The Story Of Ella Mae Wiggins, Mother, Millworker, Social Activist
There is a monument in downtown Gastonia commemorating Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt, part of our history circa 1929. But there is no memorial to Ella May Wiggins, arguably a more significant character in that history. This omission is likely to change.
Born in a log cabin in 1900 in Sevierville Tennessee, Ella Mae Wiggins and her family followed logging camps from hollow to hollow. Like so many others in that place and time, they were dirt poor. Both her parents died when she was 18, and within a year, she was married to John Wiggins. Soon she was expecting what would turnout to be the first of nine children. In 1926 she ended up outside of Bessemer City without John, but with their children. Perhaps John left on his own; maybe Ella Mae kicked him out. She worked as a spinner for American Mill No 2, twelve hours a day, six days a week, making nine dollars a week.
Up to that point, Ella Mae was not much different from other women of her time, although that was soon to change. There was something in Ella Mae– a fire and passion, a willingness to go her own way. Looking at one of her pictures, you see an attractive woman, hand on her hip, staring with a little smile into the camera.You just know she was not somebody to be messed with.
Sometimes there is a price to pay for going your own way. For one thing, Ella did not live in regular company housing, but rather on the edge of Stumptown, just outside of Bessemer City. Although mill owned, the houses were tiny in this section populated by black mill workers, and the rents were less. Probably the black community there helped care for her children.
Then in 1929 the hammer dropped.While the rest of the country was about to fall into the Great Depression, four of Ella May’s children died, struck down by whooping cough. The mill would not let her switch shifts to take care of her children. Having made the wrenching decision to quit her job and take care of her children, Ella Mae was then unable to afford medical care when the sickness came.
The mills were also practicing what was called the “stretch out”’ Half of the mill workers were fired, and the balance were expected to do their work, but wages, instead of being increased, were actually reduced.
As a result, Ella Mae became politically active…she discovered her calling. Using her natural skills and intelligence she became a part of the labor movement. The country girl started moving in elevated circles. She delivered powerful testimony to the US Congress about the plight of mill workers; testimony that helped change existing labor laws. She wrote and performed protest songs – which were picked up by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She achieved inclusion of African Americans into her textile union. She was a powerhouse of energy and commitment.
It all came to a head later in 1929. Responding to what today would be third-world working conditions, Ella and the workers rebelled. Organized by the communist-backed National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), with whom Ella was associated as member and local bookkeeper, there was a strike.
In an escalating series of events, 1,800 of Gastonia’s Loray (later Firestone) Mill workers walked off their jobs; management evicted families from mill-owned homes, and Governor O. Max Gardner sent in 250 National Guard troops to restore order. When 100 men destroyed their headquarters, the NTWU erected a tent city outskirts of town.
The first death occurred on June6, 1929, after 150 workers marched to the mill to call out the night shift. They were dispersed by sheriff ’s deputies. Later that night four officers, including Police Chief Aderholt arrived at the tent city and demanded that the union guards hand over their weapons.An altercation ensued and Chief Aderholt was shot and killed. There is some question that Aderholt, who is said to have been beloved by the community, may have been killed accidentally by one of his own people.
Unfortunately, another death was soon to follow, just over a week later on September 14, 1929. After a thwarted attempt to attend a union meeting in Gastonia, Ella Mae and her companions were stopped by a car full of armed men. Shots were fired; Ella Mae, riding in the open in the back of a truck, was struck in the chest and killed.
Ella Mae’s children were sent to orphanages and although five Loray Mill employees were indicted for her murder, no one was ever convicted of her shooting. After 80 years Ella Mae had all but faded into the mists of history.
That is what Kimberley Hallas of Gastonia and other members of the Ella May Wiggins Textile Heritage Council (EMWiTAC) hope to prevent. They want to educate people about the role of textiles in the history of Gaston County; erect a memorial to Ella May, and tell her story – the story of a brave woman who carried the torch for social justice.