In the damp morning hours of Oct. 2, 1929, gunfire erupted between law enforcement and a crowd of picketing mill workers at the gates of the Marion Manufacturing plant in the quiet foothills of McDowell County, leaving six residents dead and a town torn apart in its wake.
The “Marion Massacre,” as the conflict came to be known by, marked the culmination of a year of violent labor protests across the foothills and mountains and became a turning point in the national movement to unionize laborers across the South. For the residents of Marion, the confrontation became a source of confusion and shame, literally and metaphorically buried away in closets and attics in the ensuing decades.
Sparked by renewed community interest in the early 2000s, historian Travis Byrd examines the events leading up to and surrounding the deadly confrontation in a new book, Unraveled, which hits books shelves across the region this month.
Combining primary documents, oral histories and extensive research, Byrd investigates how the events of that day changed the face of a community and a national movement, along with what modern society can learn from the successes and failures of labor unions in the early 20th century.
Regarding the University of Tennessee’s decision to publish Unraveled, Thomas Wells, acquisitions editor for U.T., says that the book “fits UT Press’ labor history list perfectly. The book is written with an arresting narrative style that reads more like a novel than a work of historical inquiry […] Unraveled is one of the best [manuscripts] I’ve come across in my ten-plus years at the press.”
However, the initial inspiration for Unraveled came in a roundabout way, according to Byrd. While researching the Gastonia labor strike of 1929 as part of his master’s thesis work at UNC-Asheville, the author says he was alerted to several sources on the Marion event by his academic adviser.
“That put me in contact with Michael Blankenship, who was possession of those sources, as well as some others in possession of other sources,” says Byrd. “as I continu[ed] this research, it became apparent that the larger story was not in Gastonia, but in Marion.”
This realization led Byrd to the sleepy mountain town, where he found many descendants townspeople who’d witnessed the chaos of October, 1929 and several records and artifacts that shed light on the conflict and its aftermath.
“In the aftermath of 1929, people there never really gave up their connection to the past,” Byrd notes, “they just put it away.” The materials unearthed included a scrapbook on union activities kept by Ruth Greenlee, a principal of one of the mill village schools, from 1929 until 1979.
“She was truly one of those dyed-in-the-wool, lady-progressive do-gooders,” Byrd says,” [and] had maintained a scrapbook on labor organization, in addition to about 20 or 30 others that are still in Marion.”
After an exhaustive process of digging up primary documents and newspaper accounts from the time, cross-checking references and searching through the branches of family trees, Byrd was able to re-create and parse through the events leading up to the outburst of violence.
“We’re not told this history,” Byrd says. “It’s always been out there, but we find it almost like ‘terra incognita. You feel like the first person to push the bushes aside and look down this particular path.”
Marion goes to war
What that path reveals is a complex power struggle between mill management, labor organizers and communists to influence workers across the South. “The American Federation of Labor and the Communist Party of The United States were basically in a war of extermination against each other over who could organize the South,” says Byrd.
Simultaneously, the lengthening of workers’ hours at Marion Manufacturing — without additional pay — led employees there to seek the help of AFL organizers in forming a union. “This was the period of what was called the stretch-out,'” says Byrd, “where mill managers were trying to increase production and reduce costs at the same time to create a competitive advantage.”
As a communist-led stand-off erupted into violence in nearby Gastonia through the spring of 1929 and tensions between mill management and workers at Marion Manufacturing and the nearby Clinchfield Mill grew over the course of the summer, North Carolina’s governor O. Max Gardner called on mill owner Reginald Baldwin accept the Marion workers’ terms in order to keep the peace.
“It’s a very signal victory,” notes Byrd. “The mill reopened with acknowledgement that the union existed; there would be no blacklisters, no impediments to organization.”
Unfortunately, mill management did not abide by these standards for long. Despite the urging of patience by AFL leaders — who were absent at the time of the Marion Massacre — a wildcat strike was initiated by several mill employees in the early morning hours of Oct. 2.
Xpress documented the events of the bloody confrontation in detail in a March 2011 article, “Mountain Shame: Remembering the Marion Massacre.” The conflict resulted in six mill workers deaths, dozens of injuries, a host of arrests and national media attention.
It also became a rallying cry for AFL leaders in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy to inspire workers across the South to organize against unfair labor practices. Despite the AFL’s co-opting of the events in Marion, Byrd notes that “this had very little to do with unionization. This was about the community of Marion — and also the larger community of the entire Piedmont in 1929 — going to war against itself.”
Wells adds that while neither the Gastonia nor Marion workers saw their hopes realized immediately, “the labor massacres and strikes in North Carolina were thrust into the national limelight and became a driving force behind the labor movement during FDR’s New Deal implementation.”
According to Byrd, “Marion is the genesis” for the AFL’s subsequent organizing campaign across the South. “What happened in Marion ended up being very, very powerful.”
Healing old wounds
Yet, for decades after the events of Oct. 2, 1929, the residents of Marion were loathe to revisit the tragedy that had played out in their community. Byrd suggests that a feeling of abandonment by the AFL went a long way towards fostering such feelings. “The AFL leadership did not know how to handle the firestorm that surrounded an action that they had nothing to do with,” he says. “They’d rather it just kind of go under the rug.”
Despite initial calls to remember the Marion massacre, AFL leaders began to shy away from referencing the conflict as early as 1930. “There’s a very conscious distancing that goes on of the AFL at the national level from Marion,” says Byrd. “By the time the union actually folds in Marion about a year later, people are pretty bitter about this.”
But while public discourse may have shied away from the tragedy, Byrd says that the massacre lived on in the collective subconscious of the town. “It was common knowledge that wasn’t spoken about in public.”
With the demolition of the original Marion Manufacturing plant in 2011, Byrd says that a kind of “psychological catharsis” took place among the community: “People went back and began to access what the mill meant to them, what it meant to the community and what had happened there.”
Part of Byrd’s mission in writing Unraveled was to apply the lessons learned from the events surrounding the massacre towards providing a framework in which to examine contemporary labor concerns. “Textiles drove the economy of the ‘New South.’ The the lessons that were learned in that primary industry nowadays translate very easily into today’s economy,” he says.
He sees similarities in the unskilled labor market that dominated the mill industry of the 1920s and Asheville’s current service industry, where “people are still fighting for the same things: a living wage, a decent workplace and the right to fair access to a job, as well as unionization.”
Byrd also hopes to help dispel some common misconceptions about labor unions’ history in Southern culture: “We’ve got some of the best union history in the South,” he says. “People need to know that if they stand up and say ‘we want our rights,’ they come from a long line of people in the South that have said and done exactly that for well over a century.”
Such lessons mean learning from past movements’ failures as well as their successes. “You always hear, ‘we ain’t got no unions, we don’t want no unions, we ain’t never had no unions,’ but that’s not true,” Byrd says. “Why is that lie so pervasively sold and so pervasively bought [in the South]?”
The way to move forward, according to Byrd, is “knowing why we were successful defending our rights in the South, [as well as knowing] where, when and why we failed in the past.”
As part of his promotion for Unraveled, Byrd will be in attendance at Marion’s Mountain Glory Festival on October 10 for a book signing. He also plans to present his book and research to McDowell County students during the school district’s Local History Week.
“I feel like we need to teach people that we have nothing to be ashamed of in our history as workers or advocates for workers’ rights,” he says. “The only way to counteract the potency of the hard pitch that the anti-union kind of people try to make […] is to get out there.
“If you believe in the Gospel,” Byrd notes, “you got to preach it.”