Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Betty McCoy

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Young spinner girl in a Georgia Mill
Betty McCoy
Born1902
Charlotte, North Carolina
Diedunknown
NationalityAmerican
OccupationMill Worker/Spinner

Overview[edit]

Betty McCoy (born 1902) was an American mill worker in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her interview with the Federal Writers' Project in 1939 highlighted the daily lives and experiences of lower class, white workers in North Carolina.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Betty McCoy was born in 1902 on Louise Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina. After her grandmother died, McCoy’s mother inherited a home that she couldn’t afford; eventually McCoy’s mother rented rooms out to boarders. At the age of twelve McCoy began doffing in the nearby Louise Cotton Mill to help with expenses.[1] Doffing was tedious labor that involved replacing full spindles of fiber with empty ones. Yet, McCoy only made a paltry twenty-five cents an hour. Although the work was difficult, McCoy enjoyed working and playing with her friends at the mill.[2]At the start of World War I, McCoy was promoted from a doffer to a spinner. A spinners primary job was to spin cotton from the doffing cylinders into thread. Normally, the average spinner made only twenty-five dollars a week, but because she had grown up in the mill, McCoy was paid thirty dollars a week.[3] McCoy’s new salary was enough to support her family. Yet, during the Great Depression wages lowered and McCoy’s mother was forced to start taking in boarders again.[4]

Adult Life[edit]

Although she attended night school at Central High School, McCoy never finished a formal education. McCoy believed that she made it to the ninth grade. She regularly read the paper and worked the crossword in the Charlotte News. McCoy met her husband in the Louise Cotton Mill where they both worked as children. They were married into the Methodist church, a faith McCoy would keep throughout her life. As a child her husband also worked as a doffer, making a dollar and eighty-cents a week. As an adult he continued doffing, averaging a weekly salary of twelve dollars.[5] Because they lacked formal educations McCoy and her husband were unable to move up into better jobs. With better mill equipment, McCoy could work three times as many machines in 1939, than she could in 1919.[6] Although she produced more, McCoy only made fifteen dollars a week due to the Fair Labor Standards Act.[7] She described it as doing “three people’s work and getting one person’s pay.[8]” McCoy became skeptical of labor unions after a failed strike attempt at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina and was content to continuing work in the Louise Cotton Mill. Her death date is unknown. At the time she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project she was thirty-seven.[9]

Social Issues[edit]

Child Labor and Textiles in North Carolina[edit]

History of Textile Mills[edit]

The Avondale Mill Village is a prime example of what the average mill village looked liked

The opening of the Schenck-Warlick Mill in 1814 would precede a long history of textile production in North Carolina.[10] With an ample supply of southern cotton and the marvels of the Industrial Revolution, many mills could produce more refined cotton for much less than it would to be send it up North. The Piedmont region in central North Carolina became a hub of cotton production. Charlotte and Gastonia could hardly meet the increased demand. In order to meet the demand mills needed more workers.[11] At the time, many North Carolinians lived in rural areas so mill owners would send recruiters in order to persuade people and their children to come work in the mills.[12] The promise of earning two dollars a week, over seventy-five cents was highly enticing.[13] This created a change in family life with many relocating to mill villages, settlements that were located near and owned by the mill. Mill villages provided basic necessities for mill workers.[14]

Child Labor in Textiles During the Early 20th Century[edit]

Children provided a cheap source of labor, and often times remained economically immobile for large portions of their lives. Normally, children would begin playing in the mills and by the time they reached age twelve they were employed.[15] On the eve of the Gilded Age more children than ever were employed in factories and textile mills. From 1899-1914, North Carolina was second in the nation for the number of child wage earners, only 2% behind South Carolina.[16] Many children worked long hours in the factories as either doffers or sweepers because their smaller hands allowed them to grab the spindles with little injury. In 1904 the National Child Labor Committee was formed and began a serious campaign of reform. It wasn’t until 1916, that the Keaton-Owen Act was passed that placed heavy economic sanctions on goods made in factories where child labor was used. However, it was shortly lived, and did little to negate the use of child labor. In 1924 the Supreme Court voted down a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to regulate labor of persons under the age of eighteen. Demand for goods was at an all-time high in the 1920s, so labor reforms were hardly passed until the Great Depression in the 1930s.[17]

The Impact of Union Failure in North Carolina Textiles[edit]

As technological advancements improved, the need for workers was greatly diminished. A practice known as the stretch-out became the new normal in southern textile mills. Also known as the Bedaud efficiency system, the stretch-out was where employers would cut employee hours, but due to better technology individuals could produce more goods. In short, fewer hours meant less money and during the Great Depression mill workers couldn’t afford to have less hours. Growing discontent would lead to labor policy reform and increased union activity.[18]

The Loray Mill Strike[edit]

Two girls at work in the Loray Mill in Gastonia, NC

On April 1st, 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, one thousand eight hundred mill workers walked off their jobs to protest intolerable working conditions and low salaries.[19] Fred Beal of the National Textiles Workers Union led the charge and inspired many other workers around North Carolina to do the same. Immediately after beginning the strike, the mill owners used in the National Guard to evict families from the mill village and imprison those who continued to strike. A total of seventy-one strikers were arrested.[20] Ultimately, the strike was deemed a failure. In the aftermath of the strike, the anti-strike “Committee of One Hundred” was formed.[21] These vigilantes forced the remaining strikers out of Gastonia. This failure and widespread disdain contributed to a long lasting cynicism towards unions and collective action in North Carolina.[22]

References[edit]

  1. Interview, Mary Brown to Betty McCoy, May 25th, 1939, folder 88, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. Ibid.
  3. Table information is from Like a Family, pp. 79–80. Source: Holland Thompson, From Cotton Field to Cotton Mill (New York: Mcmillan, 1924). (a) Ranges from $15.20 to $25.00. (b) Ranges from $25.00 to $30.00.
  4. Interview, Mary Brown to Betty McCoy, May 25th, 1939, folder 88, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  5. Ibid.
  6. Vorse, Mary Heaton. Gastonia. Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1929.
  7. U.S. Department of Labor - History - Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938:. Dol.gov.
  8. Interview, Mary Brown to Betty McCoy, May 25th, 1939, folder 88, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hodges, James A. New Deal Labor Policy and the Southern Cotton Textile Industry: 1933-1941. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Pr., 1986.
  11. Lawrence, Julian. Child Labor in the South. Nashville American, 1913.
  12. Holleran, Philip M.. 1997. “Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills”. Social Science History 21 (3). Cambridge University Press: 297–320. 
  13. Ibid.
  14. Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline, and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1978.
  15. Holleran, Philip M.. 1997. “Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills”. Social Science History 21 (3). Cambridge University Press: 297–320. 
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline, and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1978.
  19. Vorse, Mary Heaton. Gastonia. Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1929.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Hodges, James A. New Deal Labor Policy and the Southern Cotton Textile Industry: 1933-1941. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Pr., 1986.
  22. Ibid.