The following article contains anti-Black racial slurs.
Publisher’s Note: The Gastonia textile strike was part of a larger phenomenon rising from the tensions of the industry’s rapid and disruptive development throughout the South. After World War I, northern interests increasingly gained ownership of southern mills and relocated other shops to the region to take advantage of cheap labor. The number of spindles in Gaston County, N.C., grew from 3000 in 1848 to 1,200,000 in 1930 making it first in the state and the South, and third in the nation. The town of Gastonia swelled from 236 in 1877 to 30,000 in 1930, primarily from the influx of mountaineers exchanging their exhausted land for jobs in the new factories. Although blacks made up 15 per cent of the population of the county, few were allowed to work in the mills.
The Loray Mill, Gastonia’s largest, was the first in the county to be owned and operated by Northerners seeking the benefits of a “poor white” labor pool. In 1926, a southern textile worker earned an average of $15.81 for a 55-hour week compared to the $21.49 for a 48-hour week earned by his or her New England counterpart. The Loray mill was also the first in the South to undergo new “scientific management” techniques designed to fully exploit this labor savings. The “stretch-out” (increasing the work-load per operator by speed-ups rather than technology) was introduced in the Loray Mill in 1927, and soon became as widespread as the northern ownership of southern mills. In early 1929, the anger and bitterness of thousands of textile workers exploded in mill towns throughout the region. Five thousand workers, mostly women, in Elizabethton, Tennessee, led the wave of walk-outs in March, 1929, that quickly spread to the Carolinas. The Gastonia strike at Loray Mills is the most famous of that movement.
For other materials written on the Gastonia strike, including six novels inspired by its drama, see the recent article by Theodore Draper, “Gastonia Revisited,” in Social Research, Vol. 38 (Spring, 1971), pp. 3-29. The summary above is derived from the same source.
The following article was compiled from the unpublished autobiography and recent interviews of Vera Buch Weisbord, a major organizer of the Gastonia strike. The photographs of the period come from her personal collection. The editors’ commentary is set in regular type, while portions from Vera’s autobiography are in italic type, and the text from the interview is in smaller, regular type.
The Firestone Company’s machines still grind away in the red brick building in Loray Village on Gastonia’s west side. The small windows are covered by the same bar-like vents that enclosed them in 1929, and a ten-foot high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire has been added. The history of textile workers continues to be taught from the top down. When the sons and daughters. Of mill workers attending Rosary College inquire about the Loray struggle of 1929, the local Chamber of Commerce brings in a former city policeman who was on the mill’s security force during the strike. “Judge” Joe Separk’s definitive History of Gaston County barely mentions the strike.
Today, of the 130 textile plants employing 28 to 30 thousand workers in Gaston County, only one small factory is organized. Fred Ratchford, executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and himself a longtime employee of Burlington Industries—the world’s largest textile company—said of the 1929 strike in Loray, “One good thing about it is that there have been several efforts to organize here in the plants and not a one has been successful. Some of the old folks in the plants remember that earlier time.”
“That earlier time” described here by Vera Buch has not changed much. Just over a decade ago, the longest strike in North Carolina history occurred at the Henderson cotton mills. This strike brought a violent reaction on the part of “law and order” forces—mill owners and state law enforcement personnel—who crushed the strike and imprisoned Textile Workers Union of America southern district director Boyd Payton for four years on a trumped-up conspiracy charge. (See Scapegoat by Boyd Payton, 1970.) Only in the final days of his administration did Governor Terry Sanford, the state’s most liberal governor of the century, dare to pardon Payton. Even Sanford might not so easily have defied the textile interests if he had not had the public support of evangelist Billy Graham.
The viciousness of the mill owners’ resistance to textile organizing since the late 1920’s has discouraged workers’ efforts in the Carolinas to the present. Now TWUA has mounted a sustained effort against the textile magnates, particularly the Burlington and Cone Mill families. Notable victories were made recently in the Oneita Knitting Mills in Andrews and Lane, South Carolina, and in several Greensboro, North Carolina plants. As workers and their children learn the history of earlier organizing efforts, they will gain strength for their continuing battle with the textile bosses. As a TWUA official in the Charlotte district office told us, “Half the importance in winning a strike is in the telling of its history so that we learn from it.”
Several authors, among them Mary Heaton Vorse, Fred Beal and Tom Tippitt, have presented the Gastonia strike from a point of view sympathetic to the Loray Mill workers. Vorse and Tippitt were journalists who covered the strike and trial. Beal was a principal organizer.
Now some forty-odd years after the strike, Vera Buch Weisbord is writing her memoirs, which include her recollections of those days as an organizer in Gastonia, of the perpetual poverty and disease in the Loray mill village, of the strengths and weaknesses of the strikers and organizers, and of the struggles within the Communist Party which made her role as an organizer exceedingly difficult.
Her early life, her work in the coalfields with the Save the Miners Union Committee, her struggles as a textile organizer, and her subsequent years as a writer and artist are part of a book now in progress. Vera is eager to correspond with others who shared her experiences at Gastonia and elsewhere and is seeking a publisher for the manuscript due to be completed in the next six months.
Born in Connecticut, Vera Buch moved with her family to New York City at the age of four, there to grow up in the city’s tenements. She knew poverty as a child. Her father worked at seasonal jobs and often the family did not have enough to eat, and they paid rent when they could. After several years as an honor student at Hunter High School and College in New York City, Vera was stricken with tuberculosis and spent some time in a sanatorium. There she met a young woman Socialist Party member, and began to develop a political analysis of the causes for the poverty her family and millions of other working people knew. When she recovered, she joined the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and later the Communist Party when it was formed in 1919. Due to her party membership and her work in the Passaic, New Jersey, textile strike of 1926, she became one of the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) organizers of the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile strike of 1929, NTWU’s major attempt to organize in the South. Gastonia and Gaston County still stand as a prime example of the vicious anti-unionism which has not been broken to this day.
The urgency of events in Gastonia of 1929 kept an organizer busy meeting the day-to-day crises of the Loray Mill strikers. The moments of high excitement and the days and weeks of patient working with the textile workers, building mutual confidence and establishing a working relationship, are recorded by Vera Buch with an artist’s attention to detail and richness of expression. Though the events of the strike have been recorded before, Buch writes and talks with the intimacy of a leading participant.
The National Textile Workers’ Union is Created
In the fall of 1928 we organized the National Textile Workers Union. There had been preparatory work. A lot of work was done in Passaic, New Jersey. The work was all done under the name of the United Front Committee of Textile Workers. We had a situation in which we had a few scattered unions of textile workers but only of the skilled. Some were in the A.F. of L.; some were not. But in any case they1 had no interest in organizing the unskilled, who in most cases were foreign born. The A.F. of L. bureaucrats thought they were “just so many ignorant foreigners, why bother with them?” The dues they could pay would be very small. It is work, you know, to get off your ass in the office and get out and organize. Nobody wanted that work.
But there were a few people in New England who did want to do that work and got together and formed this United Front Committee of Textile Workers. My husband, Albert Weisbord, was the chief inspirer. Some preliminary work had been done in New York, in Brooklyn where there were some knit goods shops, in Philadelphia where there were carpet shops and hosiery shops, and in the anthracite regions with silk workers. They had a good gathering of delegates and formed this National Textile Workers Union.
Decision to Organize Loray Mill
Now Albert had been doing a lot of intensive research on the industry and found how much of it was located in the South. At one particular time, wage cuts were being given on wages that were already pitifully low and there was stretch-out, you know they call it speed-up in the North. Where already the speeding up of the work was very great, they increased that, giving them the double speed, you see. And it was just too much. The workers were walking out in spontaneous strikes. And Albert felt this Loray Mill in Gastonia had a bad reputation because they made no effort to build up a permanent work force by being decent, by being a little bit decent. And there was great discontent in the Loray Mill and in all the region as well. So the first convention of the National Textile Workers (fall of 1928) stated that it would begin some work in the South. In January Fred Beal went down to Charlotte and spent his evenings going out to the Loray village and knocking on doors and talking to the workers about the union and signing them up. Then they fired a couple of union people, so he called a mass meeting and had a big attendance. Over a thousand came out and signed up and the strike was decided on then and there.
On April 2, 1929, workers in the Loray Mill, owned by the Manville-Jenckes Company of Rhode Island, went out on strike. Within two days, the governor sent in the National Guard, and Vera Buch was on her way south by train to shore up the NTWU staff in Gaston County. Buch’s first task, according to national secretary Weisbord, was to repair the damage done to union efforts among black workers. In nearby Bessemer City, George Pershing, a Young Communist League (YCL) organizer had bowed to white workers’ demands and strung a rope between blacks and whites. The blacks did not return to future meetings.
Matchboxes on Stilts
Weary and rumpled, huddled in the coach seat where I had spent the night, I was peering bleary-eyed at the Piedmont landscape speeding by in the gray pre-dawn. This was the 5th of April, 1929, and my destination was Gastonia, North, Carolina. Already I had glimpsed an occasional mill village and now as the rising sun reached with long fingers across the low hills green with spring, sparkling with orchards in bloom, the landscape was dotted with such villages, for right here was the biggest yarn center in the South. “Matchboxes on stilts” came to my mind as I watched the mill cottages swiftly pass out of sight through the Piedmont: flimsy structures elevated on posts, some painted white, others dilapidated.
My heart was beating faster as I thought that here I would have to be the principal organizer, a leader. I would have to be right up on the platform making speeches to rouse the workers, there would be no more shrinking in the background. That I would be firm in my duty I knew, that I had native intelligence I knew, and I hoped now I had experience enough to be able to solve the numerous daily problems. When a big roadside sign sped by —“Gaston County, Combed Yarn Center of the South”—I was all excitement.
Welcome to the War
Ellen Dawson, whom 1 hadn’t seen since Passaic, came running down the platform to greet me. She was a little sprite-like young woman of about 28, with black cropped hair, a Scotch accent, and merry, twinkling brown eyes. She was obviously glad to see me.
“They came yesterday,” she said, indicating the state troopers, tents and numerous young men in uniform. Already we had reached the Loray village which was just outside Gastonia. There loomed the mill, dull red brick standing on a low hill, jail-like like any textile mill, about five stories high with narrow windows. In front of it were the commissary and the office building with a walk between them coming down from the front gate of the mill. Tents of the National Guard were set up to one side on the lawn. At the sight of the troopers I felt certain qualms, which I quickly suppressed, telling myself, “They'll be here, better get used to them.” Down the main street, we passed a row of nondescript buildings to the right. “That’ll be our relief store,” Ellen said as we passed a brick building, somewhat better than the others. Now at last our headquarters: a tiny dilapidated unpainted shack at the end of the row and in the doorway Fred Beal, grinning broadly, waiting to greet us. I met him for the first time; a stocky fellow of thirty-five with reddish blond hair, very blue eyes with pale lashes standing out against his sunburn. He looked naive and friendly; I could see he was a good man for the first contact with the workers. He presented me to some of the strikers who were standing about in the dim interior; then we three went into a tiny office partitioned off to the right of the doorway.
Again I had missed the beginning of the strike: the great outpouring of thousands of cheering joyful people released temporarily from slavery. The strike was, however, still young and that special exhilaration that accompanies the successful opening of a strike was still apparent here in Loray. It was in Ellen Dawson’s smile, in her voice, her gestures; it was in Beal, too, was in the freshness of the morning and the vitalizing power of the hot sun, in the suggestion of danger of the troopers. Soon it was in me, too, making my step lighter, wiping out the fatigue of a night sitting up on the train, eliminating all remnants of self-doubt so that I could gladly assume my responsibilities.
One very pressing matter now was the organization of the relief. Workers as poor as these, always in debt at the commissary—and surely no credit would be extended to strikers—could not hold out many days without help. We were lucky to have been able to have rented this poor place as headquarters, and a really nice big store for the relief had been obtained yesterday.
We were very unpopular in these parts. Beal took from the desk a copy of the Gastonia Daily Gazette, on the front page of which in livid red and black was a cartoon depicting a devil with horns; this was the union invading this peaceful Southern community. “You’ll die laughing,’’ said Beal. “We can’t wait to see these cartoons every day. They had one of me yesterday. We just laugh ourselves sick.”
Buch had met the strike organizers; now it was time to meet the strikers. The stories of these workers, written in lines of suffering on their faces and here recorded by Vera Buch, are a vivid tale of human oppression and the determination to fight back.
There were also children there. Little child workers. They were supposed to be age 14, but there were some who could never have been 14; they looked more like 10. There was a little girl named Binney Barnes. She was a little slip of a girl. Well, she had been working for two years already. She looked like 10, but, of course, they were undersized probably because they didn’t get enough to eat and enough rest. And there were other child workers, too. And to think that they had to work the same long hours. Oh yes, they were out on strike. The little girls were out on strike.
Some of the women had come directly from mountain homes to Loray; others had been mill workers out of work in South Carolina and even Georgia. It was the policy of Manville-Jenckes not to develop a permanent well-trained work force but to range far and wide in the poorest sections of the South to recruit helpless people whom they could get to work for the lowest wages. Those who were mountain-born retained some of the pride, vigor and independence of those people, but a generation or two as mill-hands, low-paid, sick, degraded and ignorant, reduced them to a sense of inborn inferiority.
Now the young girls. There was a group of girls of 16 to 18 years; there was something pathetic about them. One of them, I think her name was Violet, stood out as a staunch striker. Something I noticed about those people. Those who had been away from the mountains for a while, who had been in the mills for a time lost that independence, that proud spirit. This was very striking in many of them. And it was in those young girls.
They told how every unmarried woman or girl who wanted to get a job in the mill had to sleep with the bossman first.
That’s another aspect of slavery, because that’s the idea that the black woman was available to anybody. Now they were not black, but they were helpless and poor and they needed that job. So they were just taken advantage of.
Gladys Wallace stood out. She was a very sturdy type. She was a little stouter, a little fatter than most of the mill workers who were quite thin and gaunt. She was kind of easygoing. She was on the picket line, on the strike committee. She was always on hand at the meetings and everything.
Ella May Wiggins
Ella May Wiggins was one of the strongest of the strikers. She worked in the mill in nearby Bessemer City and contributed her will and her organizational abilities and ultimately her life to the cause of the strikers.
Little by little Ella May’s personal history came out. She had grown up and had married Wiggins "back in the hills” like so many others of these people. She had borne him nine children in ten years. Then with the last birth "Pappy done tuk off.” Ella May left then with her brood, coming to Bessemer City to work in the American Mill. The older children had to stay at home to care for the babies: “they couldn’t get no schoolin’!” Then came that dreadful time when the children were all down with croup. She had asked the bossman’s permission to stay home to care for them; this had been denied her. Four of them had died. Now with Cousin Charley’s help she was raising the remaining five.
Ella May was a buxom, vigorous woman of about thirty, with clear gray eyes and smooth light brown hair. She had the deep-toned chesty voice you often hear in Slavic women, not the rather thin high-pitched one generally heard in the South. There was something in her features and in Charley’s too that recalled a girl in the Sanatorium in New York, a native of Galicia [a part of Poland]. I asked Ella May bout her origin; sure enough, that was it. This was exceptional here where everyone was of English or Scotch-Irish extraction.
Ella May Wiggins has become a legendary figure in the history of labor struggles, and her songs have found a place in the legacy of fighting textile songs.
A Scab is Just a Hungry Worker
After a while, the bosses looked around and brought in some strike breakers. I hesitate to call them strikebreakers in such a situation. They are not told, “There is a strike there, and we want you to go in and work.” No! “We’ve got a job for you. You can earn fine money up there. Good steady work.” So then, of course, he comes, he gets the job, then he learns there is a strike, but he needs the money. He is far from home, and he may not feel that he has the possibility of walking out.
Troopers Charge Picketline
On the 4th of April they brought in troops supposedly to protect property—whose property soon became apparent! After the troops came in the strikers had a picket line, and immediately the picket line was beset by those state troopers who chased them—running in all directions. One woman was stuck in the arm with a bayonet.
The breaking up of the line aroused excitement and resentment. The men wanted to fight, but with guns. Beal reiterated patiently that they couldn’t carry guns; it wasn’t a battle. This was something new to me. I thought we’d have to thrash it out privately among the organizers, so I confined myself to some general remarks on the necessity of picketing as the chief reliance of a militant strike to keep the scabs out of the mill and show the boss we mean business. Ellen Dawson took the floor to tell how the picket lines in Passaic carried on determinedly despite beatings and police terror. There was no response except, “Just let us have our guns.” Those people were reserved, tight-lipped. We didn’t seem to get through to them. I felt a barrier as I looked at their blank faces, their dubious, unresponsive eyes. The strike meeting concluded.
Privately, Amy [Amy Schechter, the representative for International Workers' Aid], Ellen and I agreed that if Beal himself would say: “Boys, come out on the line with me,’’ they’d go, but this Beal with equal stubbornness refused to do. He was the strike leader, it was not his job to picket, so he maintained.
Beal’s refusal to picket and the men’s refusal to go without arms left the picket line—which bore the brunt of militia and police attacks prior to June 7—to women and children. The small number who actually picketed indicated that men frequently kept the rest of their families away from the line over the arms issue. In fact, there was no picket line between May 16 and June 7; during that time, it was abandoned in favor of talking individually to workers who were still going into the mill.
While the setting up of the relief office had greatly increased the mill workers’ confidence, still on this question of picketing we made no dent. So to strengthen our position, Tom Jimison, the lawyer from Charlotte, was called in to speak to the strike meeting. Once more the question was thrashed out, Jimison presenting the same reasons, but in the language spoken by the people. We had hoped the encouragement of a southerner might help, but no, the men remained obdurate. This controversy was to continue throughout this strike.
One thing I had noticed from the beginning was that the number of strikers was nowhere near what it must have been at the start. Beal had reported 1,000 people in attendance at the protest meeting called when the union members had been fired. On April 2nd when the mill was struck, close to 2,000 people had walked out, marching in a triumphant parade through the streets of Gastonia. Where were they all now? It was clear there were no 2,000 people here; there were no thousand people, a few hundred at best. What had happened?
Another mystery was the constitution of the strikers’ committee, this important body which met every morning at 9 o’clock. We would look over the faces, familiar now; sometimes some would be missing. Had those members gone in to scab? For us, the organizers, there was insecurity in this apparently shifting nature of our committee; we seemed to be walking on ground that gave way under our feet. Days would pass; then after a week or longer, when we had given them up, they would reappear cheerful and unconcerned. “Where were you? Did you go into the mill?’’ “No’m, I wasn’t scabbin’. I just went back to the hills to see my folks for a spell. Git me some home cookin’.’’ Or, “I done went in to work for a week, just to git me a bit of folding money.’’ Never for one moment did it occur to them to notify us of these departures. They were complete individualists, these hill people turned mill workers. The union was all right if it could win their strike, but of union discipline, of responsibility in the sense of asking permission to take such a vacation, they had no conception.
At least from those who had gone in to work we could get reports as to what was going on inside. It appeared the noise of activity, the lights, were largely bluff—some departments were completely empty, the machinery ran for nothing.
As for the missing hundreds, it was becoming clear that they had simply drifted on either to stay with relatives in the hills or had gone on to work in a mill elsewhere. They were not scabbing.
Only Women and Children
So our picket lines during April and May consisted of women and children. But we didn’t have very many because of this obstacle, this constant arguing with them about their guns. When a rumor went around that the mill was going to open up, we had to have a picket line. I led that picket line. With great effort we mobilized a small group of women and children. With Amy beside me, I headed the line marching down the broken sidewalk towards the mill which loomed up ahead to our right. We hadn’t gone far when we were met by Chief Aderholt of Gastonia and four or five troopers with drawn bayonets in a row behind him blocking the sidewalk. John Aderholt was a very tall, very lean and lanky man with the hard-bitten look of the South. He always wore a black suit and a big ten-gallon Texas hat. A short dialogue ensued between himself and me:
Chief: “Now where d’ yuh think y’all’s goin’?”
Vera: “We are carrying on a peaceful picket line.”
Chief: “This town has passed an ordinance against paradin’.”
Vera: “We are not a parade. We simply want to picket, to walk quietly up and down as we have a legal right to do.”
Chief: “Break it up, boys,” jerking an elbow.
Getting Acquainted in Jail
Our pickets scattered, the troopers after them. Amy and I stepped down to the roughly paved roadway and started towards the other side. The scene was a confused one as the women and children ran quickly back towards the headquarters, the troopers after them. A number of arrests were made, including Amy and myself. We were all herded into a waiting paddy wagon, driven into town and taken into what we learned later was Gaston County Jail. We went upstairs and were pushed all together into one large cell. The cell contained two cots with bare mattresses; behind a partition in back were a toilet and wash basin. There were perhaps eight or ten of us altogether. Gladys Wallace was one of them, and Violet the girl striker, and Mrs. McGinnis, and other women who had been coming every day to the mass meeting since the beginning.
Some I knew by name, others not. We were held there all night, without supper. We remained excited and actually stayed up all night. Once in a while if one felt tired she would stretch out on a cot for a while; otherwise we squatted on the floor or perched on the edges of the cots. We sang a lot: “Solidarity Forever”, that Passaic battle hymn, the words of which we told them had been adapted by our own union leader, Albert Weisbord, the “Red Flag” and some Wobbly songs.
The strikers sang their own beautiful plaintive ballads, Barbry Allen and many more. It was a time too for unburdening a lot of grievances, personal histories and confessions, all very revelatory and important for Amy and myself. I wish I could remember all that was told, for we became much closer to the Loray strikers during that long night.
The women talked about the stretch-out, how you needed roller-skates to run from one side to another, you couldn’t cover so many. They talked about how their children would get sick and it was so hard to give them any care. They preferred the night shift, though it was twelve hours, but only five nights; that left you two days to catch up on the housework, the washin’ and a little cleanin’ maybe. That way you could give the kids a bit of care during the day. And when do you sleep? “Well, you try to ketch a little sleep durin’ the afternoon.”
Six Can Do It!
The jailed Loray strikers told a story about a superintendent they used to have. Oh, they hated that man, he was so mean. He didn’t know nothin’, but stretch-out; that was his middle name. The Loray workers held a parade through the streets of Gastonia; that was back a year or so ago. They carried a man in a coffin. He had a sign on him. Superintendent So and So. Eight men was carryin’ the coffin. Every once in a while the Superintendent would rise up in the coffin and say, “Six can do it,” and then two would drop out. Maybe that helped. They fired that man end of 1928; then they let down the stretch-out. We paraded again celebratin’.
On April 18th, I was away in Lexington. N.C., organizing. It was already quite late when a man came bringing a telephoned message. There had been a raid on our headquarters in Loray; a mob had come and had torn it down completely. I wanted to rush back immediately but the others convinced me it was not feasible. I was given a bed in one of the worker’s homes.
Returning next morning I found a good sized crowd at the spot where our little shack had stood. All were unharmed including the two unarmed guards who slept in the place. They had been simply overpowered and arrested. At the very last minute some of the troopers came down and arrested—who do you think? The marauders? No, the two guards who were being held there. They were let go in the afternoon and reported to us.
Some 15 to 20 masked men had come, the electricity in the village having been cut off first. With hatchets, pick axes and steel bars they had torn the house down. Our guards thought they had recognized some “laws” among them, also some Loray bossmen.
But this was not all. They had also raided the store which was our relief station. They had smashed one of the front windows to get in and had torn down our big union sign. This was more serious: we had some stocks of food there which they completely ruined; flour, rice and beans were strewn over the floor, some even in the street. Kerosene had been poured over the food. With dismay I saw this ruin. It was all a complete loss.
This shocking situation required some adjustments. There was nothing to salvage from the wrecked headquarters. They had set fire evidently to destroy what papers and union cards we had there. Chairs, benches, tables—all had been smashed. Luckily we had the other place, the store, which would now serve for all purposes. A lot of people piled in there and there was a great hubbub as they viewed the mess of our ruined food.
Beal reported he had sent a wire to New York advising the national office of this event. The ruined food would be replaced at once (luckily we had money in the bank for relief]. The mess in this hall and in the street would be left for the time being to be photographed. A press release would be drawn up by Amy Schechter and Beal to be sent out immediately.
A salient feature of this outrage was that the National Guard troops which had been called in ostensibly to “protect property,” who had been in their tents beside the Loray mill, half a block away from our shack, had made no effort whatever to interfere though the racket must surely have awakened them.
The Raid Turned to Advantage
In the long run, as it often happens, this excess brutality in the employers’ attacks rebounded to our interest. The spectacular nature of the raid resulted in publicity throughout the country, something which had been lacking before. Relief contributions began to increase. There was strong reaction among southern liberals. The Raleigh News and Observer, through its columnist Nell Battle Lewis, came out forcefully denouncing the raid. So, too, did the Greensboro Daily News and other important southern papers.
Even in Gastonia and in our immediate surroundings where except for the mill workers, the hostility had always been great, came some sign of improvement. A couple named Lodge who owned a big house between Loray Village and Gastonia came around offering help. Lodge was a union carpenter. His presence did not mean his union had changed its position of opposition, but he personally declared his sympathy for our cause. His wife Helen also proved most cooperative. They offered the use of their home for accomodating members of our staff. They also let us use a room for our staff meetings. Helen Lodge used to cook us a Sunday dimmer which we paid for, but such a dinner as was unobtainable anywhere around then. Another real godsend was that the owner of the little restaurant where we used to eat on Loray’s “main street” made us a generous offer: if we didn’t have the money to pay, any member of our staff could come in and eat without paying. This we sometimes took advantage of, though we always paid when we had the wherewithal.
Desertion in Battle
The two Young Communist League (YCL) members—Bill Siroka and George Pershing—who were organizing in Bessemer City and in Pineville managed to obtain authorization from New York City to leave their posts at a critical point—when the mills were about to reopen—and to return to New York for the YCL convention.
Pershing and Siroka took the evening train and were seen among us no more. I was assigned to take over both posts, since we were now only three organizers—Beal, Ellen and myself. I left that after¬ noon for Charlotte to meet with Greer (a textile worker who’d become acquainted with Beal) who took me out to Pineville the next morning. The mill was operating full blast. Left out and blacklisted were a handful of activists. Owing to our small forces, I had to tell them we could only continue their relief for a while, we could offer no other help. Then as soon as possible we went to Bessemer City to find the same situation. Here, however, the excluded group was larger—ten or a dozen, chiefly women. Among them a few real stalwarts: Ella May Wiggins, who was as good as an organizer or better; her cousin Charley; and a short, middle-aged man named Williams. So from then on I went down to Bessemer City every morning, holding picket lines, trying to encourage the strikers in organizing committees to keep in touch with those inside.
After a few turns around on the picket line, the women would complain of “bein’ all tah’d out.’’ I would ask them, “Didn’t you stand twelve hours every night in the mill?’’ But I couldn’t push them. Probably they were feeling the futility of the march, though here they were not entirely right. The sight of the excluded ones picketing was still a link with those inside which we needed to maintain.
This whole incident of Siroka and Pershing rankled with me. It was not simply that I was the fall guy taking over their very difficult situation. It was not merely that the two young men had deserted their post of duty. More than anything else I resented that they had authorization to do so by their leaders of the YCL.
The Loray Mill was not the only mill in Gaston County which NTWU sought to organize. Others were located in Pineville and in Bessemer City where Pershing had strung the rope between blacks and whites. Later, in Bessemer City, Ella May Wiggins made further attempts at black organizing. In addition, the organizers made a trip to Elizabethton, Tennessee, where a United Textile Workers Union (U.T.W.—A.F. of L.) strike had just failed.
One aspect of this Pineville situation was of great interest to me. It seems that in some past period the employers had experimented with Negro help. They had laid off the white workers, putting blacks in their places. Apparently after some time they concluded it didn’t work for they had fired the blacks and again all the help was white. This was all I could learn about the situation. Among the grievances of the strikers besides wage cuts and stretch-out was their being compelled to live in "nigger" cabins.
Meanwhile some independent organization work was being carried on by Ella May Wiggins. There had been and were a few Negro employees in the American Mill, not working on machinery but on heavy unskilled labor, cleaning, toting bales, etc. Ella May got around among them; she knew where they lived, for she lived there, too. “I know the colored don’t like us," she said once. “But if they see you’re poor and humble like themselves, they’ll listen to you.”
Now in Bessemer City there was a small factory, a waste mill, located near the American Mill. I used to see a few black women sitting in the doorway sorting over the heaps of rags. The pay for such a job must have been infinitesimal, perhaps three dollars a week. I stopped to speak to them once. It was strange talking to people who wouldn't look at me. Not one looked up from her work or gave any sign she knew someone was talking to her about a union that was for all the workers regardless of skin color, that might help her get more money.
Ella May thought she had enough cards signed among the blacks to call a meeting. I had to see a black barber man to get some information. He, too, wouldn’t look at me; with his eyes on the ceiling he said something like this:
“No’m. I didn't get to see that man Miz Ella May done tole me about. But we’s gon’ have a meetin’, shoh enuf."
When Albert Weisbord, national secretary of the National Textile Workers came down again, Ella Mae arranged a meeting with blacks in a place known as Stumptown.
Albert and I went down there in the early evening, walking out from Bessemer City along the railroad tracks for about a mile. The tracks ran between woods. The heat of the sun was tempered. It was good for us to be alone and once more to be engaged in work together. The place for the meeting was Stumptown, where the black folks lived. There was the railroad station, a little store and a number of cabins, all unpainted, some dilapidated, but hardly one that didn’t have flowers planted around it. Near the station house stood two black men by a wooden box. There was a group of at least fifteen standing at a distance, perhaps thirty feet away, eyeing us. Albert got up on the box and in his strong ringing voice urged them to come closer. And come closer they did, but not at once. Just gradually as he spoke, they edged nearer. Then by the time my turn came, they were around us in a circle. We shook hands when I got down. Now they were smiling, as we welcomed them t our union. It was something memorable for us. I can speak for myself; what I felt was the joy of reunion with members of a family long separated.
Crisis Follows Crisis
Now a couple of weeks later on the 6th of May came the bosses’ next blow. On that day they evicted a large number of strikers from their company-owned houses, 85 families in all. The sheriff of Gaston County came with some sworn-in deputies and without the slightest regard for crying babies, sick people, or resisting women, they set all the possessions in a heap outside and padlocked the doors. It was a scene of great confusion and distress. And for us a most serious problem. We didn’t have money to do much. Of course Beal immediately called the national secretary in New York and Albert said he would contact the relief organization whose province this was. Meanwhile, we tried desperately to find shelter for whomever we could and to get some tarpaulins or oilcloth to cover at least the beds. Some of the people managed to get back into the houses for the night, others crawled under the houses, set up about four feet on stilts, to lie on dry ground, but for most it was a time of hardship which they faced bravely. Many people came around to look—reporters and photographers. All we could do was to give encouragement that the relief man from New York would be here soon to take care of them.
Sure enough, on the next morning train came Alfred Wagenknecht, whom I had known in Passaic— vigorous, competent and cheerful as always, accompanied by his secretary Caroline Drew and national secretary Albert Weisbord. Our strike committee, staff and International Workers Aid head, and the National Secretary, got together for a very practical discussion. It was very clear that there was no possibility of placing the evicted families in houses since none were available. The only possibility was tents. Where could we rent a piece of land to place some tents? The strikers explained: Manville-Jenckes owned the land up to thistreet where we were. But this side of the street where our store stood, up to the railroad tracks and beyond where there were few streets and cottages, was called “free land.”
A committee was selected which left at once to scout for land. There was a flat field of good size at the edge of Loray Village where the woods began. Beyond the field ran a wooded gully with a little stream. This spot would do for the tents where the strikers could live. Then the idea arose that since we had this field for a small rent, we could build ourselves a new headquarters. There were plenty of men with building skills, and soon the welcome sound of hammers and saws rang out. The tents were pitched on the slope of the gully, out of sight from the field, a quiet private place where the families were moved in. Some kerosene stoves had to be bought for cooking, a pit dug and an outhouse erected downstream since they had to use the water. The cabin was neatly built, had a good smell of fresh-sawn lumber and was commodious enough. A small space was partitioned off in one corner for an office.
Now the question of defense became uppermost. We weren’t going to have this place destroyed like the other one. The strikers took great pride in this building erected by their own hands. They made a fine big union sign which we put up outside. The National Secretary made a public announcement that we would defend our new headquarters. Accordingly a letter was sent to Governor Gardner: “The strike committee took the matter up today and decided that it is useless to expect the one-sided Manville-Jenckes Law to protect the life and property of the many striking textile workers of Gastonia. Every striker is determined to defend the new union headquarters, at all costs.”
Receiving commitments that some workers would walk out if a strong picket line were established, Vera led other women and children in another attempt lawfully to picket the mill. The police attacked and dispersed this picket line at sundown and then assaulted union headquarters. No search warrant was obtained, for the intent was not to search but to destroy.
We were to organize committees to work on these people in the mill, to get them out in a rolling wave of strikes. This was Albert’s policy which would have been good if we could have carried it out. That is to say, to let them work for a while, then to come out on strike for a while in layers, some going back to work to earn a few dollars then coming out again. That is what we tried to do, to bring this second layer of workers out on strike.
All our hopes now were centered on the people working in the Loray Mill—that fortress that loomed always grim, dark red and jail-like as the backdrop of our drama, its machinery thudding night and day. The second strike, the new wave, pulling out those working inside whom I always hesitated to call scabs. Many had been brought from a distance, unaware of the strike. Even those who went back did so only under great pressure. Our committees reported many sympathizers for the union inside. Many had signed cards. Finally we set a definite date, a Friday evening, when pledges had been given to come out to join us if we would send a picket line to the gate to meet them.
I left the boarding house after supper that day, the seventh of June, to stroll down the unpaved street lined with a few little cottages, towards the headquarters. The mill was to my right, clattering away as usual. With the sun already set, the heat was tempered. The air was sweet with summer odors. Somewhere a radio sent out a sentimental tune of the day—"Carolina moon keep shining, shining on the one who waits for me."
A couple of days before, Mary Vorse had taken me aside to warn me very seriously of some trouble she was sure was brewing. "Somethin’s going to happen, Vera," she said, "and perhaps soon. I’ve been in so many of these situations, I can smell it. I smell danger here." I probably told her it had always been dangerous here, we had been threatened from the beginning. She insisted this was something special, a real threat. Perhaps she had really heard something, but I didn’t feel disturbed, nor did I worry. But Mary Vorse was gone the next morning. She had left without saying goodbye. This was my last meeting. I would never see Loray again after that evening.
The crowd was as usual filling the field beside the headquarters, reaching up to the woods where the tree-tops beyond encircled the gully in which the tent colony was located. As I was on the platform urging the people to picket, a disturbance broke out in that farthest corner of the field near the gully. There were shouts, people milling about. Mary Vorse s warning came back. I thought, "This is it! They’re trying to break up our meeting!" Some missiles were thrown. They didn’t hit me, but I heard them plop-plopping against the building behind me. Some men moved through the crowd to the back. The disturbance quieted down. Now we rounded up our pickets.
I had hoped for this important occasion the men also might come forward. But no, it was as usual. I doubted whether such a small line would be effective. Still, we had to go on with it. Gladys Wallace was there, Mrs. McGinnis, Mrs. Tompkinson and her fourteen-year-old son, Earl, and some dozen or so others besides our staff women. In the beginning twilight I started out in the direction of the mill, Amy beside me, over the pebbly, bumpy dirt road between the woods and the last of the cottages. We hadn’t gone far when three “laws” appeared coming towards us. And 1 thought, "It’ll be the same old thing. They’ll break up the line. We’ll be arrested again." But no, this was not the same old thing. It was quite different this time. One of the cops, a large, burly man, advanced towards me, cursing me. His eyes were bulging, his face was red, he was glaring at me as though in hatred as he uttered those obscene words. Then he raised his arm and with his huge hand grabbed me by the throat, squeezed and shook me.
If there is anything more than another that can make a person helpless, it is having one’s wind cut off. You can’t scream, can't make a sound, nor can you think of anything but getting your breath back. I wondered, did he want to kill me then and there? How long this lasted 1 can’t say; it seemed long. When he let go, Amy was beside me. The cops had gone after the others, distributing blows with their sticks as they ran, chasing women and children in all directions. Gladys Wallace came up saying, "That was Bill Whitlow that done that to you, Miss Vera."
We started back toward the headquarters. A car passed us loaded with cops. They were standing on the running board, guns in hand. Inside I saw Chief Aderholt's black hat. I expected the car to be waiting when we reached the building, but it was not in sight. Edith Miller, Caroline Drew and Sophie Melvin, who had been on the picket line, joined us.
We went into the office. Beal was there with a couple of strikers. It was already dark and the light in the office was on. I sat down at the typewriter and started to dash off a story for the Daily Worker about the breaking up of the picket line. I had writ¬ ten only a few lines when shots began to ring out outside. Someone said, “Put out the light.” Another voice said, “Get down on the floor!” They were all crawling under the table, Beal last, his backside sticking out. I got down and crouched as the explosions continued. During those long moments, just seconds probably, I had a strange, unexpected sensation. I was acutely conscious of my skin all over my body. Perhaps it was the same reaction as that of the animal whose back hairs are erected in the presence of danger. The shots stopped. There were a few moments of silence. We didn’t dare move. Then the sound of a car driving off. Silence again.
At last we got up and groped about, not venturing to put on the light, still holding our breath. We went into the big room, empty now. Beal and I looked out one of the windows. It looked as though the field was completely empty. Then in the far corner we saw an arm in a white shirt sleeve raised, heard a faint cry. Beal went out with one of the strikers. Between them they brought back Joe Harrison, white-faced and shaken, his shirt sleeve bloody. Buckshot had hit his arm and thigh.
They got him into a car. Edith and I got in too, the striker driving. Joe didn’t feel like talking, but he managed to tell us that he thought the Chief had been hit, a couple of cops too. It was only a short run to the hospital. We stood by while a nurse got Joe onto a table and dressed his arm. Then she said, “You'll have to leave now; I’ve got to take his pants off.” As we went out, through an open door opposite we saw a big man under a sheet. Whitefaced, he appeared unconscious though he was groaning. The striker with us was nervous and visibly shaking. "I’ll take y’all where y’all want to go, but make it quick.”
I felt completely disoriented for an instant. We seemed to have come to the end of everything and in that first instant I could think of no place where we could go. Then the Lodge's house came to mind: it had often seemed a refuge. The man drove in a zig-zag, dropped us like hot potatoes and took off at top speed. It was quite dark now. We found the front door open, a dim light in the back hall. The big house appeared to be empty. I hung my coat on a peg under the stairs. We didn’t know what to do. Then another woman came in; it may have been Caroline Drew. We began to hear steps outside, there were voices and flashlights. It seemed the building was surrounded. Obeying some instinct of the pursued to hide, we stepped into the little butler's pantry, closing both doors. Then after a minute or so I said, “We’ll have to be taken. We shouldn’t be found hiding.” So we went out into the back hall just as three “laws” came in, one of them holding a paper. He read out my name. I admitted being Vera Buch. Then he said, ’’You’re under arrest.”
“I just want to get my coat.”
“Y’all won’t need no coat where you’re goin.'”
I got the coat nevertheless. They motioned to Edith and Caroline, “Y’all come along, too.”
Only Going to Jail
We got into a car with one of them and started off. I thought: This is it now. It’s what we always expected. We’ll be driven out of town, and then we’ll .... I was bracing myself for some unknown fate, when a few minutes later, I saw we were stopping at the city jail. So we were just being ar¬ rested after all! My relief was great and actually the walls of the jail looked good to me that night. We were at the beginning of a long night, a night unparalleled in my experience, in which more than once I was grateful for the protection of the jail walls.
They kept bringing in women singly or by two’s and three's. Beyond the wall in the men’s cell, we heard footsteps and the clanging of doors. Voices, shouts were heard from the courtyard outside. We pictured a crowd swarming out there in the night. The women told us of a real manhunt and womanhunt going on in Loray. The people in the tents had taken refuge in the woods, anyone who had a car had gotten out the minute they heard shots. It was a reign of terror outside: cops and deputies everywhere arresting anyone they could lay their hands on. One woman came in weeping. They had taken her husband also, leaving three little ones crying at home.
Outside men were standing on each other’s shoulders to look in the window at us—to get a look at those devils, those snakes, those Bolsheviks they had been reading about for two months in the Gastonia Daily Gazette. I was glad I had my coat. I tied one sleeve to a bar and with someone holding the coat up it served to give some privacy when one of us had to use the toilet. At one point we heard screams and thudding sounds from behind the wall. They’re beating up the men, we thought. They kept bringing in women. Our cell was full now, and they began filling up the other cell. Some were sitting on the bench, some were squatting on the floor, others standing. The rumble of voices, the scuffling of feet from outside was getting louder.
From outside I heard a loud voice saying: “You take this thing in your hand like this, and you go into the union hall or any other place and you go like this.’’ There was a swoosh, a click inside the corridor, a slight explosion, then our eyes began to smart and tear, our noses to run. My throat, still sore from the policeman’s squeezing, felt raw, and the burning went down into my chest. We had been tear-gassed! The shouts outside grew louder.
We all kept talking, commiserating with each other, wondering what had really happened outside, for we each knew only what we had experienced individually. At long last, in the early morning hours, they ceased to bring in people. Both cells were jammed full. The mob outside had finally dispersed. We realized we were weary, needing rest if not sleep. We gave the bench to a pregnant woman among us, while the rest of us curled up as best we could on the limited floor space. It wasn’t possible to stretch out. We remained quiet, sleeping brokenly.
The next morning as we got up unrefreshed from the cement floor, the cop came in with two buckets of water, shoved one into each cell with a dipper. Later the cop brought bags of sandwiches, one apiece. Our discomforts were great; some were nursing bruises from cops' clubs, all of us still had sore eyes and mucous membranes from the tear gas. The woman whose babies were left behind fretted.
The next morning, Sunday, we heard a long, long tolling of the church bells. Later the word leaked in that Chief Aderholt had died the previous night. We staff members knew we were in for something serious. And why was there no word, no sign from outside? Surely the news of this shooting must have been in the papers. Surely the International Labor Defense [ILD] must have gone into action.
We passed the heavy, weary, uncomfortable and interminable days with talk and with ballad singing. All of the local women knew any number of ballads, most of them with rather mournful overtones—or was it the misery, the uncertainty, the tension of our circumstances which made them seem so?
Vera recalls other jail songs, such as “Birmingham Jail” and a popular mill tune, “All Around the Water Tank,” to which Ella May Wiggins added the following lyrics describing her friends’ long stay in prison.
ALL AROUND THE JAIL HOUSE
By Ella May Wiggins
Tune: All Around the Water Tank, Waiting for a Train.
All around the jail house
Waiting for a trial,
One mile away from the union hall
Sleeping in the jail.
I walked up to the policeman
To show him I didn’t have any fear,
He said if you’ve got money
I’ll see that you don’t stay here.
I haven’t got a nickel,
Not a penny can I show.
Lock her back up in the cell, he said,
As he slammed the jailhouse door.
He let me out in July
The month I dearly love,
The wide open spaces all around me,
The moon and the stars up above.
Everybody seems to want me,
Everyone but the scabs.
I’m on my way from the jail house
I’m going back to the Union Hall.
Though my tent now is empty,
My heart is full of joy,
I’m a mile away from the Union Hall,
Just a’waiting for a strike.
We were avoiding demoralization, though we sometimes felt like a pack of dirty, smelly, helpless and forgotten animals. We had completely lost track of the days. At long last, the cop opened the door saying, “Y’all kin get out now. You and you [designating the staff members] can come with me. The rest of you kin go home.” He led us down the hall to a washroom where we could wash our hands and faces and smooth our hair. Then outside to be crowded with a large group of the men prisoners into a police van. Edith Miller was allowed to go—why and where she went we hardly had time to think of.
Edith’s husband, Clarence Miller, a leader of the Young Communist League, had come down from New York to rescue his wife. And having this higher official handy, the Gastonia officials simply swapped him for his wife and indicted Clarence while freeing Edith.
Relief that the ordeal of the cage was over was paramount. The van jolted off. Needless to say, no inkling was given us as to where we were going. We surmised it was to some other prison. We were all smiling to be together and out, but we were a sorry looking lot, pale, haggard, hollow-eyed, our clothing mussed, all of us definitely thinner. Joe Harrison was not there. I assumed he was still in the hospital. Beal said, with his old sheepish grin, “Jimison thought I was in danger of being lynched. He told me to get out of here as fast as I could. So we headed south. We were near Greenville when they caught up with us.
“I got Bill Hall out. Can you imagine a Negro organizer in this situation ? I got some of the fellows to get him from his room. We told them, take him someplace North. Jimison gave me the money and they put him on a train for New York.”
Bill McGinnis’ shirt had dark dried stains; Mc-Gloughlin too had bloodstains. “They done cracked down on me good that first night,” McGinnis said. “Did you hear the Chief died?” Fred whispered to me in an aside as we got out of the wagon.
“Where does that leave us?”
We were being taken to a preliminary hearing in Charlotte. That we were questioned, that there were reporters and photographers present is about all I can recall of this event. Back into the paddywagon and to Gastonia, this time to the county jail.
We inspected our new premises. The excitement of the morning and the novelty of a new location buoyed us for a while. There had to come a let-down, when, seated on our cots in the quiet of that wing, surrounded by those heavy bars, we became aware of our isolation. In all the days since the shooting, no word, no token had reached us from the outside. We avoided speaking of what was most important—the death of Chief Aderholt.
After a few weeks in the cell, the jailer came in holding a document, and taking a stance in the middle of the floor, he proceeded to read aloud. It was nothing less than our indictment. Sixteen people were listed as having “willfully, wrongfully, unlawfully murdered and conspired to murder the Chief of Police of Gastonia, John Aderholt." First-degree murder and conspiracy was the charge. Strange and unexpected was our reaction to this rather lengthy document. It seemed awfully funny. We laughed as we sat listening on our cots, and so did the jailer. The language of the indictment, quaint and archaic, was funny in itself. Then, the sheer incongruity of the thing. We had been inside
the building, the shooting had taken place outside. Two of our group had never held a gun, much less fired one. I had made one single attempt to learn to shoot. The gun, an old musket, had knocked me painfully in the shoulder; where the shot had gone could not be discovered. Picturing myself as a conspirator, with motives of killing someone, was so completely unlikely as to appear ludicrous.
Our most pressing and immediate worry of those first weeks was the failure to receive any work or token whatever from the outside. I told the girls then what I hadn’t mentioned before, Albert’s confidential description of his position in the party. He might have been ousted from his post in the union by that time. But what of the ILD and the International Workers’ Aid (IWA)? That no strikers tried to contact us we could well understand; they would only risk themselves. Nevertheless, as the days piled up into weeks, the feeling of isolation and abandonment grew and grew. In the other cage, miserable though it had been, there was a certain sustenance in being surrounded by so many other people. That we were leaders of the strike meant a certain responsibility; we had to think constantly of keeping up their spirits, and thereby helped our own. Here in this big cell, enclosed by thick walls and bars of heavy steel, the one door locked on the outside, seeing only the Trusty Charley, the jailer, and occasionally his wife, we three sat alone, abandoned it seemed by the whole world.
It was at night in the wakeful silence with the moon outside casting the stark shadow of the bars across cots and floor that the stern realities of our situation pressed most. Sophie, nineteen years old, slept well. She did have a habit of grinding and gnashing her teeth in her sleep, an eerie sound in those surroundings. One night from Amy's cot I heard a quiet sobbing. Should I get up, try to comfort her? I decided not to. Were it I, out of pride I’d rather not be found weeping. And couldn’t we all weep? Hadn’t we all loved ones far away?
During the period of isolation when time hung heavy on our hands, talking was our chief resource. Our talks ranged far and wide, so that sometimes we could even forget for a moment where we were, coming back with a jolt to the grim reality. We became thoroughly acquainted with one another, as far as is humanly possible. Sophie, aged nineteen, was stockily built with a cherubic, pretty face. She had a rosy complexion, curly brown hair and big blue eyes. To conceive of this girl as a murderer would always make us laugh. We thought she would be an asset facing a jury. Her parents were foreign-born; she herself may have been born in Russia, coming here as a baby. She had got into the movement early, into the Pioneers, from there moving up to the Young Communist League.
Amy Schechter, age about thirty-seven, had been born in England, her father an Oxford professor. Her childhood had been refined, cultured, a rather prim environment. She told of the fluffy white dresses with blue ribbon sashes she and her sister used to wear on Sundays. From her English days she had a stock of songs which she would sing with a Cockney accent: “Oh girls, oh girls, take warning, and never let it be. Never let a sailor go higher than your knee." How she had got into the movement was not accounted for. We were all such disciplined dyed-in-the-wool comrades that it hardly seemed necessary to explain. At last after what seemed an interminable period, we had visitors, Juliet Poyntz representing the ILD, accompanied by lawyer Jimison. Poyntz was her usual self, buoyant, lively, optimistic. Their story was that the New York Times had carried a small item on the shooting. The Party had alerted the ILD, sending down to Charlotte a small group consisting of herself, Albert Weisbord, and Jack Johnstone. Gastonia had been in a state of siege, guarded by hundreds of troopers as well as by police and deputy sheriffs. To get into the city was not merely not feasible, it was impossible. So the ILD had been mobilized, defense was being prepared, publicity put out. We didn’t need to worry, we would be taken care of now. She was evasive as to what had become of Albert, saying only that he had gone back to New York. Despite the relief that our isolation was at last broken, I had now the new worry as to what had become of my husband.
We could now have papers and reading material, letters and an occasional caller. From time to time I received letters from Ella May Wiggins simply enclosing a new poem she had written. These I dispatched to the Daily Worker. Then came a letter from my mother. I had written to her from Loray and to my father too, emphasizing the dreadful conditions of the Loray workers in order to win some sympathy for the strike. Papa had answered me, his letter ending with this statement: “I appreciate what you are doing, but get out of Gastonia.” Mother’s letter began, “I never thought
I would have to write to my daughter in a jail.” Still she remained loyal; my parents did not abandon me.
When I wrote Mother, I asked her to send materials and findings for a dress. In time came a piece of blue linen and one of green silk, a pattern, sewing thread, needles and scissors. With these I could while away some hours sewing and made myself two new dresses. Via the trustee we kept in touch with the men prisoners; sometimes at sundown we thought we could see them. Their part of the jail was the sort of cage in which all cells are opened at once, and the men were let out in the morning into a sort of corridor. One day Beal sent word by Charley his pants were worn out; they had holes in them. What should he do? I sent back word, don't worry, Fred, I’ll make you a pair of pants. So from scraps of material left from my blue linen dress, I cut and sewed up a pair of pants of a size for a doll. I stretched this task out for a week, sending news of it every day. Then I made a big package stuffed with newspaper and conveyed the “pants” to Beal. With such innocent parlor tricks did the alleged murderers while away their leisure hours.
Others Decide Our Defense
One important visitor was attorney Leon Josephson of Trenton, New Jersey, a Party member and one of the defense lawyers. Mr. Jospehson interrogated us in great detail about the events of June 7th. He had to determine a line of defense. He intimated there was some controversy going on in New York as to the line of defense, especially as to whether or not to admit and defend the Communist background of the strike. We whose lives were at stake had nothing whatever to say on this important matter. Nor were we even informed except what we could devine from the Daily Worker.
Finally, in July, came a letter from my husband dated some place in Connecticut stating merely that he had been working on a farm in Connecticut. In a couple of weeks he would come down to see me. So at last we had a reunion in the cell sitting side by side on my cot.
Albert was thinner and looked strained with all his joy at our meeting. Even though in his last visit he had given some intimation of the deplorable conditions in the Party, it was still shocking to learn what had really happened. It was he who had first seen the notice of the shooting in the New York Times. It was he who had alerted the Party. In Charlotte, Albert had wanted to try to get into Gastonia, but was overruled. Then had come a telegram from the Central Committee: he was to return at once to New York under pain of expulsion. “What could I do, Vera?” he asked. “This was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, to leave then. But alone in Charlotte, I could have done nothing.”
This was not all. He had been driven out, literally and physically driven out of the office of the National Textile Workers Union. “Just think, the union I founded and built. Four people came in, Fosterites* I suppose, and literally pushed me out. I couldn’t call the police against party members. The Party is on the verge of splits following involvement with the Russian factions. All the leaders are in Moscow fighting for their political lives.”
In the earlier period of isolation, Amy, Sophie and I had never squarely faced our situation. Now we began to discuss the indictment more realistically. Was there any possibility of acquittal? To all of us it seemed unlikely. We knew all too well what sort of territory we were in, how all the latent prejudice against unions, against Beds, against outsiders of any sort had been daily inflamed and built up by the Gastonia Daily Gazette. I felt the prosecution had overreached itself in indicting sixteen people. Two or three, yes, they might have got away with it. But sixteen? They had thought we were just a bunch of poor bums. They were now beginning to learn, since our defense was building up, that these bums had broad support.
The conspiracy charge against us was a palpable frame-up. But there was no getting away from the fact that Aderholt had been shot on our premises and that he had died of his wounds. We women had been inside of the building. So had Beal, but most of the defendants had been outside during the shooting. Inexperienced and ignorant as we were in legal matters, we thought then simply in terms of either convictions or acquittal for all sixteen. There were times when awake at night I shudderingly tried to face the threat of my own unwilling and violent exit from this world.
When once in a while a Daily Worker would drift our way we would look for news of the Party situation. The editor was now one Bill Dunne from Minneapolis, a Fosterite. There were, however, occasional mentions of our case, some of them rather sensational. In one piece, we were referred to as the “Gastonia martyrs.” This we resented. Were not martyrs people who have died for a cause? Did they consider us as good as dead? Other references were to the danger of lynching for the Gastonia prisoners. This was too much like the Gastonia Daily Gazette. It had never occurred to us, except on that first night, to fear mob action. We felt safe enough in our cell. Still, when a couple of days later we heard sounds in the street like people marching from a distance, shouts, then the thud of footsteps coming closer, we began to feel uneasy. We asked ourselves what could we possibly do if a mob came. Outside the door to the right was an unused staircase leading upwards. If we could rush up that staircase. . . . but could we possibly do that while the mob was opening the door? We were joking, but our hearts were beating faster and we had a brief moment of fear. Then suddenly a band began to play some patriotic tune. We learned later the day was July 4th and the mob was a parade.
“God Save the State and this Hon’able Co’t”
Finally, the date of the trial was set. Our days were exciting, taken up not merely by visitors, but by a turmoil of emotion, anxiety underlying relief and anticipation of a change, no matter what it might be.
The great day came. We were escorted by the jailer across the courtyard. How glaring the sunlight was; how weak my legs! And what was this strange sensation of walking on eggs over the stone pavement?
Inside the courtroom we were turned over to an usher who led us to our places in a long row of seats up front. The seats for visitors were filled, front rows taken up by reporters from across the nation. Batteries of lawyers for the prosecution and the defense were at their separate tables. The scene was a colorful one —women in their light summer dresses, the southern lawyers togged out in white linen suits with a flower in each buttonhole. A policeman led in the row of men prisoners, among them Clarence Miller and Joe Harrison, limping slightly. Judge Barnhill came in taking his place and the usher opened court with the statement we were to hear so often thereafter: “The co't of the State of No’th Ca'lina is now in session! God save the state and this hon’able co't.’’ First came the roll call of the sixteen defendants. Having given my response, I could relax enough to enjoy the spectacle of this crowded room with myself and my comrades as the center of attention. Having every expectation of returning to our cell, the session over, I made an effort to overcome the feeling of unreality and really to live fully this moment of freedom.
This first trial of “the Gastonia Case,’’ as it came to be known, was a short one. The defense moved for a change of venue. Testimony was given proving the hostility existing in that city towards the defendants. I was called upon to testify how, in the crowded cell on the night of June 7th, with the mob outside, I had heard from behind the partition sounds of scuffling, blows and a scream. The change of venue to Charlotte was granted.
Then came an unexpected move of the prosecution. Mr. Carpenter got up to say the state was not asking for the death penalty for the three women. Was it to southern chivalry we owed this sudden magnanimity? In any case, the welcome result was that we three were now admitted to bail. It didn't take long before we were on our way to New York.
The Defense Tour
The few weeks before the reconvening of the trial in Charlotte were spent in a speaking tour taking me as far as Chicago. Noteworthy was the New York meeting—a large hall well filled with an enthusiastic audience. I was the principal speaker. I had chosen to speak on what was then called in the Party the “Third Period,’’ a period in which supposedly the masses were surging forward against capitalism. Probably I wanted to show I was a political person, no mere trade-unionist. But what really meant a great deal to me was that as my eyes ranged over the audience, down there whom should I see sitting in the ranks but my own father. Of course, I ran down there to greet him when the meeting was over. That he had come was heart-warming; I believe he felt some pride in his daughter.
Gastonia in Retrospect
At the end of the hearing in Gastonia, the three women had been admitted to bail. Their experience in the Gaston County jail was over, but the memories were to remain long after. Those long weeks in jail had been a profound period for reflection on the strike and the relationship of the Communist Party to the strike.
You see, we had been on the receiving end. We were out there in a difficult position, in a way a helpless position, because we were so isolated. Far from any center, where we could only appeal to Albert. We knew that he would do his best but he was in difficulties because he had opposed this leadership and they didn’t care anything about the workers. They knew little and cared less. Textile workers working sixty hours a week. Starvation wages! They knew but did not care. A complete indifference. The leaders of the party had been in Moscow. Their political lives were at stake. That is what they were interested in. They could not have given one god-damn about textile workers, or strikes, or anything.
In perspective, I see our strike in Gastonia, taken together with the Passaic strike of 1926 as the opening blow of a campaign to organize the unorganized which culminated in 1935 with the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the South, hampered as organizers to extend the strike, including other mills and other companies, we might possibly win a victory. This today I must question. Our limitations were part of the historical picture which included the opposition of the A.F.L. and the incompetence of the Communist Party and the treachery of its leaders as well as the opposition of the employers and of the government. In any case, a lost strike is not really lost; if conducted militantly, honestly and effectively, it lays the basis for future battles. If no resistance is attempted against such ferocious exploitation as these textile masters enforced and still do, only hopeless slavery can result. I feel we contributed our bit to the long struggle for freedom.
In a way, I had come into my own there in Loray. I had overcome my old self-doubt. Here there was no one any better than I. We had no well-known leaders, no powerful mass speakers. The Gastonia Gazette once referred to me as "the most important of the organizers,” and I suppose I was that. I was on the road to becoming a good public speaker. My voice was clear, though never strong, but I knew how to project it. I was learning not to be afraid, to think on my feet, and what is most important, to establish a rapport with the audience.
I am impressed now with the lack of perspective on that thing. From the beginning, we had known that there was a possibility that we would be driven out or that something would be done, but we had made no plans. We never once sat down and planned, if something bad happens what will we do. We never considered that, never. And I somehow, I just lived from one moment to another without any perspective.
The NTW organizers were not alone in their failure to comprehend the reign of terror which textile bosses of Gaston and Mecklenberg counties would mount against the union. A “Committee of 100,” armed and deputized, and headed by Major Bulwinkle, former Congressman and attorney for the Loray Mill, ranged through the two-county area hunting down, beating, and destroying homes of union organizers and supporters.
When the murder trial of the sixteen began in Charlotte on August 26th, the State openly joined forces with the textile rulers of the area. The battery of prosecuting attorneys included Major Bulwinkle, other textile corporation lawyers, and Governor Gardner’s brother-in-law, Clyde Hoey, later governor and senator. The attempts of these prosecutors to obtain a conviction extended to hauling into court an effigy of the dead police chief dressed in his blood spattered clothing. Pressure on the jury was so great that the sight of the effigy drove one juror immediately insane and forced Judge Burnhill to call a mistrial. Five of the jurors announced that the state’s case was so weak that they would have voted for acquittal of all the defendants.
This fiasco served only to arouse the Committee of 100 to a new series of search and destroy raids against the offices of the International Labor Defense, the NTW Charlotte offices and other strike organizers. When the union attempted to hold a rally on September 14th, striker and songwriter Ella May Wiggins was singled out and shot through the heart as she rode on a truck with other strikers to the meeting. Her murderers were identified but never brought to justice. A grand jury refused to indict the suspects on the first round. Due to national pressure, a second jury was called and indictments were obtained. The state, of course, presented its weakest possible case, and the fourteen defendants were acquitted within two weeks.
By the beginning of the second trial in September, nationwide protests against “Gastonia-style justice” had reached such a point that charges against Vera Buch, Sophie Melvin and Amy Schechter and six of the thirteen men were dropped. However, Judge Barnhill then allowed the political and religious beliefs of the remaining defendants to be introduced as evidence, thus opening the way for a heresy trial which brought the conviction of seven organizers and strikers: Fred Beal, Clarence Miller, Joseph Harrison, George Carter, W. M. McGinnis, Louis McLaughlin, and K. Y. Hendrix. When the North Carolina Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal, the seven forfeited bond and fled. Beal found temporary refuge in the Soviet Union.
By 1930, both Albert Weisbord and Vera Buch had left the Communist Party.
The Loray Mill continued to operate for several years, although the losses it suffered due to the strike finally closed its doors. Firestone, a major purchaser from Manville-Jenckes, reopened the plant under its own name, and the former Loray Mill is today a major producer of tire yarns. The plant remains unorganized.
Dan McCurry is from a North Carolina textile mill family and currently coordinates the Food Coop Project at Loop College in Chicago. (1976)
Dan McCurry is from a North Carolina textile mill family and is now teaching farm/labor education at Loop College in Chicago. (1974)
Carolyn Ashbaugh is a writer and film researcher in women’s labor history and the author of Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1976). (1976)
Carolyn Ashbaugh is a researcher in women’s labor history at Newberry Library in Chicago. (1974)