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The 1929 Loray Mill Strike Was a Landmark Working-Class Struggle in the US South

Murdered during the 1929 Loray Mill strike, Ella May Wiggins became a working-class martyr—and a symbol of labor’s fight to democratize the anti-union South.

Although Ella May worked at the American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City — not the Loray Mill in Gastonia, where the strike had broken out — her experience, and the demands of workers there, were similar. She earned just $9 a week, laboring for six ten- or twelve-hour shifts while her children slept. By her late twenties, she had already buried four children, and the family often lacked proper health care or nutrition.

Refusing to live in overpriced company housing under the thumb of management, Ella May resided in the African-American neighborhood of Stumptown, where she relied heavily on her neighbors after her husband vanished. She ruffled many feathers when she integrated the NTWU branch in Bessemer City, arguing for equal pay not just for women and children working in the mills but for her black neighbors as well. (Nearly half of the workers at American Mill were African American, while most at Loray were white.)

With her knack for writing labor and protest ballads — set to the tune of traditional songs familiar to the many mountain folk working in the mills — Ella May quickly became a recognizable voice in the local union movement. She was a fixture singing at rallies throughout the region, often with her children in tow. She spoke the millworkers’ language and knew their pain.

But her prominence made her a target of the anti-labor opposition. And on September 14, she was gunned down.

If the American public was not already paying attention to the violent news that had been streaming out of Gastonia for weeks, images of the five Wiggins children, unbathed and shoeless, staring into the camera under headlines like “Orphaned by Mob Violence,” surely got their attention. Rarely had there been a more perfect martyr.

Immediately following Ella May’s death, the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense swooped in and began planning her funeral. Party leaders made their way to North Carolina with plans to speak, knowing the strike was potentially in jeopardy.

The party printed thousands of copies of a flyer calling for worker solidarity:

Organize to resist the murder terror of the Manville-Jenckes company and its state authorities. Organize worker defense committees in every mill. Build the National Textile Workers Union. Defend our 13 workers who face the electric chair. Disarm the murder thugs of the mill owners. Leave the mills. Attend Ella May’s funeral. Let the mass protest as she is buried be only the beginning of our new drive for one hundred percent organization of the textile industry.