Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Martha Turner

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Martha Turner
Bornca. 1850
North Carolina
DiedUnknown
NationalityAmerican
EthnicityNative American, White
OccupationMill Worker
Known forFederal Writers Project

Overview[edit]

Martha Turner (ca. 1850-unknown) was a woman of Native American and Caucasian descent. She worked at the Bellwill Cotton Mill for fifty years until the mill closed during the Great Depression. She was interviewed by The Federal Writers Project in 1938.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Martha Turner was born in the early 1850s to William James Lazans, a Native American, and Lelia Haddock Turner, a woman of Scots-Irish descent. Her parents married each other young, her mother at twelve and her father at twenty-one years old. They had three daughters and two sons. Her mother died at eighteen years old. Shortly after their mother's death, both of Turner's sisters died, leaving just Turner and her two brothers. In the years that followed her mother’s death, her father became increasingly violent towards his children. He wanted twelve year old Turner to marry a Native American man in their community. However, she so resented her father that she said she would never want to marry anyone like him. She already loved Joe Watson, a white man. According to Turner, her father caught her and Watson together and beat her so severely for consorting with a white man that she resolved to run away.[1]

Life in Wilmington, North Carolina[edit]

At twelve years old, Turner traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina on a boat, where she began working at Bellwill Cotton Mill. Watson followed her to Wilmington. Though they never married, she and Watson lived together for sometime. When she became pregnant, Watson abandoned Turner. Turner gave birth to their son, John William, and raised him alone. She saved her money until she could afford to buy herself a wedding ring, so that her son would never know that he was illegitimate. When her son was nine years old, he too began working at the mill until his death at fifty-three years old. He earned $3.00 a day. While Turner made $0.15 per day at first. But after fifty years at the mill, she made $1.20 per day at most. Turner’s granddaughter, Lottie Mae, also worked at the mill until she married. When the mill closed because of the depression, Martha had no source of income except what she could pick up in odd jobs. The mill allowed its employees to continue living in mill owned housing after it closed and Turner's neighbors helped her as much as they could. But eventually, she had to move in with her granddaughter, which is where she was living in 1938 when the Federal Writers Project interviewed her.[2]

Death[edit]

The date and circumstances of Turner's death are unknown.

Social Issues[edit]

Child Labor[edit]

During the Industrial Revolution in the United States, increasing numbers of children began working in factories to provide supplementary income for their families. In 1870, there were 750,000 workers under fifteen years old. This number did not include children working on their family farms.[3] Conditions in the factories for the child laborers were "generally wretched."[4] Factories like the one where Turner was employed often "promoted factory work as a refuge for impoverished women and children from the countryside" and hired whole families.[5] Children continued to work long hours under dangerous conditions until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a standard forty hour workweek and "prohibited children under 16 from working in manufacturing and mining and various other hazardous jobs."[6] Turner's family was no exception to the trend. Turner herself received only a few months of education total. Her father kept his children from school so that they could help with his lumber business. Later, as a poor, single mother, Turner had her son start working at the mill with her as soon as he was able.[7] This situation was common in the lower classes in the United States.

Mill Towns[edit]

Factories, like the Bellwill Cotton Mill, often built housing for its workers close to the workplace. The factory owners promoted the mill as a "refuge" for poor women and children from farms in the countryside.[8] The factory would allow the families it hired to live in the surrounding mill town but "required the labor of at least one worker per room as a condition for residence in a mill-owned house.” [9] This was a strategy to keep the families dependent on the factory. Children often had to quit school to work at the mill in order for the family to keep the mill-owned house. Since they received little education, factory jobs became the only employment available to them. This cycle kept families dependent on the mill and working at "low wages and under difficult working conditions."[10]

References[edit]

  1. Interview of Martha Turner, 1938, folder 507, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers Project Papers, Louis Round Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Interview of Martha Turner, 1938, folder 507, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers Project Papers, Louis Round Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. “Child Labor in America.” Current Events, a Weekly Reader publication. (2006): 2.
  4. “Child Labor in America.” Current Events, a Weekly Reader publication. (2006): 2.
  5. Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, Korstad, Robert, and Leloudis, James. “Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940.” American Historical Review 91, no. 2: 245-286.
  6. “Child Labor in America.” Current Events, a Weekly Reader publication. (2006): 2.
  7. Interview of Martha Turner, 1938, folder 507, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers Project Papers, Louis Round Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  8. Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, Korstad, Robert, and Leloudis, James. “Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940.” American Historical Review 91, no. 2: 245-286.
  9. Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, Korstad, Robert, and Leloudis, James. “Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940.” American Historical Review 91, no. 2: 245-286.
  10. Moore, Richard T. “Manufacturing Key to Success.” Telegram & Gazette, October 8, 2013.