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Ella May Wiggins: Textile Balladeer/Martyr, 1929

By the start of the 20th century, the textile industry in the southern United States was expanding rapidly due access to the raw materials and the low cost of non-union labor.  Gaston County, North Carolina was the epicenter of this industry.  The number of spindles in Gaston County mills grew from 30,000 in 1848 to 1.3 million in 1930.  The county seat, Gastonia, grew from 236 people in 1877 to over 30,000 in 1930; many of these were mountaineers who could no longer make a living farming their exhausted soil.  Although African Americans made up about 15% of the county's population, few were allowed to work in the mills.

Working conditions were dangerous and wages, except for a short time during and after America's entry into World War I, were low.  In 1926, a Southern textile worker earned an average of $15.81 for a 55-hour week, compared to the $21.49 earned by his or her Northern counterpart for a 48-hour week.  Child labor was common.

The Loray Mill, Gastonia's largest, was the first in the country owned and operated by Northern investors seeking to exploit the benefits of the Appalachian "poor white" labor pool.  The Loray Mill was also the first  to use Frederic Taylor's "scientific management" techniques.  Among the workers, this increase in the number of machines each operator was responsible for was known as the "stretch-out," and it became widely hated as the practice spread to most other mills.  In early 1929, textile workers' anger boiled over, and against violent opposition by mill owners and their law enforcement and political agents (including North Carolina's governor, himself a mill owner), they started to organize.

Ella May Wiggins, a mill worker in her 20s with nine children, became widely known during the Loray Mill strike as a labor organizer.  Though she was white, she lived in an African American neighborhood and was among the very few who tried to organize black workers.  She had a clear alto voice and wrote many songs emphasizing the mill workers' plight; it was said that one of her songs had more impact than a hundred speeches.

This scenario shows the Loray Mill strike from the organizing that began in the spring of 1929, through the strike itself, the trials of the strikers, the murder of Ella May Wiggins while en route to a strike rally, and the eventual investigation of her murder.

To make a copy of this scenario, click here.  

Explore the scenario for yourself:

Click on the timeline box in the upper left and select Early strike (March - May).  Use the right arrow key on your computer keyboard to advance from one event to the next; use the left arrow key to go back to the previous event.  Click on an event place mark or area to see the details of the event.  When you get to the end of that timeline, click on the timeline box and select Arrest & trial (June - July) and go through the same procedure.  Then do the same for the remaining two timelines.  Watch for small blue buttons with arrows in them at the four corners of the map pane, or in the middle of the top, bottom, left, or right sides; these mean that an event is happening outside your view.  In that case, zoom out to see the event or click on the button for History in Motion to zoom out for you.