A heroine we should recognize and remember

After her death in 1929, Ella May Wiggins became an icon in the early 20th century labor movement.
After her death in 1929, Ella May Wiggins became an icon in the early 20th century labor movement. From “Gastonia 1929”/John A. Salmond

Ella May Wiggins, a union organizer and protest balladeer, was shot in the chest and killed outside of Gastoniaon September 14, 1929. Though you’ve probably never heard of her, Ella May was an important social activist of the 20th century. Woody Guthrie called her “the mother of the protest ballad.” The fact that Ella has been all but forgotten is particularly tragic.

Ella May was born to a poor family in Sevierville, Tenn. To say she had a hard life would be an understatement. Her parents died by the time she was 19. She married young only to be abandoned by her husband, John Wiggins, in 1926.

Before John left, he moved their growing family to Gaston County, where the textile industry was booming. Ella found a job as a spinner and, according to the North Carolina Museum of History, worked “twelve-hour days, six days a week, earning about nine dollars a week.”

As a single mother working to support her children, she would be a hero even if her story ended here. But it doesn’t.

The working conditions of southern mills were deplorable. Hours were long, pay was low, and safety practices were non-existent.

Ella May was not a person who could tolerate injustice. She became a bookkeeper for the union, traveling to Washington, DC to testify about the poor working conditions. She fought against segregation, living in an African-American community and advocating for their inclusion in union efforts. She gave voice to the voiceless through her protest ballads.

The opening lyrics to her most famous song, “Mill Mother’s Lament,” sum up the plight of mothers working in the mill:

We leave our homes in the morning

We kiss our children goodbye

While we slave for the bosses

Our children scream and cry

And when we draw our money,

Our grocery bills to pay,

Not a cent to spend for clothing,

Not a cent to lay away

During the once infamous Loray Mill strike of 1929, Ella united workers with songs that spoke to the need for better pay and improved working conditions. Though the strike was unsuccessful in achieving its demands, it sent a message about the plight of mill laborers that reverberated across the South.

Just three days before her 29th birthday, Ella was riding to a union meeting in the back of a pickup truck. On the way there, the truck was ambushed by a group of armed men. An unarmed Ella was shot in the chest and killed. Five men were indicted for her murder, but all were acquitted in less than 30 minutes of deliberation.

For a period of time after her death, Ella became an icon of the labor movement. But inevitably the forces of time, and our cultural amnesia, relegated her life to little more than a footnote of American history.

There are people in our region working to ensure Ella May is not forgotten. The Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee keeps her legacy alive through community events and recordings of her songs. The group is currently raising funds to build a memorial statue to honor Ella’s life spent fighting for fair treatment and equal pay for all.

Our society pays tribute to far too many people who aren’t heroes. Without listing names, I’m sure we all have more than a few that come to mind. But there are thousands of others who have worked to make our communities better. We can take time to remember these true heroines and heroes who shaped our world. Today we can take time to remember Ella.

Robert Nesbit is a social justice advocate and musician.