Loray Mill in Gastonia was the largest mill under one roof in the South when it began operating in 1902. It soon was the center of labor unrest, which intensified after an expansion in 1921. In 1997, N&O writer Eric Frederick took a look back at "one bloody spring and summer in 1929, Communism came to the Bible Belt."
"To hell with the bosses! Come on the line! Stick together and win this time!" Off-duty night-shift workers hollered the chant to their compatriots inside, many of whom yelled down that they'd been locked in but would join them at nightfall. After the shift change at 6 p.m. on April Fools' Day, 1929, more than half of the 2,200 employees at the world's largest textile mill were on strike.
When fights broke out on the picket line the next day, Gov. O. Max Gardner, himself a mill owner, sent in the National Guard, and Gastonia was statewide front-page news.
The firebrand was Fred Beal, a 33-year-old labor organizer from Massachusetts who, with a shock of red hair dangling over his forehead, looked more like Huck Finn than a rabble-rouser. But the workers hadn't needed much of a push.
The textile industry was in a recession. Too many plants had been built. Rayon was raiding the cotton market. On top of that, skirts got shorter.
So the workers - those who weren't laid off - took pay cuts but were given more machines to load, tend, oil, clean and unload. Some joked that they needed roller skates to do the job. If you worked the day shift at Loray, you were there 11 hours a day, six days a week. The night shift was 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., five days. For that, most workers got less than $20 a week, minus the $2 rent on their house, which the mill owned. In 1927, Manville-Jenckes, the Rhode Island company that owned Loray, cut $500,000 from the plant's labor costs. The mill manager was ordered to make it a million.
So when Beal came to town the workers were chafing. The year before, some had marched the mile into downtown bearing a coffin that held a man dressed as the mill manager. He'd sit up occasionally and say, "How many men are carrying this thing?" When the answer came back, "Eight, " he'd bellow, "Lay off two! Six can do the work."
Still, anti-union sentiment was powerful among the transplanted farmers and hill folk who made cotton yarn at Loray. Other organizers hadn't garnered their trust. But Beal had worked in mills himself, and his roots showed. He wore the same blue serge suit nearly every day, a suit so timeworn it had a shine. And his timing was good; things had gotten worse at Loray.
At 2 a.m. on April 19, two strikers roused Beal. "They've smashed our headquarters, " they yelled.
Beal hustled to the union's rented shack a few blocks from Loray and found what was left. Vigilantes had hacked it down, wrecked the mimeograph machine, hauled the food supply into the street and poured kerosene on it. The National Guard troops had stood by until the deed was done, and then moved in - arresting the six strikers who had tried to guard the place.
Mill owners and their supporters had formed a vigilante band called the Committee of One Hundred - the Black Hundred, strikers called it. From then on, violence escalated between strikers on one side and the police, militia and townspeople on the other. The City Council banned parading, and when strikers still marched many were beaten and arrested. Ada Howell, who was 50, was on her way to get food one day when deputy G.B. Prather beat her on the head and cut her with a bayonet. She was found wandering the streets, dazed.
Then, one rainy week in early May, the company started evicting strikers and their families from the mill village. Homeless for a few days, they finally secured a nearby vacant lot, put up tents and built a new wooden office for the union.
Out of necessity rather than ideology, the tent colony became a sort of commune. The strikers grew some vegetables. There was a playground for the kids, a barber's tent, even a baseball team, with "NTWU" sewn over some old Loray jerseys. And there were the "speakin's" - the strikers' name for the regular mass meetings called by the union.
At the speakin's there were strike reports, indoctrination and folk protest songs, many of them written and sung by one of the strikers, Ella May. Ella would hang around the union office every day, chewing tobacco and scrawling poems on the back of union leaflets until someone asked her to sing.
Ella was born in Sevierville, Tenn., in 1900, while the brick was being laid for Loray 150 miles away over the Blue Ridge. Her family farmed until they could coax no more from the rocky soil, and then worked in the brief Appalachian timber boom, barely scraping by. Ella's parents were dead by the time she was 19, and her husband, a shiftless charmer named John Wiggins, left her after their eighth child was born in 1926. Now she was in the Piedmont, trying to make it on her own in the factories.
She worked the night shift at American Mills, five miles up the road from Loray in Bessemer City, and was anything but an average white Southern woman of the time. Black workers were her friends; she even lived among them in a clump of shanties called Stumptown.
She reverted to her maiden name when Wiggins left her, and when her ninth child was born in 1928, she freely listed the father as her lover, Charley Shope. She seldom prettied herself up; her face, framed by bobbed brown hair, was already wrinkled and thin. She was who she was, take her or leave her. Four of her kids had died, and she was bent on finding a better life for the rest.
Every evening when she went to work, her eldest, Myrtle, who was 11 in '29, was left in charge of the house. One morning when Myrtle was 8, Ella ran home after work to find her patting the 1-year-old, Guy, on the back, trying to wake him. But the boy wouldn't stir.
The cause of death was pellagra, a disease of the malnourished.
Ella blamed the mill owners for her kids' deaths, and she joined a brief NTWU walkout at American before pouring her energy into the movement at Loray. The union was the first thing that gave her real hope.
"We all got to stand for the union, " she'd plead at a speakin', "so's we can do better for our children, and they won't have lives like we got."
And she would sing.
Solidarity was building on both sides, and so was the tension. On the night of June 7 came the clash that put Gastonia in headlines around the world.
When officer Charles Ferguson picked up the phone at the police station at a quarter to 9, a woman was hollering that there was trouble at the tent colony. Chief Orville Aderholt put on his ten-gallon hat, but Ferguson, who had monitored some of the speakin's and feared that things were turning nasty, told him: "Chief, you ain't got no business going out there tonight."
"Let's go, " Aderholt said.
When policemen got to the union shack, they asked what the trouble was. "Nothing we can't handle, " came the reply, and the officers turned away. Suddenly gunfire shattered the night, ricocheting off the police cars, splintering wood and blasting out the windows of the union office. No one is sure who fired first, but when the battle ended, Aderholt had been hit in the back. Ferguson, two other officers and a striker were wounded.
"I'm done for, " Aderholt told his men. At the hospital five hours later, he recited the Lord's Prayer, sang "Nearer My God To Thee" with his wife and then died about 2 a.m., the Gazette reported.
It added: "The blood of these officers shot in the dark from behind cries aloud. This display of gang law must not go unavenged."
Mobs took the streets. Citizens were deputized, and they went on a rampage, tearing down the tent colony, scouring the mill village for union members and bringing some of them to the police station bruised and bloodied. Ella May's well water was poisoned.
Beal fled to Spartanburg but soon was arrested, along with about 75 others. Eventually 16 of them - Beal, 12 other men and three women - were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
But the prosecution's case was weak; it couldn't link anyone to the shot that killed Aderholt. At one point, a wax effigy of the chief, wearing his trademark hat and blood-stained clothes, was wheeled into the courtroom, bringing a wail from his widow. One juror, a newspaper vendor named J.G. Campbell, had a mental breakdown and had to be confined to a cell, where he cried out to be shot, to be released, to be buried with his face down.
A mistrial was declared Sept. 9.
Hysteria gripped Gastonia again; it seems the townsfolk feared the defendants would never be convicted. Three NTWU organizers were kidnapped and beaten. The union circled the wagons, calling for a speakin' at the new tent colony in south Gastonia on Saturday evening, Sept. 14.
Ella May got up a truckload of 23 workers from Bessemer City to ride to the rally, and she insisted that they go unarmed.
When they were stopped at a roadblock by a gang of armed men, the truck turned back for Bessemer City, but five cars started pursuing it. At Gambles' Crossing, one of the cars surged past the truck and blocked its path. As the men piled out of the cars, gunfire rang through another evening, and a bullet tore through Ella May's aorta.
"Oh my Lord, they done shot and killed me, " she cried, and she dropped into Shope's arms. The passionate voice of the Loray strikers then fell silent. What was left of the strike died with her. -- The News & Observer 4/27/1997