Martyr of Loray Mill, New book on the Loray Mill Strike of 1929

martyr of loray millKristina Horton, great-granddaughter of Ella May has written a new book on the murdered labor leader, mother of nine and balladeer titled, Martyr of Loray Mill: Ella May and the 1929 Textile Workers’ Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. 

I have personal interest in this book in that I grew up in Gastonia and worked in textile mills putting in air conditioning units and duct-work during the summers that I was in college.  Moreover, my great-grandfather was employed  at Loray Mill, although he had gone into business for himself before the strike started.  But not everyone had that option, especially not Ella May who was a single mom working to feed nine children, 4 of whom died of whooping cough in one day.  This is her testimony in Washington DC about the labor conditions of southern mills:

“I’m the mother of nine. Four died with the whooping cough, all at once. I was working nights, I asked the super to put me on days, so’s I could tend ‘em when they had their bad spells. But he wouldn’t. I don’t know why. … So I had to quit, and then there wasn’t no money for medicine, and they just died.”

The strike began because of the “stretch-out” system.  A system where weavers and spinners were required to double their work for less money.  Ella May thought that the union would be the best way to  improve conditions for her children so she joined the strike and eventually became one of the leaders and rallied the workers with her ballads.  Here is a description of peoples reaction to her taking the stage at a rally from the book’s introduction:

“Journalists sprang to Gaston County North Carolina. One of them witnessed a scrappy young female textile worker with guitar in hand ascend a speaking platform.  At once the reporter was “transfixed” by her presence and the music that “bubbled” from her.  Other textile workers were drawn in, attentively listening to her “full, throaty voice,” chuckling at her attacks on mill bosses, nodding at testimony to hardship.  The crowd delighted  in how she “gave songs in the mountain style, with an odd sort of yip at the end.”  Another female striker commented, “Purtiest singing I ever heard.”  Others agreed.  The balladeer with the magnetic aura in the center of a national controversy was Ella May.”

Soon afterward Ella May was “…deliberately shot (and killed) for her interracial organizing and her role as balladeer and speaker,” by a group of vigilantes called the Committee of 100 hired by the mill owners to break the strike. No one was ever indited even though there were over fifty eyewitnesses.

The strike was one of the most import strikes in the history of American labor.  Although it achieved little reform at Loray Mill (they lowered the hours to 55 a week) it galvanized people wanting better wages and living conditions all over the US and Europe.  Ella May herself was influential and was called by Woodie Gutherie “…the pioneer of the protest ballad”  (Huber 2009). Pete Seeger even recorded some of her songs (3).

I have not quite finished the book, but so far I have found it to be a well researched and personal account of Ella May’s short but consequential life.  The author deftly navigates a city and surrounding county that has never celebrated the strike as a pivotal event in the history of American labor, but as an embarrassment and something to be forgotten.  One thing I like about the book is the fact that Horton has a compilation of ballads composed around the strike, including Ella Mays famous, Mill Mother’s Lament.  It also has an appearance the director of Barton College’s Hackney Library and Gaston County native, George Loveland.  He wrote a book on the strike, For Our Little Children: Growing Up in the Shadow of the Loray Mill Strike, which I have read and found to be richly drawn and like Horton’s book, a very personal account of the 1929 event.

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My great grandfather’s WWI registration card stating that he worked at Loray Mills.

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Ella May’s grave and her surviving children, all of whom went into an orphanage.

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Loray Mill Strikers. Sign in the lower right says “To Hell with the Hank Clock.” These clocks timed each task on the looms and weaver to make the worker go at a quicker pace and were a major grievance of the strikers.

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Young boy employees of Loray Mill. They would advertise for children of small stature so they could easily go into the looms and fix thread breaks. The boy with the coat is listed as eleven years old.

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“Been at it right smart for two years now.”

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A young girl working at a warping machine at Loray Mill.

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“Two women confront an armed soldier during the Loray Mills Textile Strike.” Photo from the Edward Levinson Collection

 

Sources

1. Huber,Patrick. “Mill Mother’s Lament: Ella May Wiggins and the Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929.” Southern Cultures. (2009): 83. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.

2.NCpedia

3.Old Hat Records

4.Wikipedia

5.Government and Heritage Library Blog

6.Our State Magazine

 

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The last will and testament of Henry C. Rountree.

Another reblog from Black Wide Awake. There’s more good info in this post than most newspapers.

Black Wide-Awake

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Last Will and Testament of Henry C. Rountree.

Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry C. Rountree, of Wilson in the County of Wilson and State of North Carolina, being of sound mind and memory does make and publish this my last will and testament revoking all former wills at any time before made.

And as to my worldly estate, and all property real, personal or mixed of which I shall die seized and possessed, or to which I shall be entitled at the time of my decease, I devise, bequeath and dispose of in the following manner:

First. My will is, that all of my just debts and funeral expense shall by my executor hereinafter named be paid as soon after my decease as shall by him be found convenient.

I give, devise and bequeath to my beloved wife, Emma Rountree, all my household furniture…

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A good barber and most exemplary man.

Exciting new blog on African American genealogy and history in Wilson County, NC from the true expert on the subject, local phenom Lisa Henderson.

Black Wide-Awake

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Wilson Mirror, 15 November 1893.

Died.

Lemon Tabon, the barber so well known to all our people as a good barber and most exemplary man — quiet and orderly in his conduct, was attacked with paralysis on Tuesday Oct. 31, and died at his home in Wilson on the night of the 12th of November leaving as good name as that of any one white or black who has lived amongst us. He began his career at Wilson several years before the war, went as servant to Capt. J[acob] S. Barnes and remained in the 4th regiment till the close of the war — returning resumed his business as barber.

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Lemon Taborn (later spelled Tabron) was born free about 1834 in Nash County, North Carolina, to Celia Taborn. He moved to the town of Wilson before 1860.

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The Wilson Advance, 24 September 1880.

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The First Children’s Story-time at the Wilson County Public Library

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Mrs. Townsend has a very cool hat. It may be the sorting hat.

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I recently found these pictures of the first children’s story-time at the newly opened Wilson County Public Library.  The pictures date from November 18, 1939 and the story-teller is Matilda Townsend.  The picture below is from the summer of 1947 and the story-teller is Sara Harrell.

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I think this photograph was taken by a professional, maybe Guy Cox of Raines and Cox Photography

So Your Great-Great Grandmother was a Cherokee

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These images are from one of my favorite books on the Cherokee, The Cherokee people : the story of the Cherokees from earliest origins to contemporary times by Thomas E. Mails. Notice the cougar tail on the warrior’s belt.

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In Slate magazine there is a great article entitled, “Why do so many Americans think that they have Cherokee blood?” This is something that I run into all the time with patrons whether they are white or black. My first thought when they say that a great great grandma was a full blooded Cherokee is, “Why a Cherokee? They didn’t live in Eastern NC.” If she was a Native American around here she would have been an Algonquin or a Siouan or a Tuscarora. But being part Cherokee in the US has come to be the Holy Grail of genealogy and the article tries to explain why this is and it is fascinating.

First, unlike many other tribes, the Cherokee had a tradition of exogamous marriages, which is marrying outside of their clan, and sought to marry European traders in order to seal alliances and secure reliable sources of European trade goods. This produced a large mixed-race population that wasn’t mirrored by other tribes.

Wealthy Cherokees adopted the European racial slave system and bought African slaves. Some of these Africans traveled with the Cherokee after their removal in the 1830’s and may have created interracial families.

The Cherokee traveled widely and took advantage of educational systems that put them in contact with whites and blacks, which could have led to intermarriage.

White southerners came to have an idealized, sentimental view of the Cherokee after their removal and their resistance to the federal government. And these whites in the 1840’s and 1850’s thought that by alleging a Cherokee ancestor or a “princess” they would be “… legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.”

These myths and actual pairings of the Cherokee and other races have caused these beliefs to persist today.

But I think that race is a social construct and none of the different peoples that have lived side by side in the American South for to the past 500 odd years have existed in a vacuum, populations have always exchanged genes (called admixture) and even in the face of the rigidly stratified South this holds to be true.  I have seen the evidence  in patron’s and extended family member’s autosomal DNA tests.

A Local Man’s Extensive History Collection

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About a quarter of the historical objects are on the ceiling!

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Monday I had the chance to stop by and visit Lewis Neal and his collection of Wilson County historical artifacts in his garage turned history museum. There I was fascinated by the breadth and depth of his collection as well as taken in by the hospitality and pleasant conversation with Lewis and his wife Tina. We talked about everything from segregation to Joshua Barnes (a founder of Wilson) to Elvis to college football (his grandson plays football for LSU and Lewis had just returned the day before from a game in New York).

Lewis was on his on at the age of thirteen and survived by picking cotton and tobacco while staying with any acquaintance that would give him a place to sleep. Eventually he became a successful truck driver, married and raised several children. All the while his natural curiosity was fed through collecting historical artifacts from all over the area that dealt with any aspect of Wilson County History.  These artifacts fill his garage, but it isn’t cluttered, the place is curated like a museum. Most every object has a label with a title or a description. Newspaper articles are framed on the wall or on the ground in giant poster frames separated by subject. There are also a great many binders filled with articles and documents on every Wilson County subject you can imagine.

Mr. Neal’s collection is a hidden, cultural treasure of Wilson County.