organization, soon collapsed, and industrial peace of a sort returned to the Piedmont. Profoundly shaken, the mill manufacturers took two truths from the experience. The first was an abiding hatred of unions and a determination to prevent their future formation, under whatever aegeis, in their region. The second was that slashing wages drastically as a means of cutting costs and maintaining profit margins was too disruptive; they would need to find other means to achieve this end.
During the 1920s, this search was successful. Hard times led to bankruptcies, which offered the opportunity for consolidation. More and more mills fell into fewer hands. Men like J. Spencer Love of Burlington Industries became textile giants, taking over mills that had been locally owned. Ownership of other plants, like Castania's Loray Mill, passed outside the region and occasionally even outside the country. These powerful mill men set about finding a new solution to the problems of declining profitability, and they found it in the rise of new technology and new productive techniques. Men and women were replaced by machines wherever possible, the number of operatives needed to perform particular tasks was greatly reduced, and employees were made to work, really work, around the clock. Gone was the relaxed prewar pass of operation. In its place came fast, labor-saving machinery; massive job reorganization, including much greater resort to piecework; and new, restrictive supervisory practices, all against a backdrop of such a massive labor surplus that the need to hang onto workers was no longer a factor. Consequently, most mills abandoned or greatly restricted their welfare activities during the decade. Others cut the cost of village maintenance to the bone. The result was a steady deterioration in working and living standards.
Gavin Wright has argued that given the labor surplus (especially the numbers of men over thirty for whom no work commensurate with their expectations could be found) and the limited prospects of wage reductions, the introduction of such management practices as those instituted was inevitable. For the workers, however, the whole nature of employment had changed, as Ella Ford pointed out. The workplace was now a situation of tension. Men with more machines to tend now ran where they had once ambled; women found timepieces - "hank-clocks," they called them - installed on each piece of machinery they used; gone was the chance to chat with one's neighbor, let alone to make the occasional trip home to see the children. Even going to the bathroom was likely to come under scrutiny from a new breed of unsympathetic, aggressive supervisors.
Women, especially those over thirty, were particularly hard hit. Besides losing their cherished flexibility, as a result of job reorganization or consolidation they often found themselves transferred from wage rates to pieceworks rates with a resultant drop in income. Furthermore, as mills began to be run on a round-the-clock schedule, it was women, increasingly, who worked the night shift, because they had to be home during the day to care for their children. Hanging over male and female workers alike was the dark cloud of job insecurity. It was easy to get yourself laid off, for there was always someone to take your place. It was not so easy to find another job, especially given the owner's network, which was reinforced by company spies.
Manufacturers called these new practices by various names and were extremely proud of them. Workers referred to them collectively as "the stretch-out," and they hated them. And in 1929, despite the labor surplus, the power of management, the intimidation of union members, and the impotence of the UTW and other national labor institutions, thousands of textile workers in the southern Piedmount resisted the stretch-out in the only way they knew how: by walking off the job. On March 12, 1929, in Elizabethton, Tennessee, the entire workforce of the Bemberg and Glantzoff rayon plant struck. Led by young women workers, the strikers closed down the mill, starting the year off in a tumultuous way. Before 1929 was over, thousands of workers had followed their lead. In South Carolina, eighty-one separate strikes involving 79,027 workers were recorded. Almost all of these actions were organized without union leadership, very much in the "personal" or spontaneous tradition of prewar protest. In North Carolina even more workers were involved. In Forest City, in Charlotte, in Pinesville, in Leaksville - all over the Piedmont, in fact - workers protested the "hard rules" of the new industrial order.
Most of the 1929 strikes were short, relatively quickly settled, and soon forgotten, but some of them were violent and prolonged. In Elizabethton, following the pattern established between 1919 and 1921, eight hundred troops were called in to break the strikers resistance, while AFL official Edward P. McGrady and UTW organizer Albert Hoffman were both roughed up by vigilantes purportedly acting on behalf of the town's businessmen. Their lives were threatened, and they were driven beyond the city limits and warned never to return. More tragic were the events in Marion, North Carolina, where a prolonged strike in the town's three mills resulted in not only the sending of troops to force their reopening but also the death of six strikers. On October 2, 1929 special deputies (who allegedly were drunk at the time) opened first on pickets at the Baldwin Mill, killing six of them and wounding twenty-five more. But of the many strikes of protest that year, none has become better known than the one that occurred in Gastonia. North Carolina, at the huge Loray Mill.
In 1924, Gaston County marked half a century of progress with a pageant. In the preface to the play a prominent manufacturer wrote, "Gaston County, amazed at its own progress, humbly wonders what the next decade may bring forth." The play concluded with a herald delivering a similar message:
O ye, who watched this pageantry Of vision, Old and New, Go forth a part of ages past And live your part as well. Build greater than your fathers built For they have built for you.
In truth, Gaston County and its county seat, Gastonia, had much to celebrate. In previous decades, their progress had closely followed the contours of the textile industry's general development. The county was created by up out of the estate legislature in 1846, and the development of its cotton textile industry started two years later. It was not for textiles that Gaston County first became known, however for a time the county was the state's center for whiskey distilling. The economic development of both Gaston County and Gastonia, which was incorporated in 1877 with a population of 236, was at first slow, but this situation changed in 1887, when the combined efforts of R. C. G. Love, George A. Gray, J. D. Moore, and John H. Craig resulted in the building of the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company's first mill. Two more followed in 1893, another in 1896, another in 1899, and another two - one of which was the Loray Mill - in 1900. Seven cotton textile plants were thus constructed in Gastonia alone within twelve years, and by 1900 the town's population had grown to five thousand, while similar development had occurred in nearby Bessemer City, Belmont, and Mount Holly. These first mills were founded by local people and financed by widely subscribed local investment, as Gaston County Started down the road of development. By 1935 the county would have the largest number of mills of any American county and would be generally known as the nation's "combed yarn manufacturing center." Gastonia would be called "the city of spindles."
In 1901, at the Arlington Cotton Mills in Gastonia George W. Ragan produced the South's first "combed" yarns. As the Cotton boom accelerated this was to be the county's special claim to distinction. By 1920 Gaston County's ninety functioning mills were producing 80 percent of all the fine combed yarn made in America. Observers noted that the county had only slightly more churches than mills and that some local businessmen seemed in danger of confusing the two. The war-time boom in the industry was strongly felt in the county. Wages and profits both soared even more mills were organized amid an orgy of speculation, when the Gaston County slogan seemed to be "organize a mill a week." By war's end, the county already had more mills than any other in the country.
As in the industry's basic pattern, Gaston County's boom was followed by, if not a crash, then a marked slowing of growth, and the textile industry there never again reached wartime levels of profitability. Yet the community remained optimistic; so much had been achieved in such a comparatively short time that it was difficult to believe that progress would not continue, provided that the textile manufacturers, Gaston's acknowledged leaders, were allowed free rein. The community was a particularly tight-knit one, its business, civic and religious leaders bound together in a web of civic, patriotic, and religious organization. As one survey the lists of church membership, Masonic lodge affiliations, membership of the local American Legion post, of the Rotary Club, the Civitans, the Kiwanis, the Lions, even the Daughters of the American Revolution, the same names keep occurring. Some of them were to be key players in the dramatic events of 1929. For example, Major A. L. Bulwinkle and district solicitor John G. Carpenter were both on the Board of Deacons of the Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran church. Bulwinkle and Stephen B. Dolley were charter members of both the Lions Club and the American Legion Test, as was R. Gregg Cherry, and Bulwinkle was also a member of the legal team that both prosecuted the Gastonia striker and defended those accused of Ella May Wiggins. Such interlocking networks of influence were to be expected in small booster communities like Gastonia, and they help explain the ferocity with which the community defended itself against what were perceived to be alien forces.
The new labor-saving devices of the 1920s were eagerly embraced by Gastonia's ???, and by none more enthusiastically than those who managed the Loray Mill, Built in 1900 by its namesakes, John F. Love and George A. Gray, by 1929 it was, according to Liston Pope "both the pride and despair of Gastonia." Though Gastonia residents could not help but be impressed by the size of the structure, which literally dominated the town, form its very beginning there was something different about the Loray Mill. The fact that at least half of the money needed for its construction was raised in New York automatically gave it a slightly "northern taint," and this situation was exacerbated in 1919, when ownership passed to the Jenckes Spinning Company, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was thus the first mill in the county "to be owned and operated by outside capital."
Little is known about labor relations in the community during Gastonia's early development. The Knights of labor were reportedly active there for a few year, but in Gastonia as elsewhere, workers much more commonly signaled their restlessness with aspects of the new industrial order through personalized or spontaneous action - the leaving of work only in order to visit a traveling circus, the 1906 violence against the Loray Mill paymaster over a proposal to hire immigrant labor - than through actions of a more organized nature. Moreover, in the climate of expansion which prevailed, there was always plenty of work available. Gastonia's mills had extremely high turnover rates, reflecting the mill workers' determination to maintain some control over the conditions of their lives.
During its first twenty years, the Loray Mill's labor policies generally had differed little from those elsewhere in the industry. There was a large mill village, with the customary paternalistic relations. The very size of the mill, however, meant two things. First, many of the recruits were first-time mill workers, brought directly from the mountains by recruiting agents; and second, relations between Loray's management and workforce could never be as personal as in the smaller structures. This was possibly one of the reasons why the UTW chose the Loray Mill as the place to start its southern drive during the postwar instability. A local was formed in 1919, and in October of that year, 750 employees walked out in Gaston County's first strike of any significance. In a preview of what was to happen ten years later, the workers were objecting to the dismissal of eight operatives for union membership. The strike was lost, and the men returned to work having gained nothing, but according to Pope, "the seeds of unionism" had been "definitely planted in the community." So had the determination of management to resist the unions.
Once the strike was over, the Jenckes Spinning Company both expanded the mill and changed its character. Weaving was discontinued, and the facility was converted to a yarn mill that manufactured nothing but fabric for automobile tire. To deal with the larger workforce, the company expanded and modernized the village; the additions included extensive welfare services. This expansion continued after 1923, when the Jenckes Company merged with another Rhode Island chain, the Manville Company, even though the industry was now deep in depression. By 1927 the number of employees had increased to 3,500, the total village population was over 5,000, and the welfare services included a company doctor, a baseball team, a bank, and Camp Jenckes, a summer camp inn the county's other mills. Nevertheless, there was a downside to work and life at Loray, Manville-Jenckes had fenced the whole area in an had also taken to locking the doors during working hours, so that employees had to have special permission to leave. Moreover, the welfare workers seemed less interested in helping the workers than in monitoring every aspect of their lives. Company ponce were constantly visible, and the village had an atmosphere of increasing impersonality, exacerbated by absentee ownership. Workers soon came to refer to the mill as " the jail," and even in a time of labor surplus, turnover was high. Huddled on the outskirts of town, the huge red-brick mill and its village - composed of "several hundred stilted frame-cottages" scattered around it, looking for all the world like a fussy old hen with a brood of bedraggled chicks" - was not a happy place.
Like most of their contemporaries, the Manville-Jenckes plant's managers saw their salvation in the new management techniques and seized on them with enthusiasm. In 1027 the Loray Mill gave the stretch out its first application in Gaston County. A new superintendent, G. A. Johnstone, was appointed, with order to reduce production costs drastically. He went about his work with enthusiasm, dramatically raising workloads, replacing skilled with cheaper labor, and redistributing or abolishing tasks, and within fifteen months the Loray labor force had been reduced from 3,500 to 2,200. He slashed wages, imposing two general reductions of 10 percent, and, more important, put much of the work - especially that done by woman on a piecework basis. The general result was a wage reduction of between 25 and 50 percent, a drastic alteration in the mill's work practices, the bitter alienation of its workers, and the collapse of any lingering notions of a community at Loray.
Management, of course, was delighted at what Johnstone had achieved. In a letter of congratulation given wide currency during the strike, F. L. Jenckes admitted that he had been skeptical about Johnstone's prospects of cutting the payroll by $500,000 annually without any loss of production and was delighted to be proved wrong. Now he thought that $1,000,000 could probably go, and he urged Johnstone to keep up the good work, The workers, though, were of a different mind. The year 1928 was one of unrest at the mill, and workers resisted when they could. On March 5, the entire weave room walked out in the protest at wage reductions, which they claimed had reduced their incomes by about half. Their statement of explanation encapsulated the scale of their resentments about the stretch-out. "We were making $30 to $35 a week," it ran, "and were running six to eight looms. Now we are running ten to twelve looms and are getting $15 to $18 a week. We can't live on it. All we are asking is simple justice. A weaver cannot run ten or twelve looms at nay price. It is more than a man can stand let alone a woman. There used to be women weavers in the mill but when the number of looms was increased the women all had to give up the work." Low wages were one thing, said Loray weaver Henry Totherow, but the stretch-out was something else. "There just ain't no a-bearin' [it]," he told left-wing journalist Margaret Larkin. "It used to be you could git five, ten minutes rest now and then, so's you could bear the mill. But now you got to keep a-runnin' all the time. Never a minute to git your breath all the long day. I used to run six drawing frames and now I got to look after ten. You jist kain't do it. A man's dead heat a t night." There was no union to stir these weavers up; again, this was the spontaneous action of men and women driven beyond endurance by the way their working lives had changed. "The mill is asking something that is impossible," a strike representative stated on March 6. "It is a condition that can't continue to exist if we are to make a living. Most of us have been in this mill for years and have accepted cuts, even recently. But last week's went beyond the limit. So we are out. We believe the public will understand our position if they but knew the facts."
Johnstone's response was simply to wait it out, knowing that spontaneous strikes rarely lasted more than a few days. His instinct was right: the weavers were soon forced back to work. Yet their outburst, especially the terms in which they justified their action, revealed the deep tensions the mill's policies had aroused. Moreover, they found other ways to make these obvious. Liston Pope discovered that later in the year a group of Loray workers staged a kind of charivari in Gastonia's main street. They paraded down the thoroughfare "bearing a coffin in which lay an effigy of the Loray superintendent." Every fifty yards or so "The effigy would sit up and shout: How many men are carrying this thing?" "Eight," the marchers would shout back, and the effigy would retort, "Lay off two; six can do the work." Pope concluded perceptively that these workers "hid a frowning face under a boisterous countenance."
The most obvious demonstration of worker alienation, however, occurred in August 1928 when the company, realizing that Johnstone had outlived his usefulness, ??? his replacement. That night worker anger boiled over. Let social scientist Benjamin Rutchford, himself from Gastonia, describe the scene:
On this night in August several trucks, loaded with workers from Loray, mostly young people, paraded through the principal streets of Gastonia. The, occupants of the trucks were shouting, laughing, singing, blowing horns, beating tin pans, shooting fire crackers, and in general staging genuine, spontaneous celebration. They looked very much like one of the picnic parties that are frequently organized for outings into the country, except that they were somewhat more boisterous. They continued through the city and out about two miles eastward into an exclusive residential section. Here they turned into the driveway of the home of a Mr. Johnstone finally was force to summon the sheriff [sic] and deputies to disperse the crowd and stop the demonstration. The crowd then returned through the city, continuing the celebration.
Ratchford went on to explain that Johnstone, having introduced the stretch-out system to the Loray Mill, "had incurred the intense dislike of the workers." The motor vehicle parades, the noisy demonstrations, the involvement of young people, and the present of the police to defend mill interests. Gastonia was to see much more of these elements in the year ahead.
Johnstone was gone, and the workers celebrated their victory, nut nothing much changed, for as Ella Ford said, "others managers came." Johnstone's replacement, J. L. Baugh, moderated a few of the most objectionable aspects of the new policies but left their essentials in place. The workers remained discontented, and the Gastonia community remained divided, fertile ground for the activities of Fred Erwin Beal and the National Textile Workers Union. Soon the History of Gaston County became intertwined with that of the frankly revolutionary, faction-ridden Communist Party of the United States.
Originally born of left wing disaffection with the Socialist Party in the heady aftermath of the October Revolution, the American Communist Party spent its first years in a furious factional struggle that was initially conducted underground. Even after its emergence above-ground in 1922, internecine warfare continued, the main line of cleavage being between those who, with Jay Lovestone, believed in "American exceptionalism" a concept based on "the unique status of being the home base of the foremost capitalist power" - and those who advocated immediate worldwide revolution. The Lovestoneites argued that revolutionary changed could hardly be corrupted by an "imperialist-laden" prosperity that was shared by large sections of the working class. Rather, change would occur through patient, strategic political effort. "American conceptionalism" had been briefly tolerated by the Comintern, but with Stalin's consolidation of power and, in 1928, the attendant proclamation that the world had entered the "third period" of revolutionary upsurge, the Lovestoneites were swept from the CPUSA, as were the remaining adherents to the views of Leon Trotsky. By 1932, the orthodox Stalinists, led by William Z. Foster and his protégé Earl Browder, were firmly in control.
The Communist Party's industrial policy had gone through a similar metamorphosis. For most of the decade it had operated through the Trade Union Educational League (TUED). Formed in Chicago in 1920 and led by William Z. Foster, the TUEL was the most radical group operating within the American labor movement, Its aims were many - industrial unionism, the organization of the unorganized, the formation of a labor party, the eventual establishment of a workers republic - and its method was "boring from within." The TUEL rejected dual unionism; its policy was rather to infiltrate established trade unions and convert them to Marxist militancy. Its leadership of strikes in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1926, and New Redford Massachusetts, two years later had given it a strong constituency among textile workers, but the increasing hostility and conservatism of the AFL leadership, together with Moscow's changing perspectives, led to its dissolution in 1928. The "boring from within" policy was jettisoned in favor of the building of a new labor movement through the establishment of dual unions, and the Trade Union Unity League was created as a rival to the AFL. The new league's program called for militant prosecution of the class war for mass strikes rather than labor-management cooperation, and the ultimate overthrow of capitalism. Its first affiliate union was the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU).
The NTWU was founded in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in September 1928, at a conference called to discuss the conduct of the recent strike there. Organized on an industrial basis, with James P. Reid as its first president, it was democratic in its governance and unremittingly revolutionary in its "class against class" rhetoric, in accordance with third-wave communist perspectives. Its negotiating demands included higher wages, shorter hours, equal pay for equal work, and the complete abolition of child labor in the industry. Bitterly antagonistic to its AFL rival, the United Textile Workers. (UTW), the NTWU planned to stage its first organizational drive in the American South, for no other reason than that the UTW was about to move in there; in those years the region was, in Theodore Draper's phrase, "virtually terra incognita" for both the union and the Party. The first Communist even to include the South in a speaking tour was the Party's 1928 vice presidential candidate, Benjamin Gatlow. There were no Party district offices in the region, which was ignored both in Party literature and on its priority task lists. Nevertheless, Fred E. Beal was sent out as NTWU's southern organizer in late 1928, after he had receive NTWU secretary Albert Weisbord's instructions to use the "rolling wave" strike strategy. This was how the South would be broken, Weisbord believed: by starting a strike in a single mill, then extending it to neighboring mills as time, resources, and circumstances permitted. It was Beal's task to find that ???.
In 1929 Fred Beal was a thirty-three-year-old New Englander, fleshy, red-haired, and "heavy-faced." The radical journalist Mary Heaton Vorse thought him "boyish" and unassuming, with "absolutely no pose, no front whatsoever, ... seemingly unconscious that he is a big man hereabouts." Sophie Melvin, who worked with him in Gastonia, described him as "sweet and gentle," with a feeling both for his work and the people he dealt with. "Sweetness" was hardly a usual characteristic for a union organizer in the hostile south, but in other ways Beal was well qualified for the task. He had been a textile worker since the age of fourteen, when he started at a mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Beal had joined the International Workers of the World (IWW) in his youth, and in the 1920s he had shifted to the Socialists, no the Communists. Politics was never of much importance to him, however; he was first and foremost an organizer, with little patience for theoretical or ideological concerns. His interest in independent unionism was what eventually drew him to the Communists at the time when they were changing their ideas and when his organizing work in the New Bedford strike had gained him a certain national prominence in left-wing circles. Beal probably joined the Party in 1928, shortly before he began his southern odyssey.
He arrived in North Carolina on New Year's Day 1929, having traveled from New York by motorcycle. His only contact was a blind Party member in Charlotte - "the only functioning member" in the entire city, he thought - and it was to his house that he went first. His host was enthusiastic about the prospects of organizing a union in the Charlotte area, given the woeful working conditions in the local mills, and it was there that Beal began his activity. He was unable to get a job on one of the mills, so made his contacts after work, visiting mill families in their homes, talking to them about the union, trying to find our what their real feelings were. He found them wary, partly because of their perceived betrayal by the UTW in 1921, but desperate in the face of the general application of the stretch-out. Slowly he began to sign people up.
It was one of these first union members. O. D. martins, who pointed him toward Gastonia, which until then had been 'just another dot on the industrial map" to Beal. Martins had a brother working at the Loray Mill; he would help Beal organize the workers there. If Beal succeeded in doing that, martins said, "you'll organize the south" - a statement that unconsciously reinforced Welsbord's "rolling strike" policy. In mid-March Beal decided to go to Gastonia to see for himself. There, at the Loray Mill, he found conditions even worse than those he had encountered in Charlotte, plus a disaffected workforce that was itching for action. He launched a secret union then and there, with Will Truett, a local worker, as its secretary-treasurer. Then, afraid that the situation would outrun his ability to control it, Beal made a swift trip to New York to plead for money and reinforcements.
Party and NTWU officials were delighted at the progress he had made and needed little convincing that the Gastonia situation was just what they had been looking for. Here was their third-period opening in the United States, The beginning of the revolution that would bring about capitalism's collapse, and here, at Loray, was Weisbord's "first mill." If a single man could penetrate so quickly the most inaccessible, most hostile region in the United States, a place where "no Communist organizer had ever ventured before, where might it all end? Beal returned to Charlotte, assured that he would receive all possible support.
When Beal returned from New York, there was a telegram waiting for him from Will Truett. He had been fired from the Loray Mill, he said, because of his union work. Moreover, company police were busily ferreting out other members and summarily dismissing them. Beal knew he had to act, ready or not. Events had simply overtaken him. Accordingly, he and Truett held a secret meeting at the house of a fellow unionist to canvas the possibility of a strike. The enthusiasm was infectious, the resolve grim. Even Beal was moved, and he allowed himself to believe that they "might achieve on this backward Southern soil, a great resounding victory for the American working class," An open meeting was to be called for March 30, 1929. the die, said Beal, was cast.
True to its word, the NTWU sent him the first reinforcements, in the doughty personage of its second vice president, Ellen ("Nellie") Dawson. Variously described as "a wee bit of a girl" or the little orphan of the strikers," the diminutive, seemingly frail Dawson was in reality anything but that. A veteran of the New England strikes, she was a tough, experienced organizer and a superb stump speaker who delivered her messages in the soft brogue of her native Scotland. She made her Gastonia debut on March 30m urging workers to stand resolute; meanwhile, Manville-Jenckes supervisors stood silently by, noting the names of those present. Heckled by the crowd, especially the women, with cries on "what about the stretch out? How about God and the bathtubs? [a reference to the recent remark of a millsponsored preacher that as the lord was not an advocate of frequent bathing, bathtubs were not a necessity for mill-village houses]," the supervisors eventually beat a humiliating retreat.
Beal knew then that there would be no turning back, that the bosses would force the issue on the next working day and that, despite the look of preparation and resources, the union must meet the challenge. And so the dramatic events began to unfold. On the morning of April 1, five workers were dismissed for attending Saturday's "spekin'." They sang hymns together as more discharged workers arrived at the NTWU's newly acquired union headquarters. As he prepared for a strike meeting called for three o'clock that afternoon, Beal sensed that Gastonia would soon be much more than just a dot on the map.
Back to the top