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Mill Mother's Lament: The Legacy of Ella May Wiggins

Karen Sieber tells us of the effort to honor the memory of slain union organizer Ella May Wiggins and the struggle for power by textile workers in the South.

The city of Gastonia, North Carolina, has grappled with how to remember the Loray Mill Strike of 1929 for decades.

Although the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, controversies surrounding the conflict drew the nation’s attention to the plight of textile workers, and helped spark a labor movement throughout the south which led to the creation of the United Textile Workers Union in the 1930s. In particular, the mob attack and murder of Ella May Wiggins, a pregnant mother of five who was a mill worker, union organizer, and balladeer, spurred the movement to continue beyond Gaston County. For the enemies of unionism, the death of Police Chief Orville Aderholdt during an altercation with strikers provided similar fuel.

When the state first proposed to erect a historical marker about the strike in 1986, the plan was squashed due to disagreements over text. Gastonia officials wanted to eliminate any mention of deaths, and add wording about local citizens defeating “the first Communist efforts to control southern textiles.” While a marker recognizing the strike was eventually erected in front of the then-abandoned mill in 2007, the wording remained problematic, reading: “A strike in 1929 at the Loray Mill, 200 yards S., left two dead and spurred opposition to labor unions statewide.” In addition to only highlighting opposition to the unions, the inscription is devoid of human actors, fails to mention the reasons for the strike, and ignores the strike’s significance within American labor history.

Thankfully, a group called the Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee has been raising funds to erect a statue devoted to the martyred union organizer and songstress. While they had initially looked into Gastonia locations, the plan now is to erect the statue in nearby Bessemer City, North Carolina where Wiggins resided and worked.

Even though she was never employed at the Loray Mill, she knew firsthand why workers down the road began organizing in the spring of 1929. Like many, she worked long hours doing tedious mill work and still struggled to provide for her family. At not even thirty years old, she had already lost four children due to lack of nutrition or health care. After her husband abandoned her, Wiggins, who was white,  relied on the help of other mill workers in her Bessemer City community of “Stump Town” which was largely African American.

Countless sharecroppers and subsistence farmers from throughout the Piedmont, Appalachia, and beyond like Wiggins were recruited by agents promising them a better life in Gastonia, known as “Spindle City.” At over a half million square feet, the Loray Mill was the epicenter of the local textile industry, but smaller mills like the one Wiggins worked at dotted the landscape surrounding the town. The mill’s early success relied upon entire families who were employed in the mill and lived together in the mill village. Lewis Hine would famously photograph child laborers at Loray in 1908.

Read entire article at Labor and Working Class History Association