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Life and Work in Southern Mills

On June 7th, 1929, violence erupted in Gastonia, North Carolina, when Gastonia police chief Orville Aderholt visited a camp that the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) had organized for workers on strike from Gastonia's Loray Mill. When the violence ended, Aderholt was dead and seventy-one people were detained for questioning. This month, Documenting the American South remembers the painful, contentious events of 1929 by highlighting materials from its collection which focus on issues of labor relations—and life—in southern textile mills.

One of the largest mills in North Carolina, the Loray Mill, was owned by a Rhode Island textile company. Facing a declining economy and increased competition, the Loray Mill was one of many cotton mills in the country that tried to increase profits and efficiency by engaging in what mill workers called the "Stretch Out": doing more work in the same time period without an increase in pay. Because of these conditions, the Massachusetts-based NTWU picked the Loray Mill as the site at which they would begin to try to unionize the staunchly anti-union South. After the Loray Mill fired five workers who chose to join the NTWU, close to 1800 workers went on strike April 1, 1929, as a sign of solidarity. Unable to hold out financially, most of the striking workers returned to work by the end of the month, with some others remaining on strike and living in a camp established by the NTWU. After police deputies broke up a picket line composed mostly of women and children, the deputies entered the NTWU camp on June 7, 1929. Violence ensued, and Aderholt was shot and killed. The murder trial of sixteen union members ended in a mistrial in September 1929, and the troubles in Gastonia continued. At a union rally that same month, Ella May Wiggins, a popular supporter of working women, was shot and killed. By and large, employers were successful in keeping unions out of the state.

George R. Elmore was born in Gaston County, North Carolina, in 1902 and lived most of his life near Gastonia. He experienced cotton mills from two perspectives, having been both a mill worker and, later, a member of mill management. In a 1976 oral history interview conducted by Brent Glass, Elmore remembered that people in his family and neighborhood "were against" the Loray Mill strike (p. 35). "None of us were in favor of the unionization," he said, explaining that the NTWU's northern roots turned many people against it: "We had heard too much of what had gone on in Massachusetts; that's the thing, I think, that poisoned the air. I think that if it had been unionization with local leadership it may have gone over better" (p. 35). Looking back on his career in mills, Elmore recognized that mill workers "needed help, I've always said [that], and I sympathize with them," but said he never trusted union management: "I didn't want to see that outside crowd come in there and taking dues from them that basically didn't give a damn about the good will of the people … I was always in favor of labor. But the management of it, and the people's taking advantage of the poor working man, I can't go along with" (p. 43).

Textile mill worker and union organizer Eula McGill had a different, less conflicted view of unions. Born into a family of Alabama textile workers who supported unions, McGill described herself and her family as "firm trade unionists" in a 1974 oral history interview conducted by Lewis Lipsitz (p. 8). McGill explained that she identified herself this way because she believed that unions were "the only answer for working people" and that most mill workers understood this, even if they themselves did not join unions (p. 8). Clarifying her remarks, McGill explained that some working people "don't have the courage to stand and put up the fight, to be ostracized or lose their friends and things like that, but … you remove that resistance and these people are actually free to make a choice, then they will choose the union" (p. 8). Describing the pressures that kept otherwise sympathetic working people from joining unions, McGill recalled the time she spent as a union organizer in the 1930s: "[there were] workers in the plant who were what we would call volunteer organizers, of which I was one. Those people were harassed in their homes by the people that were anti-union that worked with them, [and] the police … volunteer organizers [for the union], were beaten up, taken out and flogged and it was very risky" (p. 3). Still, McGill felt that the violence she risked was worth it in order to combat the poor working conditions that mill workers faced, conditions which for women often included sexual harassment. "The way that people were treated in the plants, I hate to talk about it sometimes," McGill said. "People wouldn't believe it today, but I knew bosses that if they took a notion that they wanted to date a girl, she either dated them or lost her job. I know personally of a man who worked in a steel mill and his wife dated the boss. You might say that that man was weak, but he had a family to feed. He talked with me quite freely about it. Those things went on" (p. 5).

When asked, in a 1979 oral history interview conducted by Jim Leloudis, to recall the working conditions in the mills she worked in, Alice P. Evitt talked about the ever-present dangers of working near the fast-moving machines inside a cotton mill. "I'd get my apron tore off of me in the speeder room—when I was learnin' to run speeders," she said, "I'd get my apron tore off of me two or three times a week. They'd wind me up, and I was just lucky I managed to stop 'em and didn't get my arms in them. Them fliers would break your bones … I know one lady—I didn't see her get it done—but she said she wore wigs and she'd get her hair caught and it pulled her whole scalp out—every bit of her hair" (p. 36).

Still, the picture of mill life that Evitt paints is not one that consists only of hardship, fear and misery. To the contrary, many of her stories about life in the mill towns are positive. She fondly remembers evenings from her childhood, when family, friends and neighbors would stage impromptu dances and concerts in mill towns: "I played organ a heap—and they'd come in at night—[just] the mill hill; no strangers, [only] people we knowed—and I'd play the organ and … [a] fella … [would] pick the guitar and they'd dance … They enjoyed it. I never did dance, never did learn 'cause I'd always play the organ and I couldn't get a chance" (pp. 9-10). When asked if she had ever been called a 'lint head'—a derogatory term for mill workers—Evitt said that she had not, but that she would rather "be a lint head" than not, because mill workers were "the best [people] I've ever been around." "They're willin' to work for what they get," Evitt explained. "They ain't a-lookin' for somethin' for nothin'. They're tryin' to make their own way. I couldn't see a thing wrong with workin' in a cotton mill" (p. 48).

All of the interviews cited in this Highlight are part of DocSouth's Oral Histories of the American South project, which has made available online over 500 oral history interviews selected by the Southern Oral History Program.

Works Consulted: Graham, Nicholas, "This Month in North Carolina History: June 1929—Strike at Loray Mill," online article (North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, 2004), (accessed May 15, 2009).

Harry Thomas