In Memoriam: Ella May Wiggins, Southern Labor Activist
It’s hard not to cheer the end of Pastor Terry Jones’s fifteen minutes of fame, though I regret that whenever the lens is turned on Southerners, it’s always the dumb ones we see. Born in the South myself, I have encountered plenty of shortsightedness there, to be sure. But I have seen other things too: young women who risk physical assault to accompany other women into abortion clinics; a teenager with searing green eyes who endured months of parent-appointed Christian counseling to become, in the end, happy and still gay; and then there’s my own pasty white grandmother, who made sure I saw the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, before my tenth birthday. Such people exist below the Mason Dixon line—and arguably outnumber the likes of Pastor Jones and his fifty-member congregation. You just wouldn’t know it from watching your television.
In a strange twist of historical karma, this “fringe-figure” fiasco has coincided with the anniversary of the birth and tragic death of a real Southern pioneer, Ella May Wiggins, who was born poor in Sevierville, Tennessee, on September 17, 1900. Not many details about her life are known, though numbers seem important somehow: by the time she was 19, both her parents had died. By the time she was about 20, she was married with a child. She gave birth to nine children altogether, though only five survived past early childhood. Abandoned by her husband in 1926, she made her living as a spinner at American Mill No. 2 in Gaston County, North Carolina, where she worked, according to the North Carolina Museum of History, “twelve-hour days, six days a week, earning about nine dollars a week.”
As the economy tightened in the late 1920s, so did mill owners. The Loray Mill in Gastonia was owned by a textile company in Rhode Island and, like many mills in the South, had begun demanding more from their workers for the same amount of pay. The practice was about increasing efficiency, about adopting a new “scientific” management style, but the workers just called it what it was: the “stretch-out.”
The conditions at the Loray Mill were so bad that labor activists Ellen Dawson and Fred Beal thought they might actually be ripe for a union. Unions had never thrived in the South—where anxieties over races mixing often trumped personal interest—but this time more than a few workers bit. Five were fired for it.
In response, the union voted to strike. Nearly 1,800 workers at the Loray and nearby mills walked off the job—many of them only to walk back on a month later, discouraged and broke. A good number remained, however, in a tent city erected near the mills. Ella May Wiggins was among them. Against all odds, she had become a union balladeer and bookkeeper, argued vehemently against segregation in the union, and even went to Washington, DC, to testify about the poor labor conditions in the South.
“I’m the mother of nine,” she told lawmakers there. “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.”
On June 7, 1929, a fight broke out between strikers and local men who had crossed a picket line composed primarily of women and children. Such violence was not uncommon, although this time shots were fired and the Gastonia police chief Orville F. Aderholt was killed. Sixteen union members, including three women, were charged with murder. In its closing statements, the prosecution had turned to the all male jury and asked questions like, “Do you believe in North Carolina?”
The trial held in Ella May Wiggins’s honor was less dramatic. She was shot in the chest and killed on September 14, 1929, on her way to a union meeting. Five men were indicted for her murder, but in less than thirty minutes of deliberation, they were all acquitted.
Save for her gravestone, there is little mention of this brave mother and social activist in Gaston County today. For fear of being associated with communism, it took North Carolina officials until 2007 to agree to recognize the strike at the Loray at all, and only then to post a small marker that said the deadly events led to opposition against unions statewide.
Needless to say, Terry Jones received a lot more airtime in part, surely, because something about him spoke to us. At a time when the nation is yet again shifting to the right, tightening its belt—shedding everything from immigrants to taxes—this fringe character seemed tailor made to make us feel better about ourselves, by making our own increasingly extreme views seem normal. We’re not that bad. Or that crazy. Indeed, Jones made even Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck look almost moderate and sane with their quaint "planning permission" issues. But at the end of the day Jones and millions of other Americans share one thing that no one should forget—come November 2nd, they will vote the same way. We like to think of Southerners as our idiot and very distant cousins, but in truth, as the late historian Howard Zinn once put it, rather than being anomalies, often Southerners have simply “taken the national genes and done the most with them.”
“They’ll have to kill me to make me give up the union,” Ella May Wiggins once said, prophetically. She died on September 14, 1929, just three days before her twenty-ninth birthday. Despite her efforts and her horrible end, unions have never taken off in the South. In fact, North Carolina has the lowest rate of union workers in America today, a dismal 3.1 percent. There is without doubt no nice way to spin this.
What remembering Wiggins can do, however, is remind us that there have been other sorts of radicals—brave and selfless radicals—out there, and that they can sprout from the unlikeliest of lands, and sometimes still do. I think of the organizers of the Southern Girls Convention, a grassroots meeting that brings together feminists from all over the South. Their most recent meeting was in Gainesville, Florida, of all places. I think also of Derrick Martin, a gay teen from Georgia, who, after being kicked out of the house by his parents, recently went on to form Project Life Vest, a program designed to help LGBTQ youth.
These stories do not receive near the attention they deserve from the mainstream media, who instead prefer "fringe" figures like Terry Jones—in part, certainly and sadly, because the audience is there, the weakness in us is there, but also because it requires little work to present little thoughts. It is much easier to let someone like Jones rattle nonsense than to make two parents explain how they went about throwing out their child. But that is what good journalists do—they do not pile on clichés but chip away at them. They do not feed our weaknesses but encourage us to look at the scale and, if need be, question the thing on which we stand.
It’s a tall order, I admit, but it’s been done before. I think, finally, of the famous “Monkey Trial,” in which high school teacher John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution. The trial was set in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, and caused, not unlike the scene we’ve just witnessed, a media circus—complete with live monkeys and souvenirs. But amid this mess, an unknown reporter got a hold of a woman, a mother, and asked her what she thought of the whole affair. "The teaching of evolution hasn’t hurt me or my boy," she replied. “I don't think any of us here in the mountains have studied evolution enough. I wish I knew more about it." The remarkable thing about this statement is that the woman who made it wasn't just any woman but the mother of 14-year-old Howard Morgan, one of the prosecution's lead witnesses against Scopes.