Ella May Wiggins And “Mill Mother’s Lament” Protest Songs For Change

Author: By Wiley Cash

Ella May Wiggins was born in east Tennessee in 1900 and spent her early life on tenant farms and in lumber camps. She married a man named John Wiggins in 1916, and the couple soon left the mountains for Cowpens, South Carolina, a small town in the South Carolina upstate where Ella worked on a farm and later in her first textile mill. Ella and John were part of a generation of mountaineers from Appalachia who left the hills for the mills and began a peripatetic life fueled by low wages and the hope that the next mill in the next town would deliver on the promise of the easy living that had lured them out of the mountains. The couple and their growing family were eventually lured across the North Carolina line by the hope of financial security offered by the dozens of mills in Gaston County, North Carolina, which had come to be known as “the combed yarn capitol of the South,” the town of Gastonia leading the way as “the city of spindles.” Over the next several years, Ella gave birth to nine children while she and John bounced from mill to mill in Gaston County before settling in a predominately African American community called Stumptown. John soon abandoned the family.

By 1929, twenty-eight-year-old Ella was a single mother who had lost four of her nine children to poverty related illnesses. She earned nine dollars for a seventy-two hour workweek on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City. That spring, Ella learned about the National Textile Workers’ Union strike at the Loray Mill seven miles to the east, and her life, as well as the life of many North Carolinians, changed forever. 

The Loray Mill was built in 1900 by local investors, and it was one of the largest mills in the South. By 1929 it was owned and operated by a Long Island–based company that had instituted labor practices unfamiliar to Southern mill workers. The stretch-out system made fewer workers responsible for greater output, the hank clock measured their work and determined their pay, workers were no longer allowed to leave during the night shift to check on children who were left home alone, and massive layoffs drove wages to poverty levels. 

The National Textile Workers Union, the labor arm of the American Communist Party, led the Loray strike—and its demands seem simple by today’s standards: a $20 minimum wage per week, a forty-hour workweek, an end to the hank clock, sanitary housing, equal pay for equal work, and union recognition. Loray scoffed at these demands, and the local newspaper began publishing violent anti-union propaganda.

After learning about the strike at Loray, Ella walked off her job and joined the National Textile Workers Union. That summer she wrote and sang protest songs at rallies. She traveled to Washington D.C. and confronted North Carolina Senator Lee Overman about labor conditions in southern mills and the plight of working mothers. She integrated the Gaston County branch of the National Textile Workers Union against the will of local party officials and members, opening the union to her African American neighbors and former co-workers. In effect, Ella became the face of the Loray Mill strike and the voice of organized labor in the South. She was a workers’ rights advocate at a time when mill owners openly scoffed at federal labor laws, and she was a feminist and civil rights leader decades before these terms were staples of the American progressive movement. 

When Ella May—she had dropped Wiggins from her name—spoke or sang at a rally, she often told her story of life in the mills. 

"I’m the mother of nine. Four of them died with the whooping cough, all at once. . . . I asked the super to put me on the day-shift, so I could tend ’em, but he wouldn’t. I don’t know why. So I had to quit my job and then there wasn’t any money for medicine, so they just died. I never could do anything for my children, not even keep ’em alive, it seems. That’s why I’m for the union, so I can do better for them."

After speaking, Ella would launch into one of her protest songs. She wrote and performed several original ballads during the strike, but “Mill Mother’s Lament” was her best known. Based on the melody of the popular song “Little Mary Phagan,” it portrays the heartrending plight of Southern mill mothers and their children. Ella had grown up in the Smoky Mountains, first on farms and then in lumber camps, where she and her mother took in laundry while singing old mountain ballads. According to accounts, Ella’s singing voice was deep and seasoned with pain, and her lyrics reflected the plainspoken style of her speech. 

Ella May Wiggins - Mill Mother's Lament (performed by Pete Seeger)

A violent and unpredictable atmosphere surrounded the strike that summer. On June 6, 1929, a raid on the strikers’ headquarters left Orville Aderholt, the Gastonia police chief, dead from gunshot wounds. Dozens of strikers were arrested and tried in a case that ended in mistrial. In September, while the jailed strikers were awaiting retrial, Ella led a group of unarmed workers to a rally. They encountered a roadblock comprised of the Committee of 100, a secret group of local officials financed by the mill. Ella’s caravan turned back—then the truck carrying Ella was forced off the road, overturning in a field. Ella was shot. According to witnesses, her final words were, “My Lord, they have shot me.” 

While Ella’s murder was covered around the world, her name and reputation were sullied in local and statewide newspapers, and then her legacy and the story of the Loray Mill strike were all but buried by history. I know this because I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, and I never heard a word about Ella May Wiggins, Orville Aderholt, or the Loray Mill strike until 2003 when I enrolled in graduate school in Louisiana. This despite the fact that my mother’s maiden name is Wiggins, and despite the fact that my grandfather Harry Wiggins was twenty-two-years old and worked in a South Carolina mill only a few miles from where a woman who shared his last name was murdered; despite the fact that my grandfather would eventually move to Gaston County and retire from millwork there; despite the fact that my maternal grandmother Pearly Lucille Owensby Wiggins was born in Cowpens, South Carolina, in 1914, just a few short years before Ella and John arrived. But I was not alone in my ignorance. My mother and father, both born in mill villages not far from where Ella May Wiggins lived, worked, and was murdered, had never heard of her either. Anyone who remembered the violent summer of 1929 must have remembered it in private and spoke of it in whispers.

In 2014, the Loray Mill was renovated into luxury loft apartments, and Gastonia began to come to terms with the mill’s violent history. The renovation included a historical marker and a museum where Ella’s legacy is finally shared with the people of North Carolina. But others have always known the story of Ella’s struggle and power of her music. Her protest ballads have been performed by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Pete Seeger and, now, in a special recording for the North Carolina music issue of The Oxford American, Shannon Whitworth. 

I visited Shannon at Echo Mountain Recording in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, on the day she recorded “Mill Mother’s Lament.” 

“I’ve tried to channel Ella May,” Shannon said. “I want her to speak through me.” 

When she began singing, I closed my eyes, imagined a field packed with weary strikers, and listened to a lament that still calls us to action nearly one hundred years later. 

Wiley Cash

About the Author

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. The founder of the Open Canon Book Club and co-founder of the Land More Kind Appalachian Artists Residency, he has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Weymouth Center. He serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and their young daughters. https://www.wileycash.com/

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