|Birth: ||Sep. 22, 1900|
|Death: ||Sep. 14, 1929|
North Carolina, USA
In her short twenty-nine-year life, Ella May Wiggins, a native of Sevierville, Tennessee, became a symbol of hope, activism, and the labor cause. Born September 17, 1900, she grew up in a poor family, always moving between logging camps. Her mother died when she was eighteen; her father, the following year. She married John Wiggins soon after and had a baby within a year. Her husband suggested they move to a town with a textile mill so that they would have a regular income. Their move to Cowpens, South Carolina, marked the beginning of Wiggins's difficult mill career and her first knowledge of the need for workplace reform.
The Wiggins family soon moved to another mill town, where Ella May Wiggins had seven more children, four of whom died in early childhood. During pregnancies, she continued to work in a textile mill, often on twelve-hour shifts. Around 1926 the family moved to Gaston County, North Carolina, when John Wiggins abandoned them. She rented a shack in an African American neighborhood outside Bessemer City known as Stumptown, where her neighbors looked after her children as she worked as a spinner at American Mill No. 2. She worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, earning about nine dollars a week.
It was during this time that Southern textile mill wages and working conditions were declining and worker dissatisfaction was increasing. In an effort to increase profits, mill managements throughout the region began increasing worker hours without raising wages, a practice known as a "stretch-out." Aware of these conditions, the Communist-run National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) sent Fred E. Beal, a skilled union organizer, to Charlotte. He was able to organize a small union in the Loray mill in Gastonia. In April 1929 the Loray workers began a strike, prompting workers at five other nearby mills to walk off their jobs. Soon there were about a thousand striking workers. Violence began between the strikers and city police and the police chief was killed on June 7. Sixteen unionists were charged with the killing; six were later found guilty on conspiracy to murder.
Unions and Communism were closely linked during the late 1920s, and sentiments ran high against both throughout North Carolina. In addition, local government officials and mill owners were reluctant to give up any power to a union. Despite these odds and their inherent dangers, Ella May Wiggins was an ardent unionist who had a reputation for not backing down from a fight. She learned organizational and strike tactics, became a union bookkeeper, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify about labor practices in the South. Her own story made her most powerful testimony: "I'm the mother of nine. 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." After she spoke, she sang powerful ballads. Her best-known song, "A Mill Mother's Lament," was sung to the tune of a 1913 ballad:
We leave our homes in the morning
We kiss our children goodbye
While we slave for the bosses
Our children scream and cry…
But understand all, workers
Our union they do fear,
Let's stand together, workers,
And have a union here.
Wiggins also tackled a task that fellow unionists had shunned: organizing African American workers. Racism was rampant in Gastonia, as elsewhere in the state and the South, in the late 1920s, but Wiggins didn't believe in segregation and knew it was important for all mill workers to unite for their cause. In one instance, Wiggins stepped over a rope separating African American and white workers at a union meeting and sat with the African Americans. In a close vote, her local NTWU branch voted to admit African Americans to the union.
Because of her association with the NTWU and with African Americans, Wiggins was in danger from those against her causes. Receiving threats and having the water in her spring poisoned, however, did not stop Wiggins's activism. On September 14, 1929, she and other union members drove in a truck to Gastonia for a union meeting. As they arrived in town, an armed mob made them turn back. They had driven about five miles toward home when a car blocked their passage. Armed men jumped out and began shooting. Wiggins was shot in the chest and killed. Wiggins's words about her strong convictions, "They'll have to kill me to make me give up the union," proved prophetic.
Five men were indicted for Wiggins's murder but were acquitted after less than thirty minutes of deliberation in a trial in Charlotte in March 1930. The NTWU and North Carolina mill workers, however, made sure her death was not in vain. They hailed Wiggins as a martyr for the labor reform cause and began to pressure management even harder for better working conditions, with some eventual success: the work week was eventually red
ELLA MAE'S GRANDSON, VICTOR, IS MY BROTHER'S BEST FRIEND AND HAS BEEN FOR OVER 40 YRS.
Posted Charlotte Observer:
Their paths crossed on separate journeys into the world of Ella May Wiggins, union activist and ballad singer killed during Gastonia's 1929 Loray Mill strike.
The grandson, who heard that his uncle guarded her body so vigilantes wouldn't steal it.
The college teacher, inspired by a legendary textile figure who spoke up for the rights of workers, women and black people.
Victor Wiggins of Gastonia heard Roxanne Newton's program on his grandmother last year at the Gaston County Museum of Art & History in Dallas.
Newton, who teaches at Statesville's Mitchell Community College and wrote a book on Southern women workers on strike, will repeat her program at the Gaston museum next Saturday.
She wants to help Wiggins, 54, reunite family members, and she's also writing a play about his grandmother.
"It's a compelling story, one that people can relate to in this day and time," said Newton, director of the Humanities and Fine Arts Division. "This all took place during a period of lost manufacturing and layoffs, a lot of greedy employers and people who were struggling. It's still relevant today."
Hungry to talk
During the spring of 1929, Wiggins got caught up in the Loray strike as workers reacted to declining pay and poor working conditions. Another issue was recognition of the Communist-affiliated National Textiles Workers Union. When mill management refused to negotiate, community tensions grew.
Gastonia Police Chief O.F. Aderholt was shot dead that June when he and his officers went to the union hall. On Sept. 24, gunmen killed Wiggins when a truck carrying her and others to a union meeting ran into a roadblock between Gastonia and Bessemer City
The granddaughter of Mooresville mill workers, Newton, 51, became interested in the Gastonia strike when she read Olive Tilford Dargan's novel "Call Home the Heart" as a student at UNC Charlotte.
The story is about a woman's struggles in the mountains and mills, much like what Ella May Wiggins experienced.
Newton, the granddaughter of Mooresville mill workers, got a grant three years ago from the N.C. Humanities Council and began taking her Ella May Wiggins program around the region.
"People have really responded," Newton said. "They come up and tell me their stories about mill life. So many are hungry to talk about it."
Victor Wiggins came to Newton's program last year to learn more about events that had long haunted his family.
His grandmother was 29 when she died. Her five children, including Victor Wiggins' father, Albert, were sent to orphanages.
"Dad never wanted to talk about his mother," Wiggins said. "People would talk about her being a Communist and he'd get upset. He was kind of bitter. Her death hurt him more than anybody."
Growing up, Wiggins heard his aunt Myrtle Bolch tell about her mother not having enough money to buy medicine for the children.
She remembered Ella May Wiggins crying in a chair while she rocked a baby who'd died of pneumonia.
Victor Wiggins also heard that after she died his uncle stayed up all night at the funeral home with a shotgun.
A plain field rock marked Ella May Wiggins' grave in the city-owned Bessemer City Cemetery. Then, in 1979, the AFL-CIO erected a marker with an inscription: "She died carrying the torch of social justice." (Wiggins' middle name is misspelled on that stone.)
The story began to hit home for Victor Wiggins after his father's death in 1986. But other key relatives were gone, along with rare family photos and original copies of his grandmother's ballads such as "The Mill Mother's Lament."
In his research, Victor Wiggins had to rely on books, articles and programs like the one Newton did at the Gaston museum. He and his daughter plan to examine orphanage records - hoping to better document the family story.
"I want all the information I can find about my grandmother," Wiggins said. "She was a brave person to do what she did. And I'm proud of her."
LABOR DEFENSE THANKED
CHARLOTTE, N.C., Nov. 15. (U.P) -
A letter of thanks has been forwarded to the New Hampshire International Labor Defense, expressing appreciation of the Bessemer City branch for a monument for the grave of Ella May Wiggins, who was killed while en route to a labor rally last September 14.
The Anniston Star; Anniston, Alabama.
November 15, 1929; Page Eleven.
dm wms (#47395868)
name: Ella May Wiggins
death date: 14 Sep 1929
death place: Crowders Mt., Gaston, North Carolina, United States
age at death: 28y 11m 17d
spouse: John Wiggins
mother: Katherine Maples
Myrtle Wiggins Bolch (1918 - 1969)*
Albert McFalls Wiggins (1926 - 1986)*
Bessemer City Memorial Cemetery
North Carolina, USA
Created by: Elizabeth
Record added: Oct 11, 2006
Find A Grave Memorial# 16145322