Cost of labor: revisiting the Marion Massacre

HISTORY LESSONS: Author Travis Byrd explores the events surrounding the 1929 “Marion Massacre” in his new book, Unraveled, which hits shelves around the region this month. The author/historian says he hopes the book will shed light on the triumphs and failures of the 1920s Southern labor movement and will help in providing a framework for current-day labor efforts around WNC. Image via University of Tennessee Press.

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.

“Terra Incognita”

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.”

GATHERING STORM: National Guard troops roll through the sleepy town of Marion for deployment outside the Marion Manufacturing plant. Strife between workers and mill management would eventually boil over into violence in the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 1929. Photo courtesy of McDowell County Public Library, Warren Hobbs Collection.
GATHERING STORM: National Guard troops roll through the sleepy town of Marion for deployment outside the Marion Manufacturing plant. Strife between workers and mill management would eventually boil over into violence in the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 1929. Photo courtesy of McDowell County Public Library, Warren Hobbs Collection.

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.”

MOURNING THE DEAD: Large crowds gathered for the funeral mass of six victims of the violence at the Marion Manufacturing plant in 1929. Though union leadership initially used the Marion Massacre as a rallying cry, by 1930 the town and labor organizers were more interested in forgetting the tragedy ever occurred. Photo courtesy of Kim Clarke.
MOURNING THE DEAD: Large crowds gathered for the funeral mass of six victims of the violence at the Marion Manufacturing plant in 1929. Though union leadership initially used the Marion Massacre as a rallying cry, by 1930 the town and labor organizers were more interested in forgetting the tragedy ever occurred. Photo courtesy of Kim Clarke.

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.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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5 thoughts on “Cost of labor: revisiting the Marion Massacre

  1. michael debruhl blankenshio

    Thank you for reading this post.
    For me this book is about transfiguration. I helped Travis as a research assistant for 4 years after we meet in June 2011 at MACA in Marion. Travis has just wrapped up
    a master’s degree and through my research we crossed paths.
    I started my research in 1985, gathered references and alarmed by governor Walker’s threat to actuvate the national guard to control Labor I was asked by the communications workers through move/on to speak at a solidarity ralley sponsored by the streel workers to speak out for organization and soeak to the history of the Labor movement in WNC. My granddad was an IBEW organizer in the 1920’s. There are 5 generations of Union IBEW in
    my family.
    I came out of convalescent retirement, formed the Marion Research Circle, had three meetings, then produced a program reviewing the strikes with Mike Lawing author of The ‘Marion Massacre, Shei Lovette intrepretive vocalist of mill
    ballads, Women’s stiudies, Q & A from
    Children of the strikes, it waz catered with wine and cheese. Patti Holda was there, as were several local authors and actors, and community with interest of the Massacre.

    I said that this book is about transfiguration. I watched Travis change his mind, improve his literay talents and prose into art, I watched him flourish with a good editor: I was estranged for months after 325 pages of hard deveoped resesrch and scholarship was cut from our 640 page manuscript, left on the floor.

    So the “baby” has been sold, the suits have the rights, Travis is in the PhD. program, the baby is out in the big world, beyond peer reviews, and will make contributions to our History and future. Unraveled is the most significant historical research since Tom Tippets, “When Southern Labor Stirs” released in the early 1930’s. These two volumes may as well be the Old and the New Testaments of the History of Southern Labor for our time. In memory of Miss Ruth Greenlee and the 6 that died for your rights to a fair wage for your labor, shorter hours and basic Human Rights on the other side of the Mountain at a rain swept tear gased shroud of death at the mill gate. RIP All.

    • Venetia Hogan

      Hello Travis, my name is Venetia Hogan and I am the granddaughter of Lawrence Hogan. I would love to speak with you if that is possible. I have information you may be interested in.

      • Max Hunt

        Hello Ms. Hogan,

        Thanks for commenting and reading. If you would like to reach out to Mr. Byrd, I can help with that. My email address is mhunt@mountainx.com. If you send me your contact info, I’ll see that he receives it, just in case he doesn’t check here.

      • Venetia Hogan

        Hello Travis, my name is Venetia Hogan and I am the granddaughter of Lawrence Hogan. I would love to speak with you if that is possible. I have information you may be interested in.

      • Travis Byrd

        Hello, Ms. Hogan
        Wow… I was going through some very old mail that wound up in a different place on my gmail account.
        I would LOVE to talk talk to you. Following Mike Lawing’s lead, I tried to contact several of your family, with no success. I would dearly love to get in touch. The strikes of 1929 were not the only labor action your grandfather was involved in, and I have been trying to track his movements between 1930, when he was released from the “road crew” in Henderson County until his death; I have found evidence of his presence in High Point in 1932 in a massive action that predated the general textile of 1934. He was a tremendous figure, one who deserves recognition.
        Hopefully this will reach you.
        PS. Mike Lawing, nephew of Enis Lawing–your grandfather’s friend and pastor in Old Fort–told me of family belief that Lawrence was targeted and essentially murdered in that “single car accident.” Having a copy of the death certificate and obituaries from the High Point area, I agree: Meningitis? Really? Yes, this is possible following a blow to the head; but it still sounds rather fishy–deus ex machina.
        Please get in touch. another email for me is tsbyrd@uncg.edu
        Thank you

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