War in the South
In the springtime the low hills of the southern Piedmont turn misty green. Swift streams cut through the red clay farmland. Along their banks in 1929 were strung dozens of cotton mills and Protestant churches. The proprietors of the two institutions formed a close alliance in the mill villages to build “civic consciousness”—a euphemism for the training of the southern textile workers to regularity, diligence, and submission to their economic superiors. As one southern mill executive put it with unconscious high humor, “We had a young fellow from an eastern seminary down here as pastor a few years ago, and the young fool went around saying that we helped pay the preachers’ salaries in order to control them. That was a damn lie—and we got rid of him!”1
Life in this wooded country seemed far removed from the social problems of the industrial cities of the East, with their massed concentrations of wealth, technology, and the immigrant poor. Yet the Piedmont, where the nation’s cotton textile industry was concentrated, became a bloody union battleground in the spring of 1929. A spontaneous uprising in eastern Tennessee spread through South Carolina and North Carolina within a few weeks. The most famous of these textile strikes occurred in Gastonia, North Carolina, a town of thirty thousand, which held the largest number of spindles in the state and in the South, and the third largest number in the nation. Before the strike was ended, the name of Gastonia had been trumpeted throughout the world as a symbol of Communist-led struggle in a brutally hostile environment.
The textile workers’ revolt appeared doubly shocking since it came in a region that had been widely advertised as a refuge from unionism, high wages, and restrictions on child labor. Northern capital poured into the textile towns, drawn by the promise of a labor force composed of helots believed to be content with long hours and low pay, so happy were they to escape tenant farms and mountain cabins for steady mill wages. This well-defined underclass provided a reservoir of native white mill hands, supposedly “free from outside influence and consequent labor unrest,” as a letter from a southern Chamber of Commerce boasted in 1928.
By World War I, employer-employee relations in Gastonia had grown hostile as great wealth accumulated in the pockets of absentee mill owners. Employee protest seemed hopeless, wrote Theodore Draper: “The workers were herded into isolated villages in which the companies owned their shacks, provided what schools there were, paid the teacher if any, ran the stores, extended credit, built the churches, subsidized the ministers, and administered ‘law and order’ through mill guards, company spies and deputy sheriffs.”2 But shock troops entered Gastonia in 1929. A tiny band of Communist organizers gave a rude challenge to racial prejudice and Protestant theology—those key supports of the southern economic elite.
In 1926, southern textile workers earned an average of $15.81 for a fifty-five-hour week, about two-thirds of what New England textile workers earned for forty-eight hours of work. The 1929 uprising of fifteen thousand textile workers in the southern states was an outraged response to the recent introduction of the stretchout—an increase in each mill hand’s workload by speedup rather than by technology—and to the sharp reduction in wages that accompanied it. The mill hands who had endured six-day weeks, and ten- to twelve-hour days at wages so low that everyone in their families over fourteen was forced to work, refused to accept the new burden. One after another, they told Vorse, “We could not do it.”3
The Piedmont textile workers were drawn from two sources, the lowland white tenant farmers and the mountain folk of the South. They were virtually all religious, nearly illiterate, and of undiluted Anglo-Saxon stock. Many of them were fiercely individualistic, easily provoked to violent defense of their honor or their meager possessions. “We cut and shoot one another at a rate not even equalled in the centers of urban civilization,” a guidebook to North Carolina noted.4
The southern textile strikes presented several radically new situations to the northern organizers who were veterans of the immigrant strikes in the Northeast. The native white work force of the South was more prone than the foreign born to answer the violence of the authorities with equally violent resistance. Most of the workers, unrestrained by southern law, were fully armed. When the strike leader at Gastonia forbade weapons on the picket line, Vorse reported, “The mountaineers were glum. . . . Without their guns they felt emasculated, deprived of manhood.”5 Many of the men on strike in Gastonia flatly refused to enter a picket line unless they could carry weapons. Although this may have been a wise personal decision on the part of the men, who refused to function as helpless targets, this meant that women and children were usually the only strikers in Gastonia the organizers dared allow on the picket line.
The southern workers’ arms were but a reaction to another difference in the southern situation—the prevalence of unrestrained and generally sanctioned community violence. Vorse was accustomed to assaults against workers from policemen and soldiers and hired hoodlums, but before Gastonia she had not experienced the terror induced by impromptu mobs led by local gentry and composed of townspeople.
The southern textile protest began in March 1929, when five thousand workers rose to protest their fifty-six-hour week and average wage of $9.20 in the mills near the remote small town of Elizabeth ton, Tennessee. They were led by enraged women, which did not prevent Sherwood Anderson from praising the strikers’ “religion of brotherhood.” The revolt was met by a crushing injunction and then an agreement from management to raise wages, an accord canceled by the owners as soon as the strikers began to drift back to work. On April 4, twenty men, some of them police and businessmen, including the local bank president, drove a northern AFL man from town at gunpoint. Another mob beat on a local unionist until his sister scared them away with rifle shots. On April 15 the Tennessee governor sent in a helpful military force, which was paid directly by management, to suppress the strike. The mill provided food, free cigarettes, and an officers’ club to the troops. The mill workers retaliated by blowing up the town’s main water line. When the Tennessee strike ended in May, the workers had won nothing, except a promise, quickly broken, that they could discuss their problems with the mill’s new personnel director. He was the same New Jersey textile executive who had represented the employers at Passaic.6
The revolution was proclaimed at Gastonia on April 1, by a lone, brand-new Communist who had been in town just a few days. Thirty-three-year-old Fred Beal was a chubby, anxious, and sincere man. He began work in the textile mills of Lawrence when he was fourteen. There inspired by Bill Haywood, Beal passed through the Socialist Party and the IWW before he joined the Communists at the 1928 textile strike in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Beal was sent South as an organizer in January 1929, by the National Textile Workers Union, the Communist dual union formed in late 1928 to challenge the moribund AFL. Without funds, Beal came South on a motorcycle, arriving in torn clothing and shoes so dilapidated he felt his appearance hampered his effectiveness.
When the manager of Gastonia’s Loray Mill, owned by Manville-Jenckes Company of Rhode Island, was warned by a company spy, he fired five union sympathizers. At once, eighteen hundred impoverished and resentful mill hands walked out. They did so against the advice of Beal, who realized he was not prepared to sustain a strike. The workers’ demands were moderate—increased pay, union recognition, and improved housing—except for the call for a forty-hour week, then not feasible for many workers in the North and unthinkable in the South. The owners responded with a court injunction that prohibited all strike activity.
Within four days of the walkout Governor Max Gardner, a mill owner, rushed in five companies of the National Guard to prevent the overthrow of the U.S. government by the two young reds in Gastonia. Beal had been reinforced by the addition of Ellen Dawson, a twenty-eight-year-old spritelike Scotswoman with cropped black hair who had been a weaver at Passaic.
A wall of hate and hysteria was erected by the local press and mill owners. The Gastonia Daily Gazette warned on April 4 that the strike at the Loray Mill “was started simply for the purpose of overthrowing this Government, to destroy property and to KILL, KILL, KILL. The time is at hand for every American to do his duty.” The employers’ circular warned: “Our Religion, Our Morals, Our Common Decency, our Government and the very foundations of Modern Civilization, all that we are now and all that we plan for our children IS IN DANGER. Communism will destroy the efforts of Christians of 2000 years.” The clincher in the local diatribe was that the reds did not believe in religion, or the sanctity of marriage, and, even worse, upheld free love.7
In early April, the Communists sent two more organizers into Gastonia. Amy Schechter, the thirty-seven-year-old daughter of an Oxford professor, was bent on conveying what she thought was a proletarian appearance. She rarely brushed her hair and was notoriously sloppy in appearance. Schechter was a feverish admirer of Earl Browder and represented the Communist-led Workers’ International Relief. She called the New York party office every day. By the end of the evening, money was usually telegraphed in to buy beans, flour, and staples for distribution to the workers. This piecemeal existence, with occasional money left over to give the strike leaders, was bewildering and frustrating to all but Schechter who unhesitantly accepted the inconvenience in the interest of some higher meaning known only to party leaders.
The other newcomer, Vera Buch, fulfilled the most awful fears of the Gastonia establishment. She was the unmarried lover of Albert Weisbord, whom she had met in Passaic. Buch was just then recovering from an abortion, which Weisbord had insisted she undergo in the name of party commitment. At thirty-four, Buch had been a Communist for ten years. She was shy, ill at ease, and just beginning to develop her own sense of self and leadership style. In the judgment of the historians Paul and Mari Jo Buhle, Vera Buch was psychologically “dependent upon the direction of the Party on the one hand, and on her relationship to Albert Weisbord on the other. . . . To lend herself fully to either was to rob herself of the other possibility.”8
The young Communist leaders in Gastonia were a hapless lot, isolated victims of both a hysterical community and a factionalized party. In accord with new directions from the Comintern, the American Communists believed they were then entering the “Third Period,” when American workers were supposedly on the verge of revolutionary upsurge.9 This coming gigantic class struggle, according to Stalin, would unleash imperialistic wars and colonial movements; thus American Communists were instructed to organize dual unions outside the AFL and to discredit the non-Communist left in every way possible. Some national party leaders greeted the Gastonia strike with ecstasy. Earl Browder hailed it as “the opening of a new period in the American class struggle.” After all, the events at Gastonia, where a walkout had erupted that was led by only one party organizer, who had been at work for only a few weeks and operated with no money, seemed to justify the Comintern’s prediction that revolution was at hand. The Third Period, it seemed, was a reality. The Gastonia strike had the additional virtue of providing relief from the internal struggles in the party, which had reached a crisis by the spring of 1929, what with the Jay Lovestone and William Foster factions in Moscow, fighting it out, through all of April and May.
But the ultrarevolutionary line of the Third Period, when joined to local southern hatred and to the wrangling in party headquarters, ultimately was to prove disastrous for the strike leaders in Gastonia. North Carolina reactionaries must have been pleased when Weisbord and other northern Communists briefly dropped in down South to announce that the workers themselves would take over the Loray Mill once the strike was won, or that the Gastonia battle would transform economic and social life in the South as drastically as the Civil War had done.
As national secretary of the National Textile Workers Union, Weisbord also insisted that the Gastonia strike leaders integrate blacks and whites into union activities. To its great credit, the American Communist Party, throughout its history, has stood for racial equality. But racial integration of the union was anathema to most southern white mill hands. It was perceived as sheer madness by the blacks themselves, who made up perhaps 5 percent of the mill labor force and were restricted to the most menial work performed outside the mill buildings. Faithful Vera Buch, following the party’s directives, sought out black women workers sorting rags in a mill doorway near Bessemer City. Intent on saving their lives and those of their loved ones, the black women refused to talk, or even to look at her.
The employers were quick to advertise this red threat to southern wealth: “Would you belong to a union which opposes White Supremacy?” their handbills gloated. On April 5, the Charlotte, North Carolina, Observer printed a report on strike developments in Gastonia. One sentence from a speech by Beal was set in bold type: “There must be no division between White and Colored Workers.” The Gastonia newspaper combined anti-Semitism with racism. “Albert Weisbord,” it reported, “an East Side Russian Jew, knows as much about American ideals as a Hottentot.”10
Actually, the Gastonia strike collapsed almost as soon as it began. With no relief or publicity organization worth the name in operation, most of the strikers drifted away within three weeks, some back to the hills or to work in other mills. The strike leadership, so pitifully small in number and resources, was easily stampeded. The picketing women and children were dealt gun blows, pricked with bayonets, and dumped in jail. As a non-Communist reporter sympathetically observed, the strikers’ “parades were broken up every day and just as consistently the strikers would form again the following day to march, with full knowledge of what they were doing, into the clubs and rifles. I saw a woman striker knocked down and struck with a bayonet until she bled profusely. She struggled to her feet and marched on—in the parade.”11 With the whole textile industry in the South a tinderbox, ripe for ignition from organizers, erupting in spontaneous strikes in Henderson, Whare Shoals, and High Point, all near Gastonia, and in South Carolina mills, the North Carolina authorities could not honor mere legalities.
The Gastonia mob spirit triumphed on the night of April 18. Over 100 masked men destroyed the union headquarters near the mills, razing the shack and burning relief goods. A block away, the National Guard “slept” through the noise of demolition but appeared in time to arrest nine strikers and to charge them with destroying their own property.12 Despite a small flurry of protest in the liberal press, no attempt was ever made to arrest the real culprits. It now seemed safe to withdraw the state militia. On April 20 they were replaced by sheriffs’ deputies equipped from the state arsenal. Attacks on strikers by a local force organized by the Loray Mill intensified. Several workers received bad bayonet wounds or were beaten unconscious in jail. Meanwhile, the frightened, faithful, and courageous young Communists in Gastonia remained at their post, gamely directing the few recalcitrant strikers still left, who numbered approximately eighty-five families by mid-April.
A few days after the destruction of union headquarters, Fred Beal was arrested for allegedly abducting a striker’s wife and carrying her to New York. In fact, the woman, who had left her husband some time before, had traveled to New York to speak on behalf of the workers. Ellen Dawson was also arrested and held on two thousand dollars bond. She was charged with violation of immigration laws. The southern authorities claimed not to know she was an American citizen. Vera Buch and Amy Schechter were arrested as they led a strikers’ parade and were charged with drunkenness. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union hustled about for several weeks before all these charges were dropped for want of evidence.13
Seven days after the mob’s attack, Vorse reached Gastonia on the midnight train. Early next morning she took a taxi to the new strike headquarters in West Gastonia. She passed the demolished old one on the way. It was the symbol of “grotesque savagery” that had led her to Gastonia first on her tour of the southern textile towns. The great Loray Mill dominated the settlement, behind it the mill village, where a flock of houses, all alike, perched on brick stilts. The small strike headquarters was a dim store building, filled with silent men, lounging on the dusty counters. They seemed to Vorse to have the most worn clothing she had ever seen on workers. Many had toothless gaps, the rest tobacco-stained teeth. They eyed her with suspicious reserve. “There is an element of phantastic about the whole situation,” Vorse thought as she watched them looking over copies of the Daily Worker. The Communist newspaper carried wild ex-aggerations of the success of the strike, perverting reality in its desire to please its Soviet mentors.14
Vorse waited for the strike leaders to appear. Vera Buch, “unresponsive as usual,” according to Vorse, saw her first. Vorse remembered Buch as the silent office worker at Passaic who had always managed to place the newspaper clippings where they could not be found. In her journal, Vorse entered her bad-tempered impressions of the young organizers. She judged Buch “faultlessly fearless and totally unimaginative,” a “pedantic Communist, impossible to talk to because of her mouthing phrases,” but with a deep determination that belied her colorless impression. Vorse met Fred Beal for the first time: “a nice boy, a weak boy, oppressed with the tremendous weight of the strike. He seemed to me at first touching and petulant . . . over-anxious.” Vorse found disorderly and tireless Amy Schechter, with snarled hair and dirty clothes, “perpetually twitching her shoulder and winking her eye in a nervous tick,” to be the most animated. Ellen Dawson, “a little wren of a girl,” instantly confided to Vorse her dislike of Vera Buch.
The entire atmosphere was one of fright, disorganization, and factionalism, “the impressions of a first day which were all chiefly of deep criticism on the part of the women of the men,” Vorse wrote. Fred Beal was so frightened that he slept in the nearby town of Charlotte and “left the girls in the field alone.” Yet he was “depressed by the failure of the girls to acknowledge his leadership.” The three women leaders, on the other hand, were resentful that Fred Beal refused to accompany them and the striking women and their children on the dangerous picket line. They were all panicky about money. All except Schechter were highly critical of the distant New York office.
Slowly Vorse began to realize the extraordinary spectacle the ardent radicals presented. Floating in the sea of homicidal fury that surrounded them, they had no funds other than the occasional dollars doled out daily by Schechter. There was no money for strike publicity, relief work, or even food for themselves. There was no auditing system, no definite plans, no outside members of the union in all of North Carolina or Tennessee, no preparation of questionnaires, no press releases, no plan to elicit liberal help. There was, Vorse marveled, “no education of the workers, no division of labor, not even a record kept of how many cars were available or any organization of motor service,” and the strike leaders were governed by a relief organization in the North, part of whose leadership opposed their efforts. When Fred Beal called Robert Minor—acting secretary of the party while the other party leaders were in Moscow—and asked for money, Minor was complacent and cheerful. Minor told Beal he had no money to send. “Carry on Comrades,” Minor bid him blithely.15
“The strike scarcely seemed a strike. It was more like a relief station,” Vorse wrote in her journal.
Owen, the negro organizer [sent by the party] remained in Gastonia for three hours and disappeared. . . . Owen went after one smell of the place. [There is] a wide gap yawning between Albert’s plans and what really is—Albert Weisbord’s grandiose outline of “rolling strikes,” spreading from the North paralyzed by isolation, by half-understood instructions, by lack of the elementary things such as a mimeograph, money for circulars, decent places to sleep, a little privacy. Going through the motions of strike activity but no two thinking alike, no two having confidence in each other.16
All the organizers desperately wanted to return North, yet they remained, encircled by furious hatred, riveted by duty and ideals.
Vorse’s first reaction to their plight was annoyance and a grating stance of superiority. She felt they exaggerated the danger they were in because they were young and had always been on strikes with a base of radicals or liberals near them. “They have never been isolated. It seems very natural to me,” Vorse wrote, indicating her political growth since Lawrence, “to have to take for granted that the respectable community and the forces of society, church, law, police, newspapers, will all be railing against the workers and their leaders.” Vorse remembered the spirit of Mesabi as deadlier than any she found in Gastonia. And “this community seemed to bubble with violence less than did Pennsylvania, during the  steel strike, where during the first two weeks, fourteen strikers were shot down.”17 So far, Vorse reasoned, there had been only mutterings in the local Gastonia papers. Even the masked mob had not mauled the workers at the destroyed headquarters. For once, Vorse’s journalistic acumen failed her, as her direct experience and later events would prove.
Still acting as critic and wise guide, Vorse urged the strike leaders to organize the middle-class women in the area to provide a milk fund for the strikers’ children. The organizers laughed at her naive assessment of southern culture; no middle-class women here would do that. Again, Vorse suggested that working women and their children form marches, to be publicized and to elicit liberal support. Vorse thought that Vera Buch was reluctant to do this only because Albert Weisbord had ordered that only militant demanding male workers be publicized, and Buch wanted only to please Weisbord. Buch’s resentment of Vorse’s snide carping was evident.
Mary Vorse was a sophisticated person, a trusted sympathizer to whom I felt I could talk more or less freely. Often she referred to “Bobby” (Robert Minor, her former husband) and I think she felt some reflected glory in that association. She had a long history of association with radical causes. An air of self-pity, an apologetic manner were part of her understated personality. She was tall, slim, with sallow skin, thin brownish hair and heavy eyelids. She had a gravelly voice.18
Although Vorse had not intended to stay, she remained four weeks in Gastonia, circulating among the striking workers, taking affidavits, meeting the women, reporting the scene for several New York papers and the Federated Press. Gripped by the real-life drama around her, she began work on Strike!, her novel about the Gastonia strike. She and Vera Buch, for whom she felt growing affection and respect, roomed together in a small boarding house, sharing their meals and observations. Before long, they had become friends.
When the police broke up a strikers’ parade and arrested Buch, Vorse dispatched a scathing denunciation of Gastonian justice to the New York papers. The Gastonia Daily Gazette was incensed over “what Mary Heaton Vorse and other radical writers persist in describing as ‘Bloody Monday.’ In enforcing the law it became necessary for the police officers to use some force with blackjacks and bayonets but [after all] no one was seriously injured.”19
Vorse was surprised that so many New York papers gave unexpected publicity to the southern textile strikes. The New York Telegram and New York Times sent special correspondents. The World, too, had coverage that Vorse felt was fair. She suspected that northern newspaper owners felt a decided relief that the South had labor troubles. “The New England interests undoubtedly dominate the benevolent attitude [toward the strikers] so far expressed in the capitalist press,” Vorse mused in her journal. “Since all the strikes are small—rarely more than three thousand being implicated—it is hard to figure why so much favorable publicity should occur in the New York press, unless the New England interests, those which have not gone South, are delighted that the South could have so swiftly come to conflict with its one hundred percent American workers, guaranteed to give no labor troubles.”20
As always, Vorse’s primary focus was on the women. Two especially stuck in her mind. One was aged Mrs. Ada Howell. Vorse met her in her wooden shack of a home, with open knotholes in the floor and walls. The roof leaked. Howell had never been able to afford the five dollars to have the electricity turned on. She had been beaten by a drunken Gastonia policeman who attacked her with a bayonet as she returned home from shopping. She had two black eyes. “Prather hit me with his fist between the eyes,” Howell told Vorse. “He hit me not once but twenty times, I reckon. My face was swole and bruised double size and black and blue all over.” In Harper’s, Vorse wrote: “It gave one a sense of embarrassment and impotent anger to look at her. She told her story in a detached way.” Ada Howell added: “He cut my dress and he cut me too. Lawyer Jimison told me I should keep that dress without washing it so I could show it, but I didn’t have enough dresses to lay these clothes away.” Vorse wrote: “We didn’t say anything. There didn’t seem to be anything to say. I suppose when comfortable people read such stories they think, ‘This can’t be true.’ . . . We went on. Strike sightseeing is a rather awful thing. There is obscenity in the fact that old women can be beaten for no reason when they are peacefully proceeding on their business. . . . It does not seem reasonable that such things should happen here in this country, in 1929.”21
The other woman who impressed Vorse was Ella May Wiggins, fated before the year was over to be immortalized in American labor history. She was a stocky Slavic woman, about thirty, who had born nine children in ten years. Deserted by her husband, she came to Bessemer City, near Gastonia, to work in the mill. Her oldest child stayed home to care for the rest while Wiggins worked her ten-hour shift. One day four of the children died of croup while she was at work. The other five were now being cared for by the oldest, who was eleven. A fervent supporter of the strike, Wiggins had attempted the unthinkable. She had approached a few black workers in the mills and passed union cards to them. Ella May Wiggins was also the popular bard of the Gastonian strikers, singing her mournful mountain ballads that described the workers’ struggle.
On May 6, the mill owners evicted sixty-two striking families from their company-owned houses. The deputies piled the meager belongings outside and padlocked the houses. The Reading Advocate reported that a small girl suffering from smallpox was carried out of her home by the deputies and placed in the yard. A man watching left quickly. If he stayed, he said, he was afraid he might kill one of the policemen. Vorse interviewed a woman who with her children was sitting on a pile of clothing and goods in her miserable dirt yard. The woman was weeping, shaking her fist at the house, which had “killed her too long.” When Vorse based an article for the World on the events she had seen—the violence toward the workers, the low wages, long hours, child labor, night work for women and children—the Gastonia Daily Gazette published an angry editorial saying she had gotten her facts from hearsay. “It is a strange state of mind,” Vorse wrote in her strike journal, “in the community having a just pride in its accomplishments and like a doting parent being unwilling to face its faults . . . a morbid extension of civic pride.”22 The comfortable citizens of Gastonia were convinced that the workers were paid all they deserved and that outside agitators like Vorse were causing all the trouble.
Vorse was soon to see a little bayonet work for herself. She observed the usual picket line composed of women and children forming in the spring sunshine—“young girls in bright cotton dresses, toothless grandmas grasp one another firmly by the arm.” Two boys about fifteen and sixteen were leading the line. From behind came cars with ununiformed men armed with guns and bayonets. The men piled out of the cars and arrested the two boys. Five men pulled the hair and twisted the arms of a woman near the front of the line, as she struggled to escape. “Neighborhood women near me began to cry. A deputy told us to move on,” Vorse reported. The woman still struggling with the men was not a picket but had come to get her boy out of the line. She was arrested and thrown into a car. As they drove away, Vorse heard her screaming that she had a young baby alone at home to which she must return. The guards, many of whom were drunk, despite the early hour, jabbed at the women’s skirts with their bayonets.23
At this juncture, Vorse left Gastonia to report the textile strikes in Elizabethton. The economist Broadus Mitchell later recalled meeting her there: “Mrs. Vorse was much respected by all who knew or knew of her, [she] took part in all that went forward, was elderly, dressed in black, an appreciated presence.” Vorse slept in a rooming house where the strike leaders stayed. That night the occupants received six bomb threats. Young boys stood armed guard while they slept. Vorse and the others could not rest. “We are on edge, and we appear, each one at our doors, like people in a farce,” she wrote. Around midnight, the occupants of the house gathered their chairs around a cold cast-iron wood stove, discussing the possibility of a “sellout” by the negotiating AFL strike leaders.24
At some point during her trip to Tennessee, Vorse became greatly alarmed by something she may have discovered, or perhaps overheard, or only sensed. On her way home to the North, Vorse went out of her way to make a special stop at Gastonia to share this new knowledge with Vera Buch. She had returned to Gastonia to warn Buch to get out of Gastonia as soon as possible. Buch remembered the scene:
Mary Vorse had taken me aside outside the headquarters to warn me of some trouble she was sure was brewing. “Something’s going to happen, Vera,” she said seriously. “And perhaps soon. I’ve been in so many of these situations, I can smell it. I smell danger here.” I told her it had always been dangerous; we had been threatened from the beginning. She insisted this was something special. . . . Mary Vorse was gone the next morning; she had left without saying goodbye.25
Although she did not convince Buch to go with her, Vorse left Gastonia just in time. Within a week of her departure, Gastonia became front-page national news. On June 7, fire was exchanged on the ground where the workers expelled from the company houses had set up a tent colony near the mill. When the police chief and three deputies entered the tent colony without a warrant, four officers were wounded. Gastonia’s police chief, O. F. Aderholt, was dead. Hysteria and hatred boiled over. A mob of two thousand led by a Gastonia attorney completely destroyed the workers’ tent colony. Those residents who could not flee were chased down, beaten, and thrown in jail. Every northerner was arrested. Fourteen strike leaders were jailed and charged with conspiracy leading to murder. These included Fred Beal and three young women—Buch, Schechter, and nineteen-year-old Sophie Melvin.
. . .
Vorse arrived in Provincetown on the day that the Gastonia mob ran amuck. Her first days at home were totally consumed by the press of domestic chores and cleaning and supplying the house. Four days passed before she learned of the destruction of the tent colony and the arrest of the strike leaders. Her neighbor, John Dos Passos, brought her the news. “I think of my last look at the colony,” Vorse wrote in her diary that night, “people living under trees, curly-haired Sophie Melvin leading a band of children with a flag and the tragedy seems unbearable.”26
After her six weeks in the textile towns, Provincetown seemed a wondrous haven. She remained there through most of the summer, writing a series of labor articles describing her experiences in the South. Two of them brought large checks. She dashed off a lollypop, which sold to Harper’s. With her new wealth, she bought a sailboat. She passed the days of summer sailing, hiking, sunning, and partying with the Provincetown intelligentsia. Thinking later of that interlude, Vorse remembered it as the moment “when I divorced my family.” She wrote Ellen not to come home that summer. For the first time since the spring of 1922 Vorse felt healthy and whole, full of self-esteem and purpose.27
During the summer she exchanged letters with Fred Beal and Vera Buch, promising them her assistance. From Provincetown, Vorse successfully initiated an effort, via the ACLU, to mobilize liberal feeling within South and North Carolina. She worked with a view to getting articles in the southern papers: “such few as we can get in, and also to have a basis for appeal to the Governor. . . . Certainly everyone of us who know how Fred Beal tried to keep the workers from shooting, should do all we can,” she wrote a southern liberal.28
In mid-August, Vorse won an assignment from the New York Graphic to report the trial of Beal and the others. She also agreed to serve as correspondent for the Federated Press and TASS, the Soviet wire service. Vorse and Dos Passos had asked the New Republic to send them to report on Gastonia, but both were thought to be too far to the left to be reliable from the journal’s point of view. The liberals, Dos Passos told New Republic editor Edmund Wilson, “are all so neurotic about Communists!” Dos Passos wrote Vorse, “I’m going to try to make some newspaper connections. It’s no use trying to fuss around with the liberal weeklies. They have damn little influence anyway.”29
After a change of venue, because of presumed prejudice in Gaston County, the trial opened in Charlotte in late August. The Charlotte News greeted the event with a peculiar defense of due process: The strike leaders “believe in violence, arson, murder. They want to destroy our institutions, our traditions. They are undermining all morality, all religion. But nevertheless they must be given a fair trial, although everyone knows that they deserve to be shot at sunrise.” The International Labor Defense, legal arm of the Communists, retained Tom P. Jimison of Charlotte as defense counsel. Vorse described Jimison as “tall, slender, with a delicate air of grace about him, burning eyes, a well sculptured mouth, a spiritual adventurer knowing how to use people’s emotions like stops in an organ.” He had left the Methodist ministry in protest against the mill owners’ control of the churches. Vorse judged him a violent man, with a zest for martyrdom, who considered the accused “as very touching, a tiny band confronting a tremendous organized society, confronting the lions.”30
Jimison was joined by Arthur Garfield Hays and John Randolph Neal, the notable attorneys associated with the famous Scopes-trial evolution controversy in Tennessee; they were all supported by the ACLU. The attorneys for the prosecution made an awesome crew. They included Clyde R. Hoey, brother-in-law of the governor, and R. G. Cherry, state commander of the American Legion. Presiding was a laconic young judge, whose words were barely audible. The presence of the largest gathering ever of the press in North Carolina, according to the Nation, probably had “a somewhat sobering effect on the prosecution.”31
During the eight days of jury selection, the trial proceeded genially. The audience in the crowded courtroom was almost entirely male. The upper gallery reserved for blacks was cleared to make way for the whites. The defendants chatted, passed notes, smiled, sometimes slept, in amiable innocence. The state dropped the demand for the death penalty for the three women, in the name of southern chivalry. To the prosecution’s dismay, Judge Barnhill ruled that he would not allow any evidence to be presented concerning the defendants’ political, racial, or religious beliefs. The only evidence he would consider was what happened on the night of the shooting. The Communists were forced to admit the judge’s equitable rulings throughout the proceedings. The courtroom feel of gentle and unhurried justice was heightened by the constant presence of the jailer’s two barefooted children, who wandered about, sometimes sitting on the judge’s lap, or leaning on the knees of the prisoners or reporters. North Carolina law demanded that the names of prospective jurors be drawn at random by children too young to read or write. The whole scene heightened the northern reporters’ sense of their presence in a weird and alien culture.32
After 408 challenges, the final jury, a young, primarily working-class group, was selected: seven working men, four tenant farmers, and a grocery clerk. Most of those examined expressed their belief in the right to shoot in self-defense.
The first day of the trial began with a prosecution stratagem borrowed from a similar scene in a movie that had recently been shown near Charlotte. As Vorse reported the event:
Waggling through the doorway near the judge’s bench came a rigid figure. It was covered with a black shroud and jerked along by the sheriff. The shroud fell dramatically and disclosed a life size mannikin of [the dead] Chief of Police Aderholt. Solicitor Carpenter ran nimbly forward and pushed back the wide policeman’s hat disclosing the deathly face of the chief. There stood the ghastly figure in full police uniform, blood stained collar, blood stained coat, white death mask. The audience gasped. Was it possible that these eminent attorneys had used this cheap trick of melodrama? “We object,” cried the defense. “Objections sustained,” said Judge M. V. Barnhill, eyeing the figure. “We only wish to show the location of the gunshot wounds,” pleaded the solicitor.
A brief altercation occurred while the blood stained figure remained to tax the incredulity of the beholders.
“I said to take that out,” said the Judge with finality, and the bloody mannikin of the chief waggled solemly away amid a ripple of laughter.33
During the next four days of testimony, the state was unable to present any convincing evidence to connect the accused with the shooting of the sheriff. Vorse was convinced, as were most northern commentators, that Fred Beal and at least four other of the defendants were unarmed at the time of the shooting. In the terror and confusion of the moment, it was all but impossible to determine who had fired the fatal shots. Vorse concluded: “I cannot really know nor can anyone else what happened except that a lot of boys shot in self-defense.”34 With everything going its way, the defense was shattered when the judge called a mistrial on September 9, caused when one juror suddenly behaved as though he were insane, the breakdown allegedly induced by his sight of the life-size model of the dead police chief.
The mistrial decision was a serious setback for the defense. Several of the released jurors stated that the flimsy case presented by the state would have brought in a verdict of not guilty. To Soviet readers, Vorse explained that the jury’s sympathy stemmed from the rigid class structure she observed in the South.
All around Charlotte are residence sections of miles and miles of splendid private houses with garages and gardens. The standard of wealth is incredibly high, even for America. There are almost no small middle class districts. The acres of small but comfortable bungalows or small houses which one sees in most American cities are absent. There are the poor shacks inhabited by the workers and the magnificent houses of the well-to-do. Every mill or factory is surrounded by a hundred of these shacks. Each mill owns the houses of the workers, who can be evicted when the owner chooses. It is in such a community of class cleavage that the trial is taking place.35
The mistrial declaration set off a reign of terror. On that evening nearly 100 automobiles containing mill superintendents, businessmen, and lawyers for the prosecution, as well as local thugs, wrecked the union headquarters in Gastonia and Bessemer City, another union stronghold. The next morning the mob moved on to Charlotte, twenty miles away, where, singing hymns, they ransacked the offices of the International Labor Defense and a local hotel where Communists and sympathizers were staying. To the tune of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” the mob kidnapped a union organizer and stripped and beat him unconscious, Vorse reported in the New York Evening Graphic. They then drove to defense lawyer Jimison’s home, shouting “Lynch him,” before they dispersed.36
On September 14 the Communist-led National Textile Workers Union announced a union rally to be held in South Gastonia, reasoning that to fail to do so would encourage more mob violence. That morning Vorse wrote in her diary: “How gladly I would stay at home today instead of going out to what I am sure is a trap for the union.” Two thousand men mobilized to prevent the union meeting, setting up roadblocks in all directions from the town. En route to the rally, Vorse entered a car with Liston Oak, publicity director for the International Labor Defense, and his wife, Margaret Larkin, whom Vorse had earlier brought to Passaic to do publicity work. The driver was union member A. A. Grier. Within minutes, wrote Vorse, as their car “proceeded slowly between ranks of the mob, howls went up. ‘Union organizers, union organizers! Stop that car.’ Cars sped ahead and intercepted us and blocked our way. Guns bustled around us.” Saved by the infrequent police, Vorse and her companions were pulled from the car and the men arrested. Oak was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and Grier with “reckless driving.”37
Vorse’s apprehension by the police was fortuitous, for it was just then that Ella May Wiggins, in a nearby open truck carrying twenty-two union members, was shot and killed by a member of the mob who fired point blank into the group of workers. “The last time I saw her,” Vorse wrote, “she said to me, ‘I belong to the union because of my children. I haven’t been able to do anything for them. I never sent a child to school. How could I buy shoes or books? Even if I could, I couldn’t let the oldest go. She has to take care of the smaller ones while I am at work. But when they grow up they won’t have to work twelve hours a day for nine dollars a week.’ She looked at me with extraordinary earnestness and said, They would have to kill me to make me leave the union.’” Ella May Wiggins had not been singled out by chance. Her well-known songs and her effort to organize the black workers made her a prime target for North Carolina justice.38
Vorse remained in Gastonia three more weeks, a period “of almost unbroken mob terror,” reporting the daily outrages she observed, her dispatches seared with fury and near disbelief. The trial was reopened on September 30, but she did not stay to see it.39 On October 2, she rushed to Marion, North Carolina, where she would record the latest horror in the South.
Since early July, AFL organizers had been busy in Marion. The anticommunism of the AFL’s United Textile Workers was no barrier against official terror. Vorse arrived the day after the massacre of six textile strikers, all shot in the back, by the Marion police force and mill deputies. Sinclair Lewis described the event:
When Sheriff Adkins threw tear gas at the strikers, Old Man Jonas, the striker nearest to Adkins, attacked him with a stick. Adkins was broad, fat, strong, about forty years old. . . . Beside Jonas was the . . . constable Broad Robbins, aged perhaps fifty. . . . And Old Man Jonas was sixty-eight, and so lame with rheumatism that he had to walk with a cane—the cane with which he struck the sheriff.
One would have thought that these two proud and powerful guardians of law and order would have been able to control Old Man Jonas without killing him. Indeed they made a good start. Adkins wrestled with him, and Broad clouted him in the back of the head. Jonas fell to his hands and knees. He was in that position when he was shot. . . .
After the riot, Jonas, fatally wounded, was taken to the hospital with handcuffs on, was placed on the operating-table, with handcuffs still on, and straightway he died on that table . . . with his handcuffs on.40
The deputies’ fire killed five other workers and wounded twenty-five. The president of the Marion Manufacturing Company, interviewed by a correspondent about the massacre, said of the police: “If ever I organize an army, they can have jobs with me. There was three tons of lead used in the world war to kill every man. Here we used less than five pounds and four are dead and 20 wounded. Damn good, I say.”41 Later, six unionists were convicted of rioting and the sheriff and deputies were acquitted in their trial for murder. The Marion strike would be completely crushed by December.
Drawn from her experience of three months in the South, from her memories of the tears rolling down the faces of women in grimed paths, the excitement of the young, the piles of belongings in the rain on red dirt, the laughing oneness of fight, the hatred for the respectable, the black faces so silent and still—Vorse wrote her story of Marion. Surfeit, exhaustion, hope, and hopelessness, she caught it all in her description in the New Republic. It all came together somehow, sharply honed words, stacatto sentences, the beauty of truth and feeling. Even the most comfortable, the most cynical, the most removed reader could not help but pause, for just a moment, to be moved, just an inch, to feeling, and perhaps to understanding.
Lights shine in the mill village of East Marion. . . .
With a party of strikers, I went “visitin’ the dead.” A striker drives us. We plunge in darkness down a sheer hill. We are at the Brysons’. The room is full of quiet visitors and watchers. People come in quietly and go out. Little is said. There are women sitting with their heads in their hands near the fire. The visitors pass quietly before the coffin. They are talking in low tones in another room. This is no ordinary funeral. This is murder—mass murder in cold blood of many people. . . .
“It’s a sorry day,” says someone. “We haven’t seen the end of this,” comes the answer. There are no threats of vengeance. There is an ominous quiet. . . .
We wind dark corners and scale rutted perpendicular hills. Before the Vickers, the road is so steep we must block the wheels. There is a pile of home-made wreaths of dahlias on the porch. Inside in one room lies murdered Sam Vickers. They call him Old Man Vickers. He was only fifty-six. Men come and men go before him . . . and recall how he ran four miles to join the union.
From the other room, the “warm room,” comes the keening of Mrs. Vickers, terrible and monotonous. . . .
There are no tears at the Jonas’s. There in the “warm room,” people are asleep. Three young girls and a child in one bed. George Jonas’ daughters, worn out with grief. The visitors murmur: “They beat him after he was shot and handcuffed. He was handcuffed when he came to the operating table. . . .”
Hall’s next. Hall was twenty-three. . . . His record in the strike was that except for one night, during nine weeks of the strike, he picketed every night for twelve hours. He had had a twelve hour day’s work always, so he worked twelve hours for the union.
“He was running away, and the deputies chased him shooting,” murmur the visitors. . . .
The day of the funeral . . . the gray caskets of the four murdered union men stand end on end in a long line. They are heaped with fall flowers. . . . People who haven’t gardens made paper-flower wreaths. . . .
Behind the flower-heaped coffins, a line of fifty relatives and friends sit in chairs. Up the shaded hillside are a thousand people more. . . . A thin fine note of weeping comes from the mourning women, a high keening of grief. They have been quiet for a long time. . . .
It was more of a demonstration than a funeral. . . .
The services were over. The hymn singing had finished. The entire company of a thousand people filed slowly, slowly, one by one, before the dead. Every man and woman, every child, looked into the faces of the four murdered fellow-workers. . . .
People went slowly away in little groups.
“We haven’t seen the end of this,” men said gravely to one another.42
The red holes in the ground were filled. Mounds of red earth were heaped over the dead. The mourners walked silently away. Like them, Vorse could not help her striving, although she, too, knew that something precious had ended without happiness or a sense of wholeness.