Demands for higher pay and a 40-hour workweek ignite a furor in Gastonia in 1929.
The crowd marches east. Five hundred people carry picket signs and chant union slogans. “To hell with the bosses! Come on the line! Stick together and win this time!” Behind the strikers, the late afternoon sun casts shadows off the towers of the Loray Mill. On Gastonia’s main street, 50 police officers wait with bayonets and blackjacks and orders to break up the “illegal parade.”
As the crowd moves closer, the officers charge, brandishing fists, rifle butts, and bayonets. They slice through the mass of people, throwing whomever they can collar into waiting paddy wagons.
The commotion confuses 50-year-old Ada Howell. She isn’t part of the crowd; she’s just out looking for dinner on this day, April 22, 1929. So when an officer tells her to get moving, she stares at him blankly. With his fists and bayonet, the officer strikes Howell, leaving her with two black eyes and a bloodied dress. Lawyers for the textile union tell her to keep the dress for evidence. But she has to wash it, she says. It is her only dress.
Three weeks into a strike at the Loray Mill and tension has boiled over into violence. What comes next, though, makes this night seem tame.
Mill-town powerThe movement begins with the stretch-out, the term workers use for the combination of layoffs and working at a faster pace for less pay. While the rest of the economy roars into the 1920s, Southern textiles take a beating. The end of World War I means less need for uniforms. New fashions mean women want shorter skirts. Demand for fabric plummets. Mill owners tighten control over their workers. Supervisors time each task and install “hank clocks” on looms and weaving machines, forcing a quicker pace for each worker.
The stretch-out stretches the workers thin. Gone are the relaxed conversations over the din of the looms, the breaks for baseball games, and the quick runs home to tuck in the children. Twelve-hour shifts become harried affairs — a rush from one machine to the next under the unrelenting tick of the clocks.
At Loray, supervisor G.A. Johnstone cuts staff from 3,500 to 2,200 and slashes pay by as much as 50 percent. The workers so hate Johnstone that when Loray replaces him in August 1928, crowds of workers hold a party in his front yard, shooting off firecrackers until the sheriff comes to break it up. The celebration is empty, though; the new supervisor changes nothing.
Standing up to the boss isn’t easy in a Southern textile town. Workers have held organized strikes before, but the mill owners’ power is all-encompassing: They own the houses workers sleep in, pay the policemen who patrol the village, and appoint the preachers at mill-town churches. And the owners — often locals — keep a close watch on their workers.Loray is different. It is a Yankee mill. More than half the money raised for its construction in 1900 came from New York, and now a Rhode Island company, Manville Jenckes, holds the deed. And Loray is big, with five floors and 600,000 square feet. The company-owned village is home to 5,000, making it harder for the bosses to keep track of workers’ activities.
So when the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) comes south, they come to Gastonia first. Fred Beal, a baby-faced 33-year-old who has spent the last 20 years working in New England mills, leads the charge. He arrives in late March and immediately starts signing people up for the union. When the mill fires union members on April 1, the workers walk to the NTWU’s makeshift headquarters on Franklin Avenue. By shift-change time, a crowd of 1,000 has gathered. Beal calls for a strike vote. It passes — unanimously. Their demands: a 40-hour workweek, a minimum $20-a-week wage, equal pay for men and women, recognition of the union, and, as one of their placards that day declares: To Hell with the Hank Clock.
Strike opponents feel as though they’re under siege. They see the strikers as troublemakers. The union members are outsiders. The fact that the union has Communist ties only heightens the tension. Send “those wops from the east side of New York” home, a letter to the Gastonia Daily Gazette shrieks. Gov. O. Max Gardner, a mill owner himself, calls in the National Guard.
But the strikers remain steadfast on the picket lines, especially the women. They taunt the National Guardsmen, calling them “Boy Scouts” and “Nasty Guardsmen.” Some even grab the ends of their guns. And while flapper style is foreign and unaffordable in Gastonia, many women flout tradition in other ways, wearing backward baseball caps and overalls.
Low wagesElla May Wiggins isn’t on the picket lines yet. But she’s heard about the strike at Loray and has seen some of the NTWU people coming around her mill in Bessemer City. Like a lot of mill workers, Wiggins came to Gaston County from her mountain home looking for a better life. It doesn’t turn out that way. By 28, she’s borne nine children. Four of them die of whooping cough. Her husband deserts the family.
Wiggins isn’t one to follow convention. She’s started going by her maiden name again and moves in with a lover, Charlie Shope, who is rumored to be the father of her ninth child. Instead of the mill village, she lives in Bessemer City’s predominately black Stumptown neighborhood, in a time of strict racial segregation.
When the NTWU comes to her mill, Wiggins is one of the first to walk out. She throws herself into work for the union, becoming their bookkeeper. She even travels to Washington, D.C., where she confronts Sen. Lee Overman in the Capitol. But she is best known for her songs. She sets new words to the melodies of well-known mountain ballads. Her most famous, “Mill Mother’s Lament,” connects with the workers’ hearts in a way no union rhetoric can.
How it grieves the heart of a mother,
You everyone must know
But we can’t buy for our children
Our wages are too low.
June 7 is payday at Loray. The strike has languished since May, when mill owners started evicting strikers from the mill village. The union sets up a tent colony nearby, but supplies are running low, and many workers return to the mill. With a paycheck to hold them over, many workers are prepared for another dramatic walkout. At evening shift change, the women of the tent colony march to the mill and convince the night-shift workers to abandon their looms. The deputies stop the 150 women and children cold, and they scatter back to their tents.Later that night, Police Chief Orville Aderholt and four other officers come to the tent city to investigate reports of a disturbance. Four armed strikers stop them and demand that the officers show a search warrant or leave. Shots ring out. Within minutes, Aderholt, three of the four deputies, and one of the four strikers are shot. Aderholt dies the next morning.
Gastonia becomes a police state overnight. Deputies ransack the tent colony. People are suspicious of outsiders. Doctors tell a passer-through from New Jersey who has stopped for a checkup to keep moving. More than 60 people are arrested that night. Historical accounts vary on how many people are charged with murder — some sources say 14, others 15; another nine are charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
The details of the shooting remain uncertain. Some claim that Beal gave the strikers orders to shoot. “Do your duty,” they quote Beal as saying before the bullet ripped into the chief’s back. None of the policemen can identify who fired the deadly bullet. The strikers say they had shot in self-defense, and that the bullet that killed the chief came from an officer who had not been injured.
Too lateThe caravan — 105 cars deep and led by a motorcycle policeman — speeds through Gastonia traffic lights on September 9. The passengers wave American flags and honk their horns, making straight for the NTWU headquarters. The law has just declared a mistrial in Aderholt’s murder trial. And though a second trial is scheduled for later in the month, members of the Committee of One Hundred — the name given to the antistrike group — think it’s time to take matters into their own hands.
They ransack union headquarters and head to a union boardinghouse. Singing hymns, they drag three organizers down the stairs, wrap them in American flags, and stuff them into a car. In the woods outside of Concord, the group starts beating a striker. A couple of farmers out opossum hunting break up the fight, sending the dazed and wounded union members scrambling to the train station. Three days later, state police arrest 14 people for the crime. The Loray Mill posts each suspect’s $1,000 bond.
Not wanting to back down, the NTWU and the Communist Party announce plans for a mass rally in South Gastonia on September 14. But party leaders hear reports of larger and angrier antistrike crowds. One antistrike worker at Loray later testifies that a mill security officer handed him a gun and 20 bullets that morning, telling him to “do everything necessary to break up the union meeting.”
At the last minute, NTWU calls off the rally. But it is too late.
Over in Bessemer City, a couple dozen strikers haven’t heard the news. Wiggins is preparing to sing at the rally. Her group piles into the bed of a hired truck and heads toward Gastonia. Before they can get there, though, a band of men tells them to return to Bessemer City.
The driver turns around, but as he drives away, several cars follow him closely, and then cut him off. He slams into the back of one of the cars, sending many in the group flying onto the highway. That’s when the shooting starts. A bullet slices through Wiggins and lodges into her spine as she stands in the truck bed. She dies in Charlie Shope’s arms.
Some jailed, some free
The strike never recovers from Wiggins’s death. Less than two weeks later, the union abandons Loray, telling the remaining tent colony residents to move on. A Baptist minister presides over Wiggins’s funeral, and her surviving children move into the Presbyterian orphanage at Barium Springs.
The jury takes less than an hour to return guilty verdicts for seven of the original 16 strikers charged with Chief Aderholt’s murder. While evidence favors the defense, one witness’s profession of atheism costs them. In closing arguments, prosecutors call the defendants a “traitorous crowd, coming from hell.” Beal’s sentence is 17 to 20 years. Meanwhile, in Concord, it takes 45 minutes for the jury to acquit the men accused of beating the strikers.
By November, Horace Wheelus emerges as the main suspect in Wiggins’s death. Loray Mill pays his $5,000 bond. He and four others face trial in February. Several witnesses, including Charlie Shope, place Wheelus at the scene. Shope testifies in the same bloody shirt he was wearing the day of the shooting. In the end, the jury takes less than 30 minutes to acquit Wheelus and the others. No one else is ever charged.
Forget and move on
With the union gone and the strikers blacklisted from working at local mills, many grow destitute. Even the Daily Gazette takes pity, offering Christmas turkeys and a few presents to some that year. Some strikers move back to the farms or to mills in other states, out of reach of the blacklists. Many of the remaining Gaston County workers blame the union. When the NTWU tries to organize a strike at a Bessemer City mill in 1930, the workers run them out of town, twice.
The strike inspires six novels in the coming few years. In Gastonia, though, it seems people want to forget. Filmmakers hoping to make a documentary about the strike in the 1980s have trouble finding willing interviewees. In 1986, a proposal to create a historical marker is still controversial. Some want the marker to ignore the deaths and mark the site where “local citizens defeated the first Communist efforts to control southern textiles.”
In April 2013, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History unveils the marker commemorating the event. It’s taken 27 years to approve 21 words: “A strike in 1929 at the Loray Mill, 200 yards S., left two dead and spurred opposition to labor unions statewide.”
The Full Story
John Salmond’s book, Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), is the most comprehensive narrative history of what happened in Gastonia the year of the strike. Using local newspapers as well as union records, it tells the story of Gastonia, the mill, and the strike with balance and detail. To order, visit uncpress.unc.edu.
This story originally appeared under the name “Strike!” in the magazine.
Chuck McShane is a freelance writer in Davidson with a Master of Arts in history from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His most recent story for Our State was “Rose Hill” (January 2014).