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The Mill Strike

Strikers Crowd Downtown

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Tom Carney is the past editor of Old Huntsville Magazine and the author of Old Huntsville Photo Album, The FBI Files of Wernher von Braun, The Alabama Recount, Huntsville--Picture Perfect, Stories From Huntsville's Past, The Mystery of John Hunt, Doctor Brutally Murdered, Betty Wilson--My Story, Dred Scott in Huntsville, The Snuffdippers Ball and Simp McGhee.

In mid-July, 1934, after months of mediation and agitation, nearly 4,000 Huntsville cotton mill workers went on strike as part of a nationwide walkout that quickly ensnared America's entire textile industry.

The strike brought violence to the streets in the form of killings, kidnappings, assaults, shootings, and bombings.

A cloud of fear hung over Huntsville like poisonous vapors seeping into the hearts of the populace. No man, woman, child, home, or business was safe. Living here was dangerous. Mill owners across the nation refused to negotiate, threatening to hire strike breakers to quell any riotous activity by the strikers.

Then on July 17, the Fletcher Mill opened at the regular hour of 6 a.m., but was forced to close within three hours. Noisy strikers were clamoring in the street outside the mill and it appeared that major violence would erupt at any second. Sensing the severity of the situation, the nonunion employees chose to leave their jobs rather than confront the raucous pickets.

Police and deputies armed with tear-gas rifles and machine guns were called to the scene as the strikers grew more unruly, but the crowd dispersed when the officers arrived.

Merrimac was the next mill to close as strikers, under the leadership of state union organizer Albert Cox, went through the building telling workers to leave. The mill emptied in minutes. Lincoln and Dallas Mills closed that same morning when the night shifts came off duty.

John Dean, representing the United Textile Workers of America, urged strikers to maintain picket lines and prevent the mills from running.

Carloads of strikers, armed with shotguns, pistols, knives, baseball bats, and anything else that could serve as weapons, cruised the streets shouting and waving their weapons, intimidating anyone who might have had thoughts about going to work.

A meeting of the Dallas Mill workers was held at the old Methodist church on Humes Avenue. Monroe Adcock, the President of the Dallas local union, presided and urged that no destruction of mill property take place during the strike. He also pleaded that all union members refrain from using intoxicating liquors while the strike was in progress.

The following day reports of trouble sent police racing to the Admiral Braid Company. A crowd of a few hundred men had gathered outside the plant when it was reported that an attempt was going to be made to move a load of merchandise. The report was false and the crowd dispersed without incident. On July 30, special deputies guarded the Tennessee River bridge between Decatur and Huntsville as rumors indicated that a motorcade of more than 500 striking textile workers from Huntsville were en route to Decatur in an effort to urge the textile workers there to join the strike.

The deputies managed to turn the strikers back but everyone knew that it was just a matter of time before violence would explode.

Earlier in the day, three union men were attacked on a street corner near the Goodyear fabric plant in Decatur. The aforementioned union local head, Monroe Adcock, was shot in the leg, and Isaac Bui-lard and Burnice Rigsby were injured in an altercation with three unarmed men. Special guards were placed around the Goodyear plant.

Early Sunday morning, August 6, John Dean, leader of the strike in Alabama, was kidnapped from his room on the sixth floor of the Russel Erskine Hotel by four men and taken at gunpoint to Fayetteville, TN. During the ride he was beaten about the head with a pistol. His abductors, in a bizarre move, then registered him at the Pope Hotel where he managed to, according to the porter, initiate a call to his friends in Huntsville. In less than an hour a dozen automobiles, filled with armed men, arrived in Fayetteville to rescue their leader.

Instead of returning to his hotel, Dean went into seclusion at the home of George Davis on F Street in Merrimac Village. Armed guards were placed around the house to prevent further kidnapping. During the time of Dean's abduction 400 angry men, most of them carrying guns, gathered near the Russel Erskine Hotel. They had heard of the abduction and were seeking the men responsible. The Mayor sent a large contingent of police to the hotel, preventing the mob from getting out of hand. Strikers set up roadblocks at each road leading into Huntsville. Automobiles going in and out of the city were stopped by strikers brandishing weapons who said they were looking for the kidnapped man, not knowing that he had returned and was in hiding.

The situation was becoming serious. Many citizens were afraid to leave their homes. Gangs of armed men roamed the town looking for would-be strike breakers and terrifying everyone with whom they came into contact. Sometimes as many as eight carloads of strikers would slowly caravan through downtown.

With strikers demanding that the city take action, Solicitor (District Attorney) James Price announced that the Grand Jury would meet the following Monday and that a warrant had been issued in the kidnap case. Fearful that the crowd would take the law into its own hands, the Sheriff refused to name the persons involved until the arrests had been made.

Monday morning found a large crowd assembled downtown awaiting the day's events. In an act of bravado, Dean drove in from Merrimac and casually breakfasted at the Central Cafe downtown while armed bodyguards patrolled the sidewalks out front.

Meanwhile, the Grand Jury returned an indictment against James Conner, a mill worker. When word spread that the owners of the cotton mills might have been responsible for Dean's kidnapping, the pent-up fury of the strikers exploded. Rumors that downtown stores were going to be dynamited caused additional deputies to be brought in, but the day passed without incident.

Threats against the indicted Mr. Conner caused guards to be placed at his home. They were called off that same afternoon when it was realized that Conner had left town for parts unknown. Cars were not permitted on streets where union leaders lived, unless permission was first obtained from the strikers. Armed guards were maintained throughout the night and augmented the following morning by additional strikers.

The Thomas Mill, forced to shut down when the strike began, reopened despite threats from the strikers.

Before the plant could begin operating at full capacity, it was invaded by a gang of strikers from Merrimac Mills and Erwin Mills, despite protests by the foremen. The workers were quickly assembled and ordered by their leaders to quit work and leave the building by the spokesman of the strikers. William Fraser, manager of the Thomas Mill, later identified the leader as Henry Parmlee, the Union Leader at Merrimac. Fraser said the strikers ignored the "posted" signs displayed at the entrance to the mill.

On August 13, the kidnap charge against Conner was stricken from the docket of the Grand Jury and a lesser charge of "whitecapping" was entered. Whitecapping was defined as "an act to prevent and punish the formation or continuance of conspiracies and combinations for certain unlawful purposes." Trial was set for Nov. 28, but was continued until Feb. 19, 1935, when the matter was dropped. Random acts of violence continued. No one was safe.

On Sept. 3, three charges of dynamite damaged the grocery store of Mrs. R.W. Atkins on Pike Street in Merrimac Village. The explosion brought a crowd to the scene. Shortly before daybreak, strikers were brought out of their beds by bugle calls and gunshots. The armed men rushed into the city from Lincoln Village after being told of trouble at the Fletcher Mill. They returned home when everything was found quiet. A group of young women decided to ignore the picket line and return to work, but they were pushed to the ground by the angry strikers. Ignoring the girls' screams of protest, the strikers produced a pair of scissors and proceeded to roughly cut their hair. A short while later, residents of Lincoln watched the strange sight of four bald-headed girls being paraded down Meridian Street. The same day, gunshots were fired into the storefront windows of businesses downtown who were suspected of being sympathetic to the mill owners. An automobile belonging to a Union organizer, was burned while it was parked in front of the courthouse. City officials, frantic by this time, asked that a federal mediator be brought in. Something had to happen. Huntsville could not continue living under a cloud of terror. Judge Petree, mediator, and his staff arrived in Huntsville and immediately went into a conference with Union leaders. After the meeting at the Davis house, where John Dean had established his headquarters, Petree then conferred with the officials of the Erwin Mill, which had been trying to reach an agreement for several days. On Sept. 22, before the mediator could work out a compromise, the great textile strike ended. National Union leaders had reached a settlement. Almost as quickly as it had began, the violence ended.

Thousands of Huntsville textile workers responded to the Union leaders and returned to work. Peace had returned to Huntsville.

No charges were ever filed against anyone for the hundreds of acts of lawlessness committed during the strike. “It was,” as one old-timer remembers, “as if Huntsville just wanted to forget.”

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