Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ella Mae Wiggins Murder Solved

Ella Mae Wiggins was a textile worker and union organizer born in the mountains of Cherokee County. She began working in a nearby mill to help support her family after a tragic accident in a lumberyard, which killed her father. Later, she married a fellow mill employee, John Wiggins, and they left for Gaston County where they went to seek work in the rapidly growing industrial region. Everything was swell for around 10 years. They settled in Bessemer City and found jobs in the American Mill. Between the two of them, they had seven children. Johnny, one day, decided to desert his whole family, leaving his family struggling to survive. Ella Mae had to switch to the night shift to see her children during the day. Even with this switch, she was not able to make enough money for the eight of them to survive. Two of her children suffered from malnutrition, and this developed into rickets, causing them to die.
Wiggins lived in a very poor diverse area where she became a central figure in a network of family and friends who supported her through troubles. She grew ties with poor white and black families, which contradicted rigid racial mores of the twentieth century South. She realized that her future was bound to the collective destiny of those around her. 

In twenty years, the number of mills in the county doubled while the marking declined. Prices of materials grew, and manufacturers began to change operations. People began getting laid off, and a new system called the "stretch-out" was set in place. This was when they paid people low prices and while putting on more work. Increased hours and reduced pay. Ella Mae struggled to support her five children with only $9.00 a week.

She organized a union, and demanded a minimum weekly wage of $20 for a 40-hour week, equal pay for women, and abolition of the stretch out. These strikes got violent, and included the detainment of several union workers and people in charge began to notice Wiggin’s power in the union. One day, she found that the spring she used for water had been poisoned.

She continued to go to rallies and strike, but one day, she and a group of 22 unarmed union members traveled to a rally site and took a bloody turn. They were stopped at a roadblock, and they were given the option of turning around or die. They turned around as they were told, but several cars followed them. The truck stopped suddenly and Ella Mae fell out of the vehicle. She stood up, and the mob opened fire. 7 men were indicted, but even with over 50 eyewitnesses, the men were let off on no charges.

Her death caused pressure from local strikers and some mills changed their working hours and extended other benefits. She was a sort of martyr in the eyes of her community.



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