Textile Strikes in North Carolina

Newspaper headline "Latest Strike News"

In the 1920s, North Carolina was ranked as the largest textile producer in the country, employing thousands, especially in the Piedmont. But as the Great Depression ushered in the 1930s, nearly one-quarter of all North Carolinians were out of work.

Textile workers who held onto their jobs faced long hours, low wages, and dangerous working conditions.  Consequently, they joined unions and went on strike for livable wages and safe working conditions. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, mill employees across the state struck until their demands were met. For example, in 1921, at Cannon Mill locations in Charlotte, Concord, and Kannapolis, an estimated 9,00011,000 people went on an 8-week strike. 

Newspaper headline "Battle Front Scenes in Great Textile Strike", a photo of President Roosevelt's Textile Mediation Board, and a photo of National Guardsmen using tear gas on strikers

Using Chronicling America, we can research these strikes and find out more about the history of organized labor in North Carolina.

Readers can see the same reasons  behind the strikes. Many mention wage reductions, especially impactful during the years of the Great Depression. Sometimes these wage cuts were documented to be as high as 25%

Over a dozen strikes occurred in the state between 1931 and 1933, many related to how much employees were being paid. In December 1931, a small strike at the Klumac Cotton mill in Salisbury was called. In July 1932, 6,000 struck in High Point for three weeks, and in August, roughly 500 at mills in Rowan County walked out, all in response to wage reductions.

Newspaper headline "Hosiery Mill Strike Ended"

One of the other common reasons for strikes was because of “stretch-out.” Officially called “scientific management,” it was a time management system that was designed to save companies money by making workers more efficient, leading them to do more in less time.

However, mill workers saw it as a way to cut jobs and have fewer people do more work without an accompanying rise in pay. Mill workers called it “stretch-out” as they felt they were stretched to their limits. In August 1932, over 1,000 workers in Rockingham and Spindale walked out, demanding an end to “stretch-out,” and restoration of their wages to pre-cut pay levels.

Newspaper headline "Strike Now Seen As Endurance Contest"

Textile workers struck for other reasons as well. Hosiery mill workers in High Point demanded the same pay for a 40 hour week that they previously received for a 55 hour week. One Spindale strike petitioned for the removal of a specific superintendent. Mill strikes persisted well into the 1930s, with hundreds or thousands of workers often stopping work for weeks on end.

Most strikes were nonviolent, although there were exceptions. The most infamous strike occurred in Gastonia in June 1929 where violence broke out and strike organizers were killed. In February 1932, a strike of 500 cotton mill workers in Bladenboro ended after three officers were shot, although “[n]o one was wounded seriously.One fearful 1937 editorial wrote that striking inevitably meant violence and death – “Bloodshed follows a Southern textile strike almost as inevitably as night follows day.”

Newspaper headline "County Board Appeals To Governor In Strike"

State and national governments often intervened in settling or ending strikes. In 1921, National Guard troops were ordered to Concord to “take complete charge of the textile strike situation,” which only broke after a visit by Governor Cameron Morrison. In 1929, it cost the state over $27,000 and $12,000 to again put National Guardsmen on duty during textile strikes in Marion and Gastonia, respectively.

Newspaper headline "Girl Pickets Taunt Troops" and a photo of women and National Guardsmen looking at each other

Morrison was not the only governor to involve himself – in 1932, Governor O. Max Gardner persuaded 5,000 strikers in High Point to submit to arbitration. The following year, the State Department of Labor stepped in to settle strikes in Concord and in Forest City.

A strike’s success was not always guaranteed – neither was positive reception. In 1934, mill workers in Mecklenburg County were “hot” for a strike, but those in Rutherford County, Gaston County, Marion, and High Point all responded negatively. One editorial in The Independent (Elizabeth City) asked why people across the state were striking, and if the cause was “hunger, communism or a general state of dissatisfaction…” 

Newspaper headline "Local Cotton Mill Workers Not Expected to Take Part in Nation Wide Textile Strike"

In 1933, President Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which set minimum wages for textile workers in the South – about $12 a week. In September 1934, a massive national strike was held, but many textile workers felt that because of a lack of union support, membership was not important, and union numbers in North Carolina never recovered.

New in the collection: 1910 Charlotte convention

Pin featuring a tar heel in the center, the North Carolina and US flags on the side, and the words eighth annual convention of the U.S. League of Local and Building Loan Associations, Charlotte NC, 1910.

“It was a wonder to me….  how popular these associations were in your city. Of course we naturally feel that there cannot be any town equal to Philadelphia in building association matters, but I am afraid that if we were to make a careful comparison, to use classical language, ‘you would have us beaten to a frazzle.’ “

— From a letter from George W. Clippe, delegate to the convention of  the U.S. League of Local Building and Loan Associations, published in the Charlotte Observer

North Carolina, especially the Piedmont, was indeed a hotbed of building and loans in 1910.

An image not often seen: North Carolina’s tar heel overlaid on Mecklenburg’s hornets nest.

Grove Park Inn as internment camp

“In spring 1942 — shortly after the United States entered World War II — the State Department leased the Grove Park Inn as an internment camp for Axis diplomats, family members and servants.

“ ‘All of this is strictly in accordance with international law,’ the [Asheville Citizen reported]. ‘While the Italians, Bulgarians and Rumanians are here they will be isolated from the community and protected from the curious.’

“Subsequent information arrived only after the 221 prisoners (the first official number provided to residents) departed [on May 6] for their homelands in exchange for U.S. diplomats held abroad.

“According to the Citizen, the foreign diplomats had paid for their stay at the Grove Park Inn. ‘Shuffleboard, lawn bowling, badminton, and bridge were reported to have been the chief amusement’ during their confinement.”

— From “Foreign diplomats held hostage at the Grove Park Inn, 1942″ by Thomas Calder in Mountain Xpress (Sept. 6)

New in the collection: Miniature rolling pin from Richfield

Wooden rolling pin with the words Richfield Milling Company, always use purity flour for better bread. Richfield, NC.

“The Richfield Milling Co., circa 1920, is the only remaining historic industrial building in Richfield, located in northern Stanly County.

“Built near the railroad, the mill served local farmers selling their grain crops for shipment to larger markets and for their own use and animal feed.

“The frame roller mill is architecturally important for its heavy-timber construction and mill grain handling system, in particular the tall grain bins on the upper floors.”

— From “Old Richfield mill added to National Register” in the Salisbury Post (Dec. 20, 2016)

According to its entry in the National Register of Historic Places, the mill actually operated as early as 1910. It closed in 1990.


Revenooers confirm reputation of Carolina moon

“The annual report of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1919, shows that North Carolina continues to lead the Union in the number of illicit distilleries seized, the total being 814.

“Georgia comes second with 789; Virginia third with 356; Alabama fourth with 348; South Carolina fifth with 280; Tennessee sixth with 226; New York seventh with 126; and Kentucky eighth with 125. In no other state were as many as 100 distilleries seized during the year.”

— From “North Carolina leads” in the Forest City Courier (Dec. 25, 1919)

h/t Rural North Carolina History

By 1954 the state’s annual count of still seizures had risen to 3,846, and the Board of Alcoholic Control had decided to fight firewater with firewater.



New in the collection: 1940 campaign poster

From of campaign poster for Giles Y. Newton

Verso of campaign poster for Giles Y. Newton. It includes handwritten text in pencil.

If ever a candidate lived up to his campaign slogans, it was Giles Y. Newton of Gibson.

In 1936, 1938, 1940, 1942, 1944, 1948 and 1952 Newton did indeed “let the people decide it.” Each time, however, voters denied him the Democratic nomination for either U.S. senator or representative. In 1946 he filed for Congress but withdrew. 

Newton died at age 93 in Washington in 1987. His obituary in the Washington  Post noted that he had been born in South Carolina, had graduated from Duke, had earned his law degree at Harvard, had served with the Army in France during World War I and had been employed as a lawyer in the Veterans Administration. It did not mention his political career (or his term as president of the North Carolina Society of Washington).

Bonus: Filling the back of this poster are Newton’s hand-written notes — for a campaign flyer perhaps? Much is illegible, but I can make out “I look forward to being your good and great and humble servant.”


‘Beach Boys’? Not exactly, David

“Shortly after I arrived in North Carolina [from Texas and Colorado] in 1991, I was talking to my editor at the [News & Observer] when she said something about ‘beach music.’ It was the first time I had heard the phrase, which I found puzzling. And so I responded with a variant of the same question a half-century’s worth of clueless transplants have asked.

” ‘ “Beach music”? Is that like the Beach Boys?’

“My editor laughed, emphatically shook her head no and then become the first (but far from last) person to bestow that most Southern of putdowns upon me: ‘Oh, bless your heart.’ Truly, that conversation was a gateway to all things North Carolina in more ways than one.”

— From “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk” by David Menconi (2020)

New in the collection: Mill worker insurance policies

Policy from Prudential Insurance for Hazel A. Hester

“The Roosevelt administration signed sweeping worker protections into law, addressing many of the issues that drove Loray employees to strike in 1929.

“And, [Gaston County historian Jason] Luker says, things changed dramatically when the mill was sold to Firestone [in 1935]. People were paid better, worked better schedules and were even able to buy houses from the company in the mill village.

“ ‘The people who worked for Firestone worked for Firestone for 30, 40, 50 years,’ Luker said. ‘That’s a far cry from the people who struck multiple times. It’s a completely different mindset.’ ”

— From “90 years ago, a Gastonia strike was world news” by Dashiell Coleman in the Gaston Gazette (March 29, 2019)

Among other benefits newly available to Firestone workers: life, disability and hospitalization insurance (“room and board, not exceeding $3.50 a day”).

As tire-making technology advanced, the mill switched from cotton to synthetic fibers, then closed in 1993. In 2013 developers began renovating it for residential and commercial use.


Joan Didion got an education in Durham

“In Durham [one of the places Joan Didion’s parents lived during World War II] we had one room, with kitchen privileges, in the house of a fundamentalist preacher and his family who sat on the porch after dinner and ate peach ice cream, each from his or her own quart carton. The preacher’s daughter had a full set of Gone With the Wind paper dolls, off limits to me.

“It was in Durham where the neighborhood children crawled beneath the back stoop and ate the dirt, scooping it up with a cut raw potato and licking it off, craving some element their diet lacked.


“I knew the word even then, because my mother told me. ‘Poor children do it,’ she said, with the same determinedly cheerful expression. ‘In the South. You never would have learned that in Sacramento.’ ”

— From “Where I Was From” by Joan Didion (2012)


How Telephones Changed North Carolina

Advertisement "Come and see the telephone"

The oft-told story is that the telephone officially came to North Carolina on March 10, 1879. That is typically seen as the day when Major Bowling W. Starke, the manager of the Western Union Telegraph Co. office in Raleigh, strung a wire that carried his voice from his office to his home four city blocks away.

Chronicling America, the archive of historic newspapers created by the Library of Congress, suggests otherwise. You might have heard 1879 was the year of the telephone, but our research says something different.

It was actually a year earlier, on April 14, 1878, when Starke made the first telephone call from Raleigh to Wilmington. Maj. Bowling W. Starke connected to Wilmington, and Governor Vance conversed with former Confederate Attorney General George Davis. Several men formed a choir to sing several hymns, “which were re-duplicated by singers in Wilmington.” The “melodies were perfectly audible,” and the first long-distance telephone call in North Carolina was a success.

People immediately saw the potential for the telephone as a tool to connect people in new and exciting ways.

Quote from the Western Sentinel - the telephone is "the greatest achievement of modern science"

The Western Sentinel (Winston-Salem) declared the telephone to be “the greatest achievement of modern science” and later said that it had “scarcely ceased to be a cause for amusement…” The Farmer and Mechanic (Raleigh) later facetiously predicted that telephones would eliminate the need for church services and houses of worship

A frantic rush followed to connect cities and citizens via telephone. The “telephone craze” was on. A month after Vance’s telephone call, the towns of Winston and Salem were “completely cobwebbed with telephones”.

The Farmer and Mechanic imagined that Raleigh “must look like a big cob-web” with all the telephone wires stretched across the city. The excitement was so palpable that one newspaper advertisement simply advertised that people could come look at the telephone at a local drug store.

In 1879, Starke threaded the city of Raleigh with additional telephone wires, and communication was soon established between Raleigh and Durham. A few days later, several houses in Chapel Hill, including the home of Julian S. Carr, had telephones.

By the end of 1879, The Raleigh News reported 96 telephone wires in Raleigh, including the Supreme Court room, with more to come. In May 1880, telephone wires between Charlotte and Greenville, SC were established. It was prophesied that soon the telephone would “be so common that everyone can sit on his doorstep and talk with everybody else.”

Some articles highlighted citizens’ efforts to establish a telephone exchange in town. Telephone exchanges, offices that connected callers via switchboards, were big news for any town. A telephone exchange meant more people in town had phones and that they could talk to people further outside of their community. New telephone exchanges were always newsworthy.

In preparation for their telephone exchange, the Asheville Citizen included instructions on how to call someone, and how you should answer the phone (“What will you have?”). Once it was established, the Asheville telephone exchange answered more than 15,000 calls in June 1890 alone – “the biggest month’s work” up to that point. 

Throughout the state, people were excited at the possibilities the telephone presented. Part of that excitement involved just making civic life more convenient. Doctors could be quickly called in case of emergency, as could fire departments.

Cotton factories in Catawba, Lincoln, and Gaston counties built a telephone system to process orders faster. The Farmer and Mechanic editorialized that once Raleigh residents could call cities like Richmond or Augusta, “the saving in postage, in time, and in mistakes, will be wonderful.” The telephone represented a major change for North Carolinians.