March 1, 2023
Learn more about North Carolina Labor History at bit.ly/nclaborhistory.
By Alex Copetas
In the Spring of 1929, industrial action rocked the town of Gastonia, North Carolina. Local mill workers struck for better hours and wages, and mill owners responded by calling in the national guard to help evict workers from their homes. Local and national organizers flooded into Gastonia to help the movement. One such organizer was Ella May, a single mother of seven who had been working in the mills since she was a child. A talented musician, May composed pro-labor songs to spread and promote the union’s message. She was also an effective organizer. Charismatic and intelligent, she advocated for cooperation across race and gender as a way to achieve equality and strengthen the movement.
As spring turned to summer, both May’s popularity and the strike’s intensity grew. Anti-union mobs harassed the strikers, attacking National Textile Workers Union offices and raiding strikers’ relief stations. Interpersonal violence also grew more common. In June, Gastonia chief of police D.A. Aderholt was killed in a shootout following a skirmish at the strike picket line. The police quickly arrested 72 workers in response, and eventually indicted 16. Aderholt’s killing also prompted anti-union mobs to attack striking workers with greater frequency, often flogging any they captured.
It was these violent men who would kill Ella May. On September 14th, she drove into Gastonia from Bessemer City with a group of fellow organizers, planning on singing at a mass meeting of workers. Before they could reach the site of the protest, a group of armed anti-union men confronted them. The identities of members of the mob are not precisely known, although a significant number of them were employed by local mill owners, likely to harass striking workers. In any case, the mob ordered May and her companions to return to Bessemer City, and threatened to kill them if they did not. May complied, but the men followed them in cars. They tailed May’s truck for five miles, before one of their cars overtook and swerved in front of May’s truck, causing it to crash. The mob then opened fire on the truck, hitting May. She exclaimed “Oh Lord, they’ve killed me”, and died.1
The state responded slowly to the killing. In the first place, local authorities failed to disperse the violent mob that eventually killed Ella May. This proved to be an ongoing problem even after May’s death; organizers fled Gastonia and felt the need to change residences frequently, and strikers continued to be beaten. One resident remarked that the anti-union bullies “looked like (law) officers from the authority they were taking”.2 Additionally, the state did such a poor job investigating the murder and arresting those responsible that the ACLU had to offer a reward for information related to the killing to make up for the state’s inadequacies. Eventually, fourteen men were charged with second degree murder and manslaughter. This response is particularly striking in comparison to the thoroughness with which the state prosecuted the Aderholt killing.
The trial was similarly fraught with incompetence and corruption. For one, the trial had to be moved from Gastonia to Charlotte because the jury was deemed too biased to accurately prosecute the case. This caused a political backlash that could have hurt the efficiency of the case, as one of the prosecution’s attorneys was strongly against a change in venue. It is unclear if the move was effective. For one, the defense was able to ensure that the jury contained no union members, resulting in a more anti-labor bias. The change in venue was also unable to prevent instances of corruption. The prosecution’s star witness – who had seen a man fire the shot that killed Ella May – disappeared mysteriously before he could testify in court. The prosecution was unable to find another suitable witness, despite the fact that the crime took place on one of the busiest roads in the state, in front of 50 bystanders. According to the Durham Sun, this was because friends of the accused beat potential testifiers to keep their mouth shut.3 As a result, the prosecution was without key pieces of evidence.
Freed from the burden of evidence, the defense was able to play on the jury’s bigotry. They characterized Ella May’s status as a single mother as a moral failing, called her a communist, and derided her as “riff-raff”. These cruel, illogical, and legally dubious tactics worked. May’s killers walked free on March 7, 1930.
Ella May was a person of fortitude, creativity, and intelligence. She sought unity where others wanted only division, and she died for a kinder, more dignified world in which hard work would be respected and everyone would be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. While there is plenty of reason to dwell on the injustice of her death, there is far more we can learn from her life, and the zeal with which she lived it.
Alex Copetas is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin College in 2022, after which he interned with the NC State AFL-CIO through The Oberlin 1833 Just Transition Fund. Alex is now pursuing a career in law.
- Charlotte News September 16, 1929
- The Durham Morning Herald, September 16, 1929
- The Durham Sun, September 23, 1929