To Jon, Simon, Lana, Eve and Sam
Today I am at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, where I am looking at the story of a historic strike and union organizing campaign that occurred in Lumberton, N.C., in 1937. That story involves more than a thousand cotton mill workers, a company-owned town called East Lumberton and a legendary champion of social justice struggles named Myles Horton, the co-founder of the Highlander Folk School.
Until I got here, I had never heard of that part of America’s labor history. But soon after I arrived at the Historical Society, I began browsing through the papers of the Highlander Folk School, one of the Society’s many phenomenal collections of historical documents related to America’s labor history.
In those papers, I quickly discovered a series of historical papers and photographs related to cotton mill workers and a pathbreaking union drive in Lumberton’s cotton mills.
To my surprise, I learned that those historical materials were in Highlander’s papers because Myles Horton had been the union organizer that the Textile Workers Organizing Committee sent to Lumberton in the spring of 1937.
I have always admired Horton and I remember meeting him when I was at Highlander in the 1980s. I thought that I knew a fair bit about his life.
I knew, for instance, that he was born in 1905 and that he grew up in a rural community between Memphis and Chattanooga, Tennessee. When he was young, his mother and father were teachers and farmers.
I also knew that, in his younger days, Horton had been a factory worker, a schoolteacher, and a student at Columbia and Union Theological Seminary. At Union, he studied with and was deeply influenced by the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
I knew as well that he moved back to Tennessee to support Appalachian people’s struggles for social justice. In 1932, Horton and two others, Methodist minister Jim Dombrowski and educator Don West, founded the Highlander Folk School as a social justice leadership training school and cultural center in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee.
I was also aware that Horton served as the director of the Highlander Folk School (now called the Highlander Research and Education Center) from its founding until the late 1960s. Over those decades, Highlander played important roles in labor, civil rights and other social justice struggles in Appalachia and in other parts of the South.
However, I did not know that Horton had ever been a union organizer. I certainly did not know that Horton had briefly taken what he later called “a leave of absence” from Highlander and become a union organizer near where I grew up in eastern North Carolina.
Lastly, I never knew that one of the TWOC’s most important labor organizing campaigns was in eastern North Carolina, a region for which the history of labor organizing is largely unwritten and unknown.
Highlander and the CIO
As I sought to understand this story, the Highlander Folk School papers here at the Wisconsin Historical Society got me started. They showed me that the origin of the union campaign in Lumberton went back to 1935, when United Mine Workers of America president John L. Lewis founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a confederation of industrial unions dedicated to labor organizing.
Two years later, in March of 1937, the CIO launched the Textile Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC). Bolstered by pro-union New Deal legislation and by waves of labor organizing sweeping the country’s largest industries, TWOC’s leaders had a goal of organizing the one million textile workers in the U.S. at that time.
Earlier in the 1930s, Highlander’s staff had been involved in supporting striking coal miners and lumber workers in Appalachia. They must have impressed CIO leadership. When TWOC leaders geared up for their southern organizing drive, they invited Myles Horton and his wife, musician/activist Zilphia Horton, as well as at least two of Highlander’s other leaders, to join them.
The Highlander group was eager to do so. Jim Dombrowski spoke for them all when he called the TWOC campaign “the most important event in southern labor history,” according to John M. Glen’s Highlander: No Ordinary School, 1932-1962.
In the spring of 1937, Highlander’s leaders came down out of the Appalachians to join TWOC’s southern union organizing drive. TWOC leaders immediately sent Myles Horton, then 31 years old, to the Carolinas.
According to Highlander’s papers, Horton quickly had success in unionizing mill hands who were already protesting for better working conditions at several mills (all owned by the same company) in Bennettsville and McColl, South Carolina.
Those were some of the TWOC’s first victories anywhere in the southern states (and apparently its only victories in the state of South Carolina). Horton’s success stood out. Though buffeted by anti-union violence and intimidation, Horton and the cotton mill workers succeeded in organizing a labor union at five mills in South Carolina.
Lumberton’s Mill Villages
After the union victories in Bennettsville and McColl, Horton made the short trip across the state line and came to Lumberton, where workers at two of the local cotton mills had been striking and demanding higher wages and better working conditions for at least several weeks.
Lumberton was a small town of approximately 5,000 people and was the seat of Robeson County, N.C. The county was renown for its history of poverty and violence and for having a population that was roughly a third white, a third black and a third Lumbee Indian.
At the time that Myles Horton came to Lumberton, a consortium of three mills—Mansfield, Jennings, and Ada McLean— were by far the largest employers in Robeson County. They were jointly owned, and they employed approximately 1,100 workers among them.
I do not think many of us think of the towns of eastern North Carolina in the early 20th century as cotton mill towns. But many were, and Lumberton was definitely one of them. The first cotton mill, the Lumberton Cotton Mill, opened just outside the town limits, in East Lumberton, in 1897.
The founders of the town’s first mills included the town’s leading bankers, attorneys and railroad industry leaders. Around that same time, they were also the local leaders of the the white supremacy movement that swept North Carolina from 1898 to 1900. Lumberton was one of the white supremacy movement’s epicenters; perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, the vast majority of the local mill owners and their directors were leaders in that movement.
In fact, one of them, Col. Neill A. McLean, was the leader of Robeson County’s Red Shirt brigades, which were white militias that terrorized African American communities and their white supporters. The Ada McLean Mill was named after Col. McLean’s daughter.
After 1900, the cotton mill industry boomed in Lumberton. By 1916, the town had four cotton mills, including the Jennings Cotton Mill, which began spinning in 1911. Lumberton’s population doubled, and then doubled again. Yet another cotton mill, Mansfield, opened in 1923.
East Lumberton, the site of the Mansfield mill, was typical of Lumberton’s mill villages—it was a classic textile company town.
The company literally owned the whole town. The workers lived in company housing. They shopped at the company store. If they got sick, they went to a company doctor. The company employed the town’s police force. The town alderman held their meetings in the company’s offices.
As I mentioned earlier, worker protests had started in Lumberton’s mills before the Hortons or any other union organizer had arrived in town. The first protest apparently began on March 23, 1937, when more than 125 workers on the first shift at the Ada McLean Mill had gone on strike.
According to an article in the local newspaper, The Robesonian (March 22, 1937), the strikers appointed five workers to present their grievances to the company. One of their representatives told the newspaper that they were “demanding more pay, shorter hours and that the speed of the machines be reduced.”
The strikers were demanding eight hour shifts, instead of the 11 and 12-hour shifts that they had been working. They also demanded an increase in their wages from 20 cents to 30 cents an hour.
In its next issue (March 24, 1937), The Robesonian quoted one of the strikers as saying that “the strike was led by women employed in the mill, who found it difficult to keep up with the machines since extra speed had been put on them.”
Based on evidence presented at a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing later that year, the average wage of skilled mill hands in Lumberton was roughly $13.00 a week, though some workers made as little as $6.00 a week.
At the Jennings Mill in North Lumberton, at least 25 weavers and loom-fixers also went on strike that week, shutting down that plant.
Tensions rose quickly. On one of the first nights of the strike at Ada McLean, men opposed to the strike fired buckshot into a group of 10 striking workers standing around a fire in the mill yard.
A Cotton Mill Worker’s Story
After reading about the Lumberton mill workers here at the Wisconsin Historical Society, I also looked on-line for first person accounts of the union organizing campaign. I found a phenomenal one back home, in the collections of the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In the SOHP’s records, I discovered that an old friend of mine, Bill Finger, did an oral history interview with one of the mill hands who had been a union leader in Lumberton in 1937. That interview, with a man named Julius Fry, was done in 1974 and is part of the SOHP’s collection.
(Bill may have been a graduate student at that time. He was later the long-time editor of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research’s journal NC Insight, where he did some fabulous work.)
Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World
Led by UNC-Chapel Hill professor of history Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, the Southern Oral History Program’s scholars interviewed hundreds of southern cotton mill workers in the 1970s and ‘80s.
In 1987 those interviews played a central role in what I believe is one of the most important books ever written about the history of North Carolina and the American South in general: Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World.
Bill Finger’s interview with Julius Fry is a unique window into the struggle to organize textile workers in Lumberton in 1937.
Fry’s story is astonishing. Born in 1912, he had grown up in a textile mill family in Erwin, North Carolina. His father was a loom fixer at Erwin Cotton Mill, which for many years was the world’s largest maker of denim.
When Julius Fry was a boy, his family relocated to Lumberton, where his father got a job at the Mansfield Cotton Mill. His father died young, in 1928, and Julius dropped out of school at the age of 15 or 16 and went to work in the mill to support himself, his mother and his sister.
That was not unusual. Many of the union activists in Lumberton were only 16, 17 and 18 years old. Child labor was still common in the state’s cotton mills at that time. Some of the union activists had worked in the town’s mills since they were 12 and 13 years old.
At Mansfield, Fry eventually became a mechanic in the weave room. By the late 1920s, he worked 60 hours a week—12 hours a day, 5 days a week— and made $18 to $20 a week. The work was grueling and dangerous.
During the worst part of the Great Depression—say, 1931, ’32—Fry made even less. Wages and hours were cut. During some weeks, he worked only two days and brought home as little as $8.00.
Bill Finger asked him how he and the other mill workers lived on those wages. Fry could only say, “Well, we hunted and fish and we ate sow belly and beans.”
Some workers did with even less. Fry recalled, “The lowest rates were six cents an hour and I’ve seen one lady that…had to have her two school children come in after school to help her catch…up for the end of the shift—and her and the two children together made six cents.”
In the interview, Fry remembered Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR’s) support for labor with great nostalgia. When Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, Fry was so excited that he carved the date of its passage on a post at the mill. The Act guaranteed the right of workers to organize unions and to engage in collective bargaining.
“That was like the emancipation of the slaves,” he said, or at least that was how it felt to him at the time. For the first time, there was also a federal minimum wage, and for the first time he did not have to work 10 or 12 hours a day. “I felt highly emotional about it,” he confided.
He went on:
“I really felt free. Because we had been nothing up to then except slaves. And I had so much time on my hands…. I would go to work at six and get off at two. No break for lunch. It was something new to me, and it just felt so peculiar.”
Fry recalled that many of Lumberton’s townspeople looked down on mill workers in those days. “The thing that struck me the most was the stigma that we had because we were `lint dodgers,’” he explained.
He continued: “The people that didn’t work in the plant and who didn’t live exactly on the village thought that they were better than we were. And some of them probably weren’t making as much money as we were. . ., but they weren’t cotton mill workers. They weren’t lint dodgers.
“And there was just such a feeling of second-class citizenship, because the people uptown were `better’ than we were.”
The Company Store
At the time, the long hours, the grueling pace and low pay were Fry’s foremost concerns. But he also remembered the cotton mill’s company store as a galling part of a millhand’s life and as one of ways that the company kept workers “in their place.”
Fry remembered how, early in the Great Depression, one of the company’s supervisors had visited him and asked why he did not shop at the company store. The supervisor made a not very veiled threat that he might not keep his job if he did not start shopping there.
For many, the company store was a path toward debt peonage—Fry called it slavery.
“They would be lenient with you and give you more trade than you earned in the mill,” he explained. “And then after they got you so far behind, you never would draw any cash money.”
He remembered getting in debt to the company store himself. “I finally worked that off, but I’ve seen people work ten years and never draw a penny’s cash,” he said.
The feeling that FDR and the New Deal were on the side of working people meant the world to him. Having lived in North Carolina his whole life, he had never known politicians to be on the side of workers. He finally felt liberated from feeling that the mill’s managers owned his life.
“Well, the main freedom was that somebody was telling the company what they had to do and it was the government. And everybody knew it and Roosevelt was coming on the air with his fireside chats, and he really had the working people behind him.”
The flowering of organized labor was also inspiring to him. Fry closely followed the news with respect to the founding of the CIO in 1935 and the aggressive new labor union organizing that was occurring in many of America’s largest industries.
He and his fellow workers had also closely followed union struggles elsewhere in North Carolina: above all, the 1929 Loray Mill workers strike in Gastonia and the Great Textile Workers Strike of 1934, which was the largest labor strike in American history up to that time.
Fry said: “We would see in the papers about the steel workers and the strikes and the Ford workers. I remember in ’37 that the Ford workers were parading through Detroit. . .. Well, with Roosevelt encouraging unionism and with news full of the organizing efforts of the basic industries, like steel, rubber and autos, we began to learn a little something about what a union was.”
Myles Horton Comes to Lumberton
The union movement reached Lumberton on a spring day in 1937. On that day, one of Fry’s fellow workers—a man from Mansfield’s machine shop— told him that a union organizer was in town and was going to hold a meeting with workers that night at the Robeson County Courthouse.
“He said, `Come to the meeting tonight. We’re going to talk about the union.’” Fry was 24 or 25 years old. He was still looking after his family, and he was very interested in the union. The date was April 20, 1937.
The union organizer had reserved a meeting hall at the courthouse. However, when he and a few dozen workers got there, county officials told them that the hall was no longer available. Instead, they crowded into the union organizer’s room at the Lorraine Hotel. That night Fry and the other workers signed union cards and they began to plan how to spread the word about the union in the local mills.
They quickly learned that the company was not playing. Julius Fry recounted what came next:
“After the meeting broke up and we came out on the street, my supervisor was standing there writing down the names of the people that came out. And there was another supervisor from one of the other plants writing down names. So, the next morning, 22 people were discharged.”
Fry was not one of the 22. “I was a very good mechanic, frankly, not bragging, and instead of discharging me, they just sort of demoted me, but I was still kept.”
He may have retained a job because he was friends with his supervisor’s brothers. “I think there was a little compassion there or something. [The supervisor] later came to me, [when he demoted me,]” and said, `Julius, I hate to do this, but I’ve got to.’”
“[The supervisor] said, `Off the record, I would suggest that you not have any more to do with that union.’ He had saved my job, is what he had done, but 22 others were discharged.”
The TWOC filed charges against the company for violating the National Labor Relations Act (a.k.a. the Wagner Act), another critical piece of pro-labor New Deal legislation that had been enacted in 1935.
While the National Labor Relations Board reviewed the case, that first TWOC union organizer left Lumberton. However, he was quickly replaced by Myles Horton and, at times, his wife Zilphia.
The textile workers took to Myles. In Lumberton, according to Fry, Horton was well-liked from the beginning. “He was another emancipator,” he told Bill Finger. “Everybody looked on him as an emancipator and some of the babies born down there during the strike, the one that later occurred and during the campaign, were later named `Myles.’”
Finger asked Fry what made Horton special. All Fry could say was, “Well, he knew how to rabble-rouse, if you want to use that. I don’t know if that’s the correct term, but he knew how to arouse people.”
The union drive was hard fought. In the interview, Fry remembered the union rallies that were held almost nightly during the organizing drive at Mansfield and Jennings. “We would have rallies, 800, 900, 1,000 people . . . out in an open field near the mill,” he recalled.
As the company fought the union drive, hundreds of workers at the Jennings mill went out on strike. That was on June 7, 1937. The mill was closed for two months. At the same time, as many as 500 workers picketed the Mansfield mill, while strikes there were more targeted, closing a shift here, a shift there, or shutting down one department at a time.
In The Long Haul: An Autobiography, Myles Horton remembered those summer nights:
“There was a long-drawn-out strike in Lumberton in which black people, Native Americans and white textile workers were out for two or three months…. We used to have at least a thousand people out every night, and I would get up and try to talk to them about the things I thought would be helpful. I talked about history, socialism, political action and cooperatives. I talked about events happening around the world.”
He also recalled how the millhands and their families that were musical often played and sang at those open-air meetings.
As strikes and pickets continued, things grew more tense. In early June, the local newspaper, The Robesonian (9 June 1937), reported that 23 workers left their machines in Mansfield’s weave room in protest of the “stretch-out” system of textile management.
“Workers … compared it to slavery”
In an article in the South Carolina Encyclopedia, historian Stephen Wallace Taylor described the “stretch-out system” that was put into place in southern cotton mills after World War I.
According to Taylor, time management companies such as the J. E. Sirrine Co. “offered their services to identify . . . wasted time and propose ways of eliminating it, with the goal of standardizing tasks and thus making individual workers interchangeable….
“Workers . . . recalled that the efficiency experts . . . timed every move, from knotting a broken thread to eating lunch, from going to the bathroom to drinking a glass of water. Workdays were extended, many types of breaks were banned, workers were forced to tend a larger number of machines, and they were fired if they could not keep up the pace. The workday was extended without additional pay. Scheduled meal breaks were eliminated . . . [and] pay scales were based on production quotas.”
He concluded: “While managers regarded the new system as scientifically justified, workers referred to it as the `pick pocket system’ and compared it to slavery.”
According to The Robesonian, the 23 men and women “armed themselves with various implements” and stood guard outside the weaving room and prevented non-union workers from taking their places. The next day, hundreds of picketers tried to block non-union workers from entering the building.
At the request of the company’s managers, armed policeman and state troopers opened paths for the non-union workers to enter the mill.
Raising a Disturbance
Tensions heightened further. Union activists reported that strange cars followed them at night. One discovered that his home’s windows had been smashed. Another reported that shots were fired at his house while his children were home. Yet another found his car windows broken.
During the next week, several hundred striking workers at the Jennings mill formed a human barricade in front of trucks hauling loads of finished cloth out of storage and taking it to market. That week the TWOC claimed that 1,100 workers had signed union cards.
At an NLRB hearing in Lumberton—apparently the first NLRB hearing in North Carolina history—the 22 workers fired by the company after the union meeting at the Lorraine Hotel explained what had happened from their point of view.
One of them, a Mrs. Hattie B. Brown, told NLRB officers that she joined the union on April 20 and was fired six days later because she was trying to, in her supervisor’s words, “raise a disturbance.”
The threat of violence grew daily. At one point, a fight broke out between strikers and anti-union workers at a rally on the outskirts of East Lumberton. (Apparently the fight started when an anti-union heckler called the strikers “bean eaters,” a sore point for people who were largely living off dried beans during the strike.)
Myles Horton was targeted as well. On one occasion, he was assaulted by one of the company’s off-duty policemen. On another occasion, local police arrested Horton for “inciting a riot.”
At yet another time, Horton later reported, a carload of armed men came to the Lorraine Hotel with the intent to murder him. In The Long Haul, he wrote that he knew that “it sounds dramatic, but if you know the labor movement at that time, you know people were killed.”
Horton was a clever man capable of talking himself out of a corner if anybody could, and one of the striking millhands (a Holiness minister) had given him a revolver to protect himself. Between the revolver and his quick wits, Horton managed to get out of trouble that day.
A Union Victory
Horton and the mill workers eventually prevailed. An NLRB-monitored union election was held on Saturday, September 18, at the Mansfield mill in East Lumberton and at the Jennings mill on the north side of town. Sixty-one percent of the workers at the two mills—500 out of a total of 819—voted in favor of having the union represent them.
For reasons that are not clear to me, Horton and the TWOC apparently never garnered enough support at the Ada McClean Mill to call for a union election there, even though that mill’s workers were apparently the best organized of Lumberton’s cotton mill workers prior to their arrival.
The union’s victory at the Mansfield and Jennings mills was nevertheless a landmark moment in eastern North Carolina’s labor history. But the struggle was not over. After a victory celebration, Myles and Zylphia Horton moved on to battles elsewhere. Other TWOC representatives arrived in town to help the local workers negotiate the first contract between the union and the company.
Terms were reached that fall and a union contract was signed on the first of January 1938. However, the company’s board of directors quickly met and shut down both the Mansfield and Jennings mills, claiming that they did not have enough orders to make it worthwhile for them to stay open. “They were trying to starve us out,” Julius Fry concluded.
Their struggle had become a slog. But at least in 1937 and ’38, the cotton mill hands had some kinds of support that were not available to earlier generations of North Carolina labor activists. They had the backing of the CIO, for one. Many were eligible for unemployment benefits, too.
(The modern system of unemployment insurance had just been created as part of the New Deal’s efforts to alleviate poverty during the Great Depression. It was created as part of the Social Security Act of 1935.)
In addition, after their unemployment benefits ran out, many of the millhands (the men, at least) were able to continue to provide for their families with the help of another New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). For several months, the FSA paid them to dig ditches and clear right of ways near Pembroke, the center of Robeson County’s Lumbee Indian community.
After six months, the company re-opened, though the union had to agree to temporary wage concessions first.
Julius Fry continued to work at the Mansfield mill until 1943. He remained a union leader there and then accepted a regional job with the Textile Workers Union of America.
Myles and Zilphia Horton left the TWOC later in 1937 and returned to the Highlander Folk School. At Highlander, they drew on their days as cotton mill organizers to provide leadership training for almost 7,000 CIO workers and local union leaders between that time and the early 1950s.
Many of those CIO labor activists played important roles in successful textile union organizing campaigns elsewhere in North Carolina– most significantly at Dan River Mills, Cone Mills, Marshall Fields and at the Erwin Mills plants in Durham, Erwin and Cullowhee.
Lumberton’s mills did not fare well after World War II. The town’s mills continued a financial decline that had begun in the 1930s. The mill villages were soon sold off. In time, outside investors bought and ran some of the mills, but they all eventually closed. If you go to Lumberton today, you will not find any cotton mills still in business.
However, if you know where to look, you can still find relics of the town’s cotton mill past.
The old Lumberton Cotton Mill building, long vacant, still stands in East Lumberton. Not far from the Lumber River, north of downtown, you can also find much of the old Jennings mill complex. You can see the mill, the former homes of approximately 100 mill families, a company baseball field and a building that was used as a store and school.
On those streets, you will not find the story of Myles Horton and the union struggles of Lumberton’s millhands, however. Nor can you go to any of the other old mill towns in eastern North Carolina and discover their stories. In that part of North Carolina where I grew up, we have never been much on telling the stories of working people. Those stories wait to be discovered and told.