Ella May Wiggins


Like many of the mill workers, Ella May had come from the mountains in search of a better life.  Her husband, John Wiggins left her in the mid 1920ís and she lived alone, raising her five surviving children by herself. Her other four children had died from various ailments brought about by their living conditions, including one from pellagra, the most rampant disease in the mill villages.  Ella May earned about nine dollars a week as a spinner at the nearby American Mill in Bessemer City, a mill known for its low wages.  She and her family lived outside the mill village in Stumptown, an African American section  Bessemer City.  Ella May walked out when the American Mill struck and never worked again (Salmond, 52.)  Ella May Wiggins was shot by a stray bullet from a mob of anti-union demonstrators on September 14, 1929.  She was riding in a truck of passengers going to a union rally in South Gastonia, a rally that was halted by members of the American Legion .  The same day Ella May was shot, the management at the Loray ran the first in a series of five advertisements touting the Loray as "The Mill with a Purpose" and "the mill where the boss is your friend."   The Gaston Gazette which, three months earlier had called the shooting of Chief Adderholt the "most outrageous and damnable crime in the history of the State," reported that the "shooting of the Bessemer City woman was deplorable," while pointing out that the fatality was the result of the mob's car colliding with the striker's truck and that, "If the cars had not collided, there would probably have been no shooting."  Ella May's death was an accident, the newspaper argued, but the slaying of Chief Adderholt was an outrage.  Ella May Wiggins was most remembered by her fellow strikers as a balladeer; "Mill Mother's Lament" is her most famous song, and fellow balladeer Daisy McDonald sang the first verse of it at Ella May's funeral.

Mill Mother's Lament

We leave our home 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 grocer's bills to pay
Not a cent to keep for clothing
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening
Our little ones will say
I need some shoes, dear mother
And so does sister May.

Now it grieves the heart of a mother
You everyone must know
But we cannot buy for our children
Our wages are too low.

Now listen to the workers
Both women and you men
Let's win for them the victory
I'm sure twill be no sin.