By the start of the Great Depression in 1929, Rocky Mount Mills employed over 350 white men and women to spin cotton, as it had become an almost exclusively white operation like most other textile mills in the South. These laborers were affected by the national economic decline that troubled the nation throughout the 1930s, but they were fortunate in that they did not face the same harsh and dangerous circumstances most other textile workers during the Great Depression experienced. Although their hours and wages were both cut, they were still able to work in the mill without fear that it would shut down, and living in the mill village meant they had secured housing, plumbing, and electricity. Textile laborers across the nation worked together to survive these hard times of economic distress, but those at Rocky Mount had a different experience from most of them. Workers across the nation organized unions, protests, and strikes against the management of their mills due to the harsh conditions they established, but Rocky Mount workers never found the need to strike or protest for a variety of reasons. However, they still found themselves working together to overcome the hardships of the Depression.
The cotton and textile industries across country faced many significant challenges during the Depression. Poor marketing strategies and cotton overproduction resulted in mills being unable to sell much of their products. Instead of decreasing production, many mill owners and operators decided instead to cut worker salaries, increase daily hours, and force laborers to work every day of the week. Mills in the Piedmont and across the country experienced protests from workers suffering as a result of these harsh working conditions, which came to be known as the “stretch-out.” However, it wasn’t just the stretch-out that caused textile laborers across the country to band together to form the United Textile Workers union (whose membership increased from 27,500 workers in 1932 to 270,000 members in 1934) and go on strike. It was also the fact that the newly founded National Recovery Administration failed to incorporate worker representation into the new Textile Industry Committee, which created code that made conditions even worse for workers.
In September of 1934, textile laborers across the nation went on a unified strike for twenty-three days, including 65,000 North Carolinians from dozens of mills. They resumed work only after President Roosevelt himself demanded they return to the mills, and the United Textile Workers made no progress in having their requests for less hours, higher wages, or more representation met by the government. Although this movement gained national attention and the support of thousands of textile workers, the laborers at Rocky Mount never went on strike. If there was any tension between management and the workforce, it never resulted in protest or violence like it did in so many other mills. This is likely due to the fact they were isolated from much of the organizing and action, and their conditions were not as bad as those faced by many other workers in the region. The Loray Mill in Gastonia (which was the location of both the infamous 1929 Loray Mill strike and the 1934 Labor Day parade where 10,000 people came to celebrate and kick off the nationwide textile strike) was nearly 250 miles away on the other side of the state.
Not only were they isolated from much of the organizing action, but Rocky Mount textile workers also got most of their information about these strikes and protests through newspapers like the Evening Telegram and Rocky Mount Herald. These papers did not offer a lot of information on the strikes, but when they did they were often portrayed as violent, hopeless, and unnecessary actions. They showed pictures of labor organizers and mill employees clashing with members of the National Guard.
Although Rocky Mount Mills neither implemented this stretch-out nor completely shut down during the Depression like many other textile companies, their production and working hours were still significantly impacted. Until this period, mill workers typically worked twelve hour shifts six days a week. What mill treasurer Thomas H. Battle referred to as a “bad showing” in a letter to his brother William J. Battle in 1930 caused the mill’s management to eliminate all full-time schedules and reduce wages by ten percent across the board, including Battle’s own salary. In an oral history interview, mill villager Kermit Paris remembered a time in the 1930s where they only worked one day a week. Born in 1928, Paris grew up during the Depression in a mill village house with his parents, siblings, and grandmother. He played croquet, marbles, and hopscotch with other kids in the village, and he remembered eating collard greens, butter beans, and chickens that the neighbors grew. With hours severely cut, mill villagers had more time on their hands, and families could often be found sitting on their front porches together and talking to their neighbors, which helped form an increased sense of community among villagers.
Less time working meant less pay and resources, so many workers had to find other ways of supporting themselves. Kinship networks of extended families as well as workplace-based relationships helped the villagers think of themselves as one big family unit, and, as a family, they worked together to make sure they survived throughout the worst of the Depression. In order to make ends meet on this altered schedule with little pay, many resorted to subsistence living in order to supplement their meager wages. Families grew vegetables and raised chickens in their yards to put food on their own tables, but they also gave them to neighbors who didn’t own animals or a garden. Workers shared and cheaply sold the resources they had with each other in order to make sure no one went hungry or without necessary living items. Not only did they grow food for one another, but many also sewed and mended clothes and provided other skilled services to their neighbors.
Another reason Rocky Mount workers did not protest or join the textile strikes was because they saw daily the frightening reality of what life might be like if they lost their jobs. While those at Rocky Mount Mills were mostly able to get by during the Great Depression, the same could not be said for tenant farmers growing cotton or some other textile workers in the area. Many farmers came into Rocky Mount looking for work at the mills and other industries with no success, like this example from a Rocky Mount Telegram article from 1930: “A few weeks ago while there was so much discussion about the distress among the Eastern North Carolina tenant farmers, a cotton mill man of Rocky Mount was quoted as saying that scores of these farmers have come to town to look for work in the cotton mills. He added, ‘They do not want to know anything about wages or hours. They are hungry, and they will take any work, or any amount of it that promises them something to eat.’”
This large population of unemployed people entering the city also meant that if mill workers complained or tried to bargain with management, they could easily be replaced by those desperate for work. Mills were struggling to keep their own workers employed, and this influx of farmers looking for work only aided in decreasing wages and increasing unemployment levels. The article encouraged farmers to go back to their land and stop growing cash crops like cotton and tobacco, because they would be “much better off raising corn, potatoes, wheat, and hogs,” as there were “excellent opportunities for truckers and gardeners, who could make good money feeding those who are left at the mills.” Mill villagers in Rocky Mount didn’t have much, but what they did have was secured by their relationship with the mill’s management who owned the village.
Thomas H. Battle took charge of the Mills in 1898, and he continued to serve as Treasurer into the early years of the Depression until his death in 1936, the same time he served as President then Chairman of the Board for Rocky Mount First National Bank. He retired in 1933, and his son Hyman L. Battle took over his role while Thomas’ cousin Turner Battle Bunn served as Secretary through Depression years until his retirement in 1940. The Battle family was known for their generosity to their workers, especially by those who lived in the mill village. They would help villagers pay bills, allow them extra time to submit payments, and do small favors like give them rides. They also contributed to the workers’ mutual aid fund, where donations were taken in the Canteen where workers ate meals on breaks to help villagers pay medical bills. This support of workers by the mill executives was unlike most worker-management relationships in the textile industry at the time, and these acts of kindness likely helped the Battle family avoid any unrest from mistreated workers. “Mill villagers relied on the Battles to protect them from the worst material deprivations in exchange for their continued peaceful employment at the mills,” writes Rocky Mount historian Lisa Gayle Hazirjian. While they relied on neighbors and family for the type of subsistence living that provided them with food, clothes, and crafted objects, they relied on the Battle family to keep their houses, keep their jobs, and get their bills paid.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons Rocky Mount Mills workers did not strike was the fact that the mill did not suffer the same serious economic decline that so many others, even nearby mills, did. A June 1935 issue of the Rocky Mount Telegram announced the indefinite closing of the Hart and Fountain Mills across the Tar River in Tarboro, leaving 700 people out of work until the mills eventually reopened. Rocky Mount workers never had to suffer a loss like this. Although financial records from Rocky Mount indicate total salaries and wages decreased from $241,987.81 in 1929 to just $167,438.70 in 1931, the following year salaries and wages increased to $204,253.07. By 1934 they had increased to $342,556.10, and they continued to rise throughout the decade. Rocky Mount Mills only briefly faced the financial turmoil that affected so many others in the cotton and textile companies, but eventually the industry was able to bounce back. By the end of the decade, the textile industry saw an increased demand for business as the country prepared for World War II. A 1938 issue of the Rocky Mount Herald reported that mills across the region were looking for more workers, placing hundreds of them back into the industry.
Hazirjian, Lisa Gayle. 2003. “Negotiating Poverty: Economic Insecurity and the Politics of Working-Class Life in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 1929-1969.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Duke University.
Murray, Jonathan. “Textile Strike of 1934.” North Carolina History Project. 2016. Accessed June 27, 2018. https://www.ncpedia.org/textiles/strike-1934.
Financial Reports and Statements, 1927-1939. Folders 24-25. Rocky Mount Mills Records, 1804-2007. Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.
Kermit Paris and Doris Williams Paris. Interview by Mary Lewis Deans. Oral History. Rocky Mount, NC. June 28, 1996.
Thomas H. Battle to William J. Battle. September 30, 1930. In Battle Family Papers, 1765-1955. Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Mills Cannot Employ All of Them.” The Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount), February 25, 1930. http://braswell.advantage-preservation.com/.
“Tarboro Mill is Shut Down.” The Rocky Mount Herald, June 28, 1935. http://braswell.advantage-preservation.com/.
The Rocky Mount Herald, September 28th, 1934. http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/.
The Rocky Mount Herald, February 11, 1938. http://newspapers.digitalnc.org
 Murray, Jonathan. “Textile Strike of 1934.” North Carolina History Project. 2016. Accessed June 27, 2018. https://www.ncpedia.org/textiles/strike-1934.
 The Rocky Mount Herald, September 28th, 1934. http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/.
 Thomas H. Battle to William J. Battle. September 30, 1930. In Battle Family Papers, 1765-1955.
 Kermit Paris and Doris Williams Paris. Interview by Mary Lewis Deans. Oral History. Rocky Mount, NC. June 28, 1996.
 Hazirjian, Lisa Gayle. “Negotiating Poverty: Economic Insecurity and the Politics of Working-Class Life in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 1929-1969.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Duke University, 2003, 95-97.
 “Mills Cannot Employ All of Them.” The Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount), February 25, 1930. http://braswell.advantage-preservation.com/.
 Hazirjian, Lisa Gayle. “Negotiating Poverty: Economic Insecurity and the Politics of Working-Class Life in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 1929-1969.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Duke University, 2003, 107.
 “Tarboro Mill is Shut Down.” The Rocky Mount Herald, June 28, 1935. http://braswell.advantage-preservation.com/.
 Financial Reports and Statements, 1927-1939. Folders 24-25. Rocky Mount Mills Records, 1804-2007.
 The Rocky Mount Herald, February 11, 1938. http://newspapers.digitalnc.org