Critical Letter in re. Marion, N.C.

Undated and unsigned, the letter was from 206 Martin Street, Wadesboro, N.C.:

My dear Bishop Johnson:

You probably will not remember me, blut I am writing you nevertheless as I cannot keep still after reading the article written by Mr. Spofford in the last WITNESS. It has created intense feeling and stirred the righteous indignation of everyone. ‘Cotton Print and Steel Bullets’ is on the whole a most unjust and unwise article. I am not saying some conditions are not wrong and need rectifying, but neither was the World War right. Another such war may be in the offing. Certainly wise heads are trying to abolish any such tragedy in the future by getting at the source of trouble in an entirely different manner from that used by the Managing Editor of THE WITNESS. He is simply adding to the too-much hatred already prevelant everywhere by his tactics. In the first place, the opening statement of the article is not correct — that of bodies lying for burial in rough, unfinished pine lumber coffins. As pictures in all the newspapers testify to, the caskets were anything but as such mentioned. Then, why start in blaming mill-owners for mountain roads? Marion is a mountain town twenty miles from the home of Bishop Matthews in the mountains where you visited in September. In rainy weather his road, too, is very muddy. Perhaps Mr. Spofford has never been in the mountains before, and so isn’t aware of what mountain roads are like. 1 Then–the homes. He says ‘simple little four-roomed dwelling places, with an oil-stove and table in the kitchen’ Ridiculous to try to stir feeling over such a matter. If Mr. Spofford would get out of his pleasant city office 2 and stir about a little, praying and working amongst these mountain mill-workers, it would probably do some good. And, he’d find much to his amazement that these mill homes were palaces compared to the places many of these mill-workers come from. I know what I am talking about for I worked amongst the mountain folks for a number of years. And by that I mean I lived at times right in their midst for two or more weeks at a time when necessary. What they had was generally one room with huge openings in the walls to let in the blessed sunshine and cold, winterly draught. To protect mother and child from pneumonia I’d have to board over such places with newspapers. One fireplace, minus an oil stove (one would have been a Godsend!) in which they baked their potatoes in the ashes, and their cornbread on hot rocks in the fireplace. All the family and friends slept in one room – sometimes as many as ten in number. Mr. Spofford’s title and whole article leave the impression that all mills in the south are in ghastly conditions. Which too is all wrong. There are many southern gentlemen who are also Christian men, who are doing all they can for their community of mill-workers. Nice homes, which can be made most home-like and attractive if the inmates are not of the slovenly, drifting and no-account type. Schools in attractive locations, with buses hired and operated by the employers for the mill-workers and their children, with various recreations afforded. If wages are somewhat lower than in New York City or Chicago, Ill. so, also, are prices for food and clothing, rent, etc., lower in proportion in the south. Storekeepers can tell you that mill workers spend any amount of money on food. If some have ‘cabbage, fat meat and cornbread’, they do so because they prefer and consider it a combined dish of rare delicacy. Our food they would spurn. It is wasted energy to weep our eyes out about such a circumstance. The mill-workers in the South are as a whole in far better shape than those in all big cities. That i also know from experience.  Part of preparing myself for my mountain work was just such work in a large Ohio city.  For dirt, no sunlight and rachitic 3 children, nothing could equal the big city mill and slum districts. Like Mr. Spofford, I assure you I ‘restrain myself’ when I do not say more. So why scorn and rant so about these cottages in the South which are far superior to the city dweller. With four rooms, and oil stove, beds, sunshine and no rachitic or tubercular children, these folks have much to thank God for.

That some conditions need improving I don’t deny. And such improvements are going along steadily and surely. ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ And my honest conviction is that if a low-class of labor organizer (so low that their work is not sanctioned by recognized and accepted unions) had not come into the community and mingled with and stirred up these good, tho ignorant folk, these terrible tragedies would have been averted and conditions would be improving for the workers all the time. Concerning unsanitary conditions, it is against North Carolina laws for any such thing to exist. Health officers are being sent out constantly into city, country and rural districts to look into and correct any such state of affair, with a fine where such is not done when notified.  If Mr. Spofford found such a condition in Marion, a little wisdom on his part would have quietly sent officers there at once. North Carolina is much more progressive that he realizes. After the Civil War the South was left destitute and practically in starving condition. With dogged and quiet determination it started rebuilding from the ruins. Just lately has the South emerged from an agricultural to an industrial age. With all progression and development, mistakes are inevitable. We must all pray for the Grace of God and strive constantly to do our best while in the making.

It has occurred to me – is it possible – in all humility and meaning it from the very bottom of my hearts – is it possible that some of these troubles can be partly laid at the doors of the Ministers of Christ? Why do I ask this? Because for years, I have seen the home missionary field does not have the glamour of the foreign field. Workers who do volunteer often become readily discouraged at the shortcomings of the people at home and usually want to give up the work. Outsiders, too, are not as interested. And when you cannot meet and adapt yourself to meet these people at least half-way on their own ground – be willing to really and truly serve Christ by swallowing often times words as well as nauseating food. Not that one is too good for the food, but not being used to eating a large morsel of ‘fat back’, it is difficult to down it unless you truly do wish to serve the Master – and words such as ‘She’s paid to do it – let her do it”.  And you hear a minister of Christ get up in Church and tell a little mountain congregation “God does not want your stingy nickel, if you can’t bring more, don’t bring a nickel”. Then , I say, don’t you think the ministers and clergy and more educated layman are being held responsible in the sight of God along with some of the mill owners for the tragedy of six killings in the mountain town of Marion”.

Bill Jr. Alas, the letter was not signed. I don’t know the author’s gender, Obviously, Bp. I.P.J. turned it over to Dad and, since he kept it, he must have appreciated it and would see in it the oppressor’s standard justification: “blame history, blame outsiders, blame the victim and compared-to-others, we’re not so bad!’

  1. Bill Jr.: Actually, as a youth growing up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Dad had climbed many of them: Washington, Kearsarge, Monadnock, Sunapee and Adams. He did know mountains but I imagine this correspondent had a point, or rather, in writing the article, Dad was using literary images and wet country roads are rather universally mud, or were back then!
  2. Bill Jr:: Ha, the writer could have written a counter-article about Dad’s messy place of work and it would have been a stand-off!
  3. an obsolete term for rickets[