C&P highlights Ella May Wiggins for Women’s History Month. The Gaston County textile worker’s personal tragedies fueled her fire for all workers’ rights.
North Carolina’s low union presence is no coincidence. Many, like Ella May Wiggins, fought to organize for better safety and pay and were met with brutality. But her murder galvanized a movement.
Wiggins was born in 1900 in Cherokee County, near Bryson City, in North Carolina’s mountains. Her father, a lumberjack, was killed on the job when Ella May was a young girl. Impoverished, she went to work in a nearby mill to contribute to the household and married a coworker at age 14.
The couple moved around, eventually settling in an African-American neighborhood outside Bessemer City. Marriage did not alleviate Wiggins’ poverty. Gaston County, the country’s leading textile hub, was declining as the Great Depression deepened, and workers were facing increased workloads, pay cuts, and layoffs. When Wiggins’ husband left the family, she was taking home a measly $9 for working 60 hours a week.
She saw unionizing as a way to secure a better future for her children. Wiggins started speaking at rallies and organizing strikes. Her support network of Black friends and neighbors informed her anti-segregationist views, and she successfully pushed through a narrow vote in her union to admit Black workers.
Once, Wiggins traveled to Washington, DC, to testify before Congress about the terrible working conditions at cotton mills. Denied the floor, she pressed her case to a North Carolina senator in the halls instead.
“I’m a mother of nine. Four died with the whooping cough, all at once. I was working nights, 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,” she said. “So I had to quit, and then there wasn’t no money for medicine, and they just died.”
On April 1, 1929, Wiggins participated in a walkout with nearly 2,000 workers at the Loray Textile Mill in Gastonia, one of the largest in the state.
Five months later, she was shot by mill goons in front of at least 50 eye witnesses. The jury deliberated half an hour before freeing her killers. But pressure from local strikers and national political organizations led to mill owners reducing to a fifty-five hour workweek, bettering conditions of mills, and increasing welfare work in the textile villages.
The AFL-CIO in 1979 put a marker on her grave in Bessemer City Memorial Cemetery inscribed, “She died carrying the torch of social justice.”