Upland Chronicles: Labor balladeer had Sevier County roots

Aug. 29, 2014 @ 05:53 PM

On Sept. 14, 1929, Ella Mae Wiggins and other labor supporters drove to a union meeting in Gastonia, N.C. When they arrived, they were met by an armed mob and turned back. After driving about five miles they were stopped by a car, and armed men jumped out and began shooting. Wiggins, a single mother of five, was shot in the chest and killed.

Ella Mae Wiggins was born Sept. 17, 1900, in a logging camp in Sevier County. She grew up in poverty, always moving between logging camps. Her mother died when she was 18, her father, the following year. According to her death certificate, Ella Mae’s father’s name was James Mayes and her mother was Katherine Maples Mayes. She married John Wiggins soon after her father died and had a baby within a year.

Her husband suggested they move from Bryson City, N.C., to Cowpens, S.C., a town with a textile mill, so they would have a steady income. When she left the mountains – the only environment she had ever known – the naive mountain girl could not have imagined that she would become a symbol of hope and activism, and an advocate for the labor movement.

The young couple soon moved to another mill town, where Wiggins had eight more children, four of whom died in early childhood from combined effects of malnutrition and disease. During her pregnancies, she continued to work long hours in the mills. Around 1926 the family moved to Gaston County, N.C., where John Wiggins deserted her and the children.

Wiggins rented a shack in an African-American neighborhood near Bessemer City known as Stumptown, where her neighbors looked after her children while she worked as a spinner at American Mill No. 2. She worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, earning $9 a week. Wiggins struggled singlehandedly to raise her five surviving children, the oldest of whom was only 11.

In the spring and summer of 1929, the Gastonia Textile Strike transformed the 29-year-old spinner into a grassroots leader and union balladeer. During the strike, Wiggins composed about 20 songs championing the cause of organized labor. Modeling her “strike ballads,” as she called them, after traditional mountain ballads, she wrote catchy lyrics with titles such as “All Around the Jailhouse,” “The Big Fat Bosses” and “Come and Join the I.L.D.”

Like other Gastonia strike balladeers, she borrowed melodies from current hillbilly records, particularly songs deeply marked by sorrow, death and tragedy. Of all the songs Wiggins composed, the most famous is “The Mill Mother’s Song.” In the song, Wiggins condemns industrial capitalism for essentially making it impossible for working mothers to fulfill their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child rearing.

The song, sung at Wiggins’ funeral by a fellow female striker, is now better known as “Mill Mother’s Lament,” after folklorist John Greenway retitled it in his 1953 study “American Folksongs of Protest.”

Along with her other homespun ballads, Wiggins sang “The Mill Mother’s Song” numerous times using beds of pickup trucks as her stage, and on platforms at strike meetings throughout Gaston County during the spring and summer of 1929. She became a central figure at nightly union gatherings.

Despite the inherent danger, Wiggins was an ardent union supporter who had a reputation for not backing down from a fight. She quickly learned organizational and strike tactics, became a union bookkeeper, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify about unfair labor practices in the South.

Wiggins also tackled organizing African-American workers, a task that most fellow union members shunned. Racism was rampant in Gastonia, as elsewhere in the South, in the late 1920s, but Wiggins didn’t believe in segregation and realized the importance of all mill workers uniting for their cause.

In one instance, Wiggins broke tradition by stepping over a rope separating black and white workers at a union meeting and sat with the African-Americans. In a close vote, her local branch voted to admit African-Americans to the union. Wiggins’ role as an inspiring speaker and balladeer earned her acclaim from union leaders, fellow strikers and sympathetic editors. But because of her notoriety, she was singled out by opposing mill workers and civic leaders as a target for assassination.

The murder of Ella Mae Wiggins raised a firestorm of protest across North Carolina and the nation. But no one was ever convicted of her slaying. On March 6, 1930, despite the testimony of more than 50 eyewitnesses, a Charlotte jury took only half an hour of deliberation to acquit the five Loray Mill employees indicted for her murder.

Although the popularity of most of the Gastonia strike songs was short-lived, concerned with specific personalities and events that quickly faded from the headlines once the strike was settled, a few of Wiggins’ songs reached audiences far beyond the Carolina hills. In magazine articles, Margaret Larkin introduced Wiggins’ ballads to sympathizers in national publications and sang them in Greenwich Village folk concerts.

Wiggins’ ballads became influential as protest song models for songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes during the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1953, John Greenway published Wiggins’ six surviving ballads and he recorded a version of two of Wiggins’ ballads.

One year later, Pete Seeger recorded “The Mill Mother’s Song” under the title of “Mill Mother’s Lament” for one of his albums. Wiggins’ strike songs have also appeared in numerous song anthologies, labor histories, and union booklets.

Now acclaimed as “The Poet Laureate of the Gastonia Strike of 1929,” Ella Mae Wiggins is buried in Bessemer City Cemetery. A marble cross, which the local chapter of National Organization for Women erected on her previously unmarked grave on the 50th anniversary of her death, reads simply: “She was killed carrying the torch of social justice. September 14, 1929.”

Carroll McMahan is special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or ron@ronraderproperties.com