This is the seventh and final post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller’s sojourn in Wilmington, N.C., during the Second World War.
Before young Arthur Miller left Wilmington in November 1941 and returned to the Library of Congress, he did one last group of recordings. At the Odd Fellows Hall, he visited with a large group of African American women who were in the midst of a lengthy strike at the Southland Manufacturing Company, a textile plant that made men’s dress shirts.
A connection between the black women’s strike and the wartime boom may not be immediately apparent, but I can’t imagine that kind of protest happening in Wilmington until WW II.
That’s because the memory of the Wilmington race riot of 1898 was still too fresh.
Indeed, African American protest had been rare in Wilmington since 1898. That is a story told in Democracy Betrayed, the anthology that Tim Tyson and I edited in 1998, as well as in H. Leon Prather’s “We Have Taken a City,” Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow and LeRae Sikes Umfleet’s A Day of Blood, among others.
In the fall of 1898, Wilmington’s white conservatives had overthrown the elected city government and staged a deadly attack on black neighborhoods. They called themselves “white supremacists,” and they referred to their victory as “the triumph of white supremacy.”
Scholars sometimes refer to it as the only coup d’etat in U.S. history.
Hundreds of armed white men had killed an unknown number of black citizens and drove countless others out of their homes and into hiding in the swamps outside the city.
Over the next four decades, the white conservatives ruled Wilmington with single-minded authority and suppressed black dissent of all kinds. One of the women at the Odd Fellows Hall told Miller that she could not remember another strike in the city during her lifetime.
Yet the wartime boom threatened to shake up the old lines of race and power in the seaport.
Cracks in the walls of white supremacist rule established in 1898 had begun to show up.
The reasons for those cracks are complicated, and I’ll discuss them in more depth at another time. But the important thing to bear in mind for now is that, beginning late in 1939, wartime federal investments in military base construction, the shipyard and defense infrastructure (new roads, electricity, housing, etc.) led to a severe and unprecedented labor shortage in Wilmington.
That labor shortage gave black workers new leverage to organize labor unions and demand better pay and working conditions.
At the same time, the country’s need for harmonious labor-business relations in wartime led national and state leaders to steer local business leaders away from suppressing labor activism with the kind of violence and intimidation that had marked their response to labor activism in the 1920s and ’30s.
When Miller arrived in Wilmington in November, roughly 150 workers had been on strike at Southland since the 7thof July. The large majority of the strikers were African American, but their numbers also included white women.
Miller had first met the women on a picket line in front of the plant, and they had invited him to bring his recording equipment to the Odd Fellows Hall.
Miller and his sound engineer, Johnny Langenegger, set up their equipment on the vacant second floor of the creaky old building, between the union’s headquarters on the third floor and a beer garden on the first floor.
After their weekly union meeting, a large group of the women came downstairs and talked with Miller.
They did not hesitate to discuss the working conditions that led them to go on strike. According to the women, they had long endured low wages, humiliating workplace treatment and harsh reprisals if they sought to improve their lot.
A soft-spoken striker told Miller, “We would stand up sometime and shed tears.” She had worked in the plant’s steam room for 19 years.
Over the decades, she said, they had been “looking for a better day and wishing that a better day would come some day or another.”
The strike posed a great hardship for the women and put them at considerable personal risk. Nevertheless, to my ear, they sounded not only strong and unbent, but exultant.
In their voices, I could hear laughter and joy.
Certainly their faith buoyed them. One of the strikers declared to Miller that they harbored no doubts that God watched over them. “We know he will take care of us,” she told him.
Then Miller began to record their singing. They told him that they had begun singing on the very first day of the strike.
At that time, they sang church hymns. They first sang a popular hymn called “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done,” by the great African American composer, Lucie Campbell.
One of the group sang the first verse. Miller did not provide the women’s surnames on the audio recording, but I believe this singer was a woman named Rosa.
She was a contralto with a breathtakingly beautiful voice. At the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I just closed my eyes and listened to her:
If when you give the best of your service, Telling the world that the Savior has come, Be not dismayed when man don’t believe you, He’ll understand and say well done.
After the first verse, the other women strikers joined her for the rest of the hymn. I felt as if I was in that old hall 75 years ago.
As the strike continued, the women began to transform the hymns into protest songs. In most cases, they kept the melodies and wrote new words to go with them.
They sang a half dozen songs for Miller that day, including one called “Old Mr. Block” addressed to the Southland Manufacturing Co.’s owner.
A striker named Martha wrote the song, which included some rather ominously threatening lyrics. I thought they sounded a little odd when I recalled that the plant’s owner was Jewish.
Old Mr. Block, hallelujah/You know you can’t do what you please./You take a scab today and tomorrow too/But Jesus and the people have their eyes on you./Oh, Mr. Block, hallelujah, Jesus is watching you.
The strikers also sang a song with a more modern, secular beat. It was a sassy, swing-style number called “Stop Pretending.”
A woman named Annabelle told Miller that she and several other women, including at least one of her white co-workers, had written the music and lyrics while they walked the picket line.
Miller also taped songs performed by a pair of gentlemen who just seem to have wandered into the recording session. Evidently, they heard about Miller and his recording machine while they visited the tavern downstairs.
One sang a moving rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” which had been written for the musical Showboat in 1927.
The other, a railroad worker named Abner Teachey, crooned a song of his own creation that he called “Don’t Worry.”
The song recounted a lifetime of travails on and off the railroad, with each trouble followed by the refrain, “Lord I don’t worry, don’t worry—don’t worry.”
His song ends:
“Save all your money, leave it in your children’s hands, when you’re dead and gone, says Daddy must have been a crazy man. Lord, I don’t worry, don’t worry—don’t worry.”
Mr. Teachey had worked on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad for 28 years, and he told Miller that the song came to him in a dream.
On that note, Miller wrapped up his recordings in Wilmington. After listening all day to those voices from the distant eve of war, I felt as if I had been in a dream, too.
Miller’s script eventually aired as a 15-minute radio documentary. His supervisors cut the parts of his story that concerned the strike at Southland Manufacturing and the unemployed black workers at the city park.
By then, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was at war. Evidently, his supervisors believed that those subjects did not bolster morale adequately.
(You can hear the documentary at the Library of Congress’s Performing Arts Reading Room.)
In the coming years, Miller would make bold statements against bigotry and intolerance in his plays, and perhaps most unforgettably in The Crucible.
As I left the American Folklife Center and walked toward Union Station for my bus ride home, I wondered if his time in Wilmington had helped to shape those plays perhaps in some small but telling way.
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Special thanks again to Beverly Tetterton, formerly at the New Hanover County Public Library, for first introducing me to Miller’s audio recordings, to Christopher Bigsby, for his wonderful BBC documentary, “The Accidental Music Collector,” and to the curators at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for their research assistance. An earlier version of this series appeared as an essay in the North Carolina Literary Review.