Songs for Ella May Wiggins and the Loray Mill Strike
In the early to mid-20th century, textile jobs were about the only large source of jobs in small Southern towns; the demand for textiles in WWI drew many people from rural areas with the prospect of better wages and lives for their families. But, as demand for textiles lessened after the war, those jobs demanded longer hours (with danger to health and welfare) for less and less pay. Unions in the North often brought better pay and labor conditions, but unions were fiercely resisted in the South. Few people know that one of the deadliest battles over unionizing took place in Gastonia, NC at the Loray Mill in 1929. Two people died: a sheriff (Chief Aderholdt), who was shot during a raid on the striker's headquarters, and textile worker, mother, activist, and songwriter Ella May Wiggins, who was helping union organizers. Over 30 people were jailed for the sheriff's murder, but no one was ever charged for Ella May's murder. The union efforts failed, but because the strike was so controversial (union organizers included some communists and union leaders from the North), it wasn't until April 2013 that the state finally erected a historical marker commemorating the Loray Mill Strike. A few years ago descendants of Ella May Wiggins and other citizens and supporters of Gastonia formed the Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee to "establish a significant and proper physical memorial honoring her life, labor, sacrifices, and unifying ideals for Gaston County's textile workers and community on which she had a profound and lasting impact." The committee has organized annual textile art exhibits, an indiegogo campaign with donations of songs and writings from artists to raise money for the memorial. (See the website and their Facebook page for more details.)
In spring 2015, Gastonia resident David Childers, whom Bob Crawford of The Avett Brothers calls "the most prolific NC songwriter alive," organized various local musicians to record a cd of Ella May's songs used in the strike (see lyrics to some of her songs here). The cd will also contain songs by Si Kahn, who has spent many years advocating for civil rights--including rights of textile workers. Si's 1970 song "Aragon Mill" (already in history books about folk songs) will be on the cd (sung by David) as well as several other of Si's songs including his new song commemorating the Loray Mill Strike ("Here in Gastonia"). Si, generous mentor that he is to me, recruited my friend DeWitt Crosby and me to write songs which are also included on the cd. For more information about my song "Dark Clouds," see this post.
The CD release party will be held on August 22 at Zoe's Coffee Shop in Gastonia at 7:00pm. All proceeds from the cd will go to the Memorial Committee.