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Oral History Interview with Vesta and Sam Finley, July 22, 1975. Interview H-0267. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Raised on her family's western North Carolina farm, Vesta explains that while still children, she and her brothers and sisters contributed to the household income. Vesta quit school at an early age to enter the mills, but she continued trying to learn. This desire led her to attend the Southern School, a training center run by the Textile Workers Union of America. Following her time at the summer school, Vesta and a group of women from Marion, North Carolina, went to New York to speak to the unions there about labor conditions in the Piedmont. When she returned, she met Sam, and they married a year later.

    The heart of the interview focuses on the 1929 Marion Strike. When Marion's factory owners tried to add hours to the twelve-hour work day, the workers walked out. The union organized a food distribution system, overseen by Sam. Sam and Vesta argue that the strike was not controlled by national or communist leaders, but rather by local activists. They explain how tension built in the town as strikers and mill owners grew increasingly antagonistic. On October 2, in an action that came to be known as the Marion Massacre, police opened fired on the strikers, killing six of them. According to the Finleys, deputies had been told to target union leaders. Discussion of the strike leads Vesta to describe the experiences at the Brookwood Labor College and the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers.

    Though many laborers joined the strike at first, within a few weeks, some needed more support than the union could offer. These people became strikebreakers, and through their work, the mill remained partially operational. Vesta talks about the positions women held during the strike and the sort of training they received at the labor schools. A variety of journalists, authors, and historians covered portions of the Marion Strike, and the Finleys talk about the influence they had. Though the strike attracted national attention at first, the mill owners soon won over public support, and the Finleys note the reticence of the company to share information about the event to this day.

    To close the interview, the Finleys reflect on what has and has not changed within the mills. They also describe the attitude of the contemporary generation toward the strikers and toward unions. One of the biggest changes in the mills had been the ending of segregation, but the Finleys do not believe that desegregation was entirely a good thing. In addition, they discuss the various jobs African Americans held prior to desegregation. In 1928, Sam joined the Ku Klux Klan. He explains why he did so and defends their actions, explaining that he never took part in a racial attack but used the organization to provide for local white citizens. Vesta does not seem to be as eager to defend them. Vesta ends the interview by talking about how much pride she took in being a part of the union movement.

    NOTE: Audio for this interview is not available.

    Excerpts
  • Gendered division of labor on the farm
  • Small country schools
  • Going to labor schools for workers
  • Vesta travels to New York City with the union
  • Sam and Vesta Finley marry
  • More on Vesta's trip to New York City
  • Distribution of food for the strikers
  • Mill conditions and the reasons for the strike
  • Mill conditions and the reasons for the strike
  • National union leaders
  • The story of the "Marion Massacre"
  • The National Guard comes to Marion, North Carolina
  • National union leaders
  • Going to labor schools for workers
  • Getting aid from the American Friends Committee and encountering hostility in local churches
  • The reasons strikers became scabs
  • Local union leaders
  • Roles for women in the strike and at the labor schools
  • Coverage of the "Marion Massacre"
  • Descriptions of the picket lines
  • What changed following the strike and what is still the same
  • The costs for siding with the union
  • The company rigs the deputies' trials
  • Power held by the mill even over non-mill workers
  • Generational differences among the mill workers
  • Race in the mills and among the mill workers
  • Health problems among the mill workers
  • End of the union and the economic divisions within Marion, North Carolina
  • The Ku Klux Klan
  • Political participation among mill workers
  • Vesta is proud of her participation in the union
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Women in the textile industry
  • Trade-unions--Textile workers--South Carolina--Greenville
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.