Striking mill worker, single-mother, and National Textile Workers Union organizer Ella May Wiggins was murdered on September 14, 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina leaving five orphans. Here, Margaret Larkin tells her story.
‘The Story of Ella May’ by Margaret Larkin from New Masses. Vol. 5 No. 6. November, 1929.
The Mays were hill folks. They farmed a little patch of rocky ground far up in the Great Smoky Mountains. They had yams, cabbages, and beans, some apple trees, and a corn patch, and in the Fall they killed and cured “hawg” meat and hunted rabbits and ‘possums. But they never had enough money for clothes, and the family was large. So when Ella May was ten they came down to the logging camps.
Old man May worked first in one camp, then in another, around Andrews, North Carolina. Whenever the camp was changed, the company would move the rickety shanty they lived in on a flat car. Mis’ May and Ella, her second oldest girl, took in washing for the bachelor loggers. They heated water over a brush fire in the big iron soap kettle, and washed out of doors.
Schools in the logging camps were casual affairs, but somehow Ella May learned to read and figure, and to write a neat hand. She was popular in camp, for she was a “purty young ‘un”. She had a fine, ringing voice, and nobody else could sing “Little Mary Fagan,” “Lord Lovel” and “Sweet William” with such plaintive sweetness as she. “All she needed to a-ben a doll was to have the breath squeezed outen her” said a man who remembered her brief girlhood, when she lay dead at twenty-nine.
When Ella May was sixteen she married John Wiggins. Myrtle was their first baby. Just before their second child was born, John Wiggins slipped and was crushed by a log. He didn’t die, but he was crippled for life.
There is no work for a crippled man in a lumber camp, and there was no way for Ella Wiggins to earn a living there, either. When a mill agent came through, gathering up whole families to work in the new cotton mills of North Carolina, Ella May and her babies went back with him.
They taught her to spin, and for ten years she spun yarn in the mills. She never made more than nine dollars a week. Every year she carried another child, until there were nine to feed on a spinner’s wages.
John Wiggins helped out at first, but there are few odd jobs around a mill town, and besides, each mill makes cripples of its own. He had been a steady fellow in the mountains, -a logger, and the husband of the prettiest girl in camp. In town he idled and drank, till Ella May wished she was shut of him. At last he deserted her.
Ella May proudly took back her own name. While Myrtle looked after the younger children, she worked in American Spinning Number One, in Bessemer City.
When the National Textile Workers’ Union called a strike in her mill, Ella May was one of the first to join. Then there opened for her six months of intense, eager living. Like many another mill worker whose life has been cast in a drab, uneventful pattern by the mill, she gloried in the vivid strike. Meetings, speeches, picket lines, and that strange mass power we call solidarity, developed the latent talents of the spinner from the mountains. She learned to speak; she worked on committees; she helped give out relief; she organized for the defense of imprisoned strikers. She was proud that she could keep neat and accurate account books.
She would tell in union speeches of her struggle in the mill villages. “I never made no more than nine dollars a week, and you can’t do for a family on such money,” she would say. “I’m the mother of nine. Four died with the whooping cough. I was working nights, and 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. He’s the sorriest man alive, I reckon. So I had to quit, and then there wasn’t no money for medicine, and they just died. I couldn’t do for my children any more than you women on the money we git. That’s why I come out for the union, and why we all got to stand for the union, so’s we can do better for our children, and they won’t have lives like we got.”
The immense vitality of the mountain woman, that ten years in the mills had not quenched, overflowed into songs about the union and the strike, “Song Ballets,” she called them. On the backs of union leaflets she wrote new words to the ballads she had sung as a girl. In her deep tones she sang them out of doors at the strike meetings. The strikers loved to hear “Chief Aderholt,” “Come and Join the LL.D.” and “The Mill Mother’s Song.” Like all true poets she wrote of the things she knew and had suffered. When Ella May sang,
“How it grieves the heart of a mother
You everyone must know,
But we can’t buy for our children,
Our wages are too low”
every woman in her audience did know, and responded to the common feeling. When she sang “We’re going to have a union all over the South,” the strike meetings thrilled to the ring of militancy in her voice.
Ella May was martyred on September 14, when she tried to attend a union meeting in Gastonia. A truck load of workers from Bessemer City was turned back and wrecked by a mob that had roamed the highways all day to prevent anyone from reaching the meeting. As the truck was wrecked shots were fired into the crowd of helpless workers. “Oh Lordy, I’m killed,” cried Ella May, and fell dead.
Perhaps it was chance that the bullet hit Ella May, but not one of her fellow workers believes it. “The bosses hated Ella May because she made up songs, and was always at the speakings,” they will tell you. “They aimed to git Ella May. They was after her.”
They laid Ella May in a ten dollar grave on a gray, drizzling morning. On the door of the union headquarters in Bessemer City was a wisp of black crepe and two little bunches of fall flowers.
On a black sign was written:
Everyone come to the burying
of Sister Ella May
at the semitary.
Two hundred people followed her body over the wet, red road. All along the way workers left their spindles and lined the windows of the mills. At American Spinning Number 1 they even came down to the gates-breaking the rules to honor Ella May.
Friends looked the last time on the quiet face, covered with fine wrinkles, aged early. Six fellow workers lowered her coffin into the deep red grave.
Dewey Martin, Cliff Saylor, and Wes Williams told her friends how she had died. “You all knew our Sister Ella May. She was one of our best members, -always he lp the union the best she knowed how. Her death is on Manville Jenckes and on North Carolina, too. She died for us.” They spoke words like these.
The Baptist minister was there. He hadn’t known Ella May. He didn’t know anything about her union. He didn’t mention how she had met her death in that wild pursuit of the union truck by the Black Hundreds of the Loray mill. “I’ve stood at a thousand graves and said these same words of comfort. In my Father’s house are many mansions,” he said. Ella May was just another dead mill hand to him.
As the first clods of wet, red earth fell on the coffin, Katie Barrett sang one of Ella May’s best loved songs.
“We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children good bye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.”
Eleven-year-old Myrtle, who had been a “sight of help” shepherded the four littler children at the head of the grave. The tiny ones did not know what was happening at the grave side, but Myrtle knew everything. Her small shoulders drooped; her thin face was full of grief and worry.
“It is for our little children
That seem to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.
“But listen to me workers,
A Union they do fear.
Let’s stand together workers,
And have a union here.”
All photos from Labor Defender.
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1929/v05n06-nov-1929-New-Masses.pdf