This is the grave of Ella Mae Wiggins.
Probably born in 1900 in Sevierville, Tennessee, at some point Wiggins had moved to Gaston County, North Carolina to work in the region’s textile mills. Her father had died in a workplace accident when she was a child so she had to work in the mills from the time she was a girl. Although she was white, she lived in a Black neighborhood. By this time, she had nine children and was a single mother after her husband had abandoned the family. Life in the textile mills was pretty brutal.
As early as the 1890s, apparel factories began moving to the South to escape unions. This increased dramatically after the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the Lawrence strike, the Paterson strike, and other many other periods of workplace organizing, forcing them to change their methods in New York and New England. They found compliant workers in the hills of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. They wanted a workforce that lacked immigrants or a history of socialism. They found a region that was riven by racial tension, deeply under the influence of fundamentalist evangelicalism (and the anti-Semitism that went with it that would help with resistance to Jewish organizers coming South), a history of paternalism, and poverty. Southern Appalachia was perfect. By the 1910s, there were tens of thousands of southern Appalachians laboring in newly opened textile mills.
Mills opened up in large numbers during World War I, but in the postwar economic slump hurt workers bad. Like farmers producing food, they were promised continued prosperity and spent accordingly, in this case buying consumer items that were hardly luxurious by New York standards, but which required credit lines for these poor workers. Then the hard times came and the workers found themselves tumbling back into poverty. Wages were reduced and work became harder to find. Moreover, the mill owners decided to maximize the production of each worker. They did so through what is called the stretch-out. This was an attempt to make up for lost profits by forcing workers to work up to twice at hard. One worker recalled working 48 looms before the stretch-out and 90 after it was implemented. To make this happen, workers lost their breaks, owners shifted to paying workers at piece rate instead of wages, and they also increasing the number of supervisors to work the employees like slaves. Moreover, all of this was for no additional money. The individual noted above who now worked 90 looms complained that he made $19 a week in 1926 and $17.70 in 1929, despite the huge increase in his production.
This infuriated workers. These were not people inclined to unionization, but as their rights and their lives were crushed, they began to change their minds. This also got the attention of unions based in the north. The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) was a communist-led union that saw potential for organizing the South. Seeing the rapid exploitation and anger of the workers, it decided to focus on the Carolina mills. It sent an organizer named Fred Beal to Gastonia and he walked into a powder keg.
Wiggins became a leader in the NTWU. She traveled to Washington in order to testify about the terrible conditions in the mills. She stated, “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.”
So it’s not surprising that Wiggins would be attracted to the union, whether it was communist led or not. But a lot of workers in the South were pretty uncomfortable with this, which is why the textile employers had moved there in the first place. But Wiggins was a genuinely inspiring figure to the other workers. Some of this is that she was a balladeer and rallied workers to the union with her songs about their lives. She also fought hard for the principle of organizing Black workers into the NWTU, which was extremely controversial in this time and place, but the workers, in a narrow vote, agreed.
On April 1, 1929, workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina went on strike. It soon spread through the region. Wiggins was a known strike leader. The textile employers and the state government worked together to crush the strike.
Scabs began to enter the mill and the strike seemed lost. They continued to hold on. But on June 7, as 150 strikers went to the mill to try and get the night shift to walk off the job, the police decided to bust the strike once and for all. They were attacked by the police, who then went to the strikers’ camp and demanded that the camp guards hand over their weapons. A fight began and the police chief was killed.
71 strikers were arrested in the aftermath of the violence. Eight strikers and Beal were indicted for the murder of the police chief. During the trial, with the strike continuing, a juror went insane and the judge had to declare a mistrial. This set the forces of order off in a violent spasm to crush this workers’ movement. A vigilante movement called the Committee of One Hundred roamed the countryside, seeking out strikers. By early September, mobs were rounding up strikers and kicking them out of the county.
On September 14, a mob opened fire on a truck full of strikers. Wiggins, pregnant again, was on the truck. Perhaps she was targeted or maybe it was coincidental. But she was shot and killed. This murder effectively ended the strike, as the workers could go no farther. Five men were charged in the murder but were found not guilty after all of 30 minutes.
Wiggins became inspiration for the left of the era. The next year, Mary Heaton Vorse, the leftist journalist who was down there for the strike, published her interesting but flawed novel about the strike, Strike!, which has a lightly fictionalized version of Wiggins as one of the featured character. Woody Guthrie later called Wiggins “the pioneer of the protest ballad.” Although she never recorded her work, some of the lyrics exist. Her most popular song was “The Mill Mother’s Lament.” Among its lyrics are:
We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children good bye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.
But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear,
Let’s stand together, workers,
And have a union here.
Pete Seeger later recorded the song.
Ella Mae Wiggins is buried in Bessemer City Memorial Cemetery, Bessemer City, North Carolina. The grave was initially unmarked. The state AFL-CIO rebuilt Wiggins grave in 1979 and placed the epigraph on it. As you can see, I was not the only recent visitor.
If you would like this series to visit other leaders of textile unionism, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rose Schneiderman is in Elmont, New York and Clara Lemlich is in West Babylon, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.