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?”