Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Martha Turner

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Overview[edit]

Martha Turner (b. 1848) was a mixed-race indigenous cotton mill worker born in Bladen County, North Carolina. For most of her life she was employed by the Wilmington Cotton Mill until it closed down during the early years of The Great Depression. Turner was living in Wilmington, North Carolina when she was interviewed by Frances L. Harriss for the Federal Writer's Project in 1938.

Martha Turner
Born1848
Bladen County, North Carolina
DiedOctober 19th, 1948
Wilmington, North Carolina
NationalityAmerican
OccupationCotton mill worker
Years activeapprox. 50 years

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Martha Turner was born in 1848 in Bladen County, North Carolina, close to Elizabethtown, North Carolina. She was the eldest daughter of William James Lazans, a timber salesman, and Lelia Haddock Turner. Turner’s father was Native American (tribe unknown) and her mother was Scotch-Irish American. Turner’s mother died when she was young, and her two sisters died shortly after. Turner attended primary school for only three months before her father withdrew her because he did not want her to receive an education and needed her to work. Turner’s father and step-mother were abusive, and when she was twelve she ran away and took a steamboat down the Cape Fear River to Wilmington, North Carolina. Turner lived with the family of William Durden when she arrived in Wilmington, and began working at the cotton mill soon after.[1]

Adult Life[edit]

Turner worked at the Wilmington Cotton Mill for more than fifty years, starting upon her arrival to Wilmington and ending when it closed down during the early years of the Great Depression. When Turner first began working at the mill she made only fifteen cents an hour, but she eventually learned how to feed two machines with cotton and started making one-dollar and twenty-cents an hour. She made this amount of money until the mill closed. In the 1871, she had a son with Joe Watson, whom she named Joe William. Joe William began working at the mill when he was nine years old and met his wife there. They had a daughter, Lottie Mae. Joe William died in 1926.[2] Following the closing of the mill, Turner could no longer keep her mill cottage properly maintained, so she moved in with her granddaughter, who had been recently widowed. Shortly after moving into Lottie Mae’s home in 1938, Turner got gangrene after cutting herself and neglecting to clean and take care of the injury, but she recovered quickly. Turner was a proud Democrat and voted three times in her life, twice for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Turner died on October 19th, 1948 at County Home institution, of “general senility” (Dementia) at the age of one-hundred,[3] which was a true accomplishment given the time and her socioeconomic status.

Related Topics[edit]

Child Labor in North Carolina Cotton Mills[edit]

North and South Carolina were the leaders in cotton manufacturing in the United States during the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century. South Carolina was the number-one producer, with North Carolina following close behind with the second most annual product. Approximately one quarter of all workers in the cotton mills the American South were under the age of sixteen,[4] and it was common for members of the judicial system in North Carolina to defend twelve-year-old’s rights to work.[5] Despite the fact that it was somewhat legal to employ a child under the age of twelve, this law was only loosely enforced and many mills in North Carolina employed children under the legal age, many of which were working at least sixty-six hours per week.[6] One of the first court attacks on the abuse of child labor in cotton mills took place in North Carolina,[7] thanks to the state’s reliance on child labor to maintain the efficacy of the cotton industry. Required schooling for children brought an end to the abuse of child labor, as was the case throughout most of the United States.

Reconstruction-Era Race Relations in North Carolina[edit]

The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century was a tumultuous time in the South, due to the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of an era of white supremacy that would reign for decades to come. While many black Americans saw their standard of living and overall treatment improve in the aftermath of the American Civil War, the end of Reconstruction brought Jim Crow to the South. Many members of the white Democrat elite that had once been powerful saw their influence lessened, and began campaigns to alienate poor whites and blacks in order to regain their previous status. One of the biggest turning points in North Carolina’s racial history was the Wilmington insurrection of 1898 (also known as the Wilmington massacre of 1898 and Wilmington race riot of 1898), in which white supremacists engineered a coup d'etat to overthrow the bi-racial government (two-thirds of the members of which were white). To this day, the Wilmington insurrection of 1898 is the only successful coup to ever take place in the United States. Shortly following the insurrection, white supremacist movements across the South began to take formal root. Segregation policies were implemented in 1899 in North Carolina, beginning with separate seating on trains and steamboats, while Whites were increasingly encouraged to see blacks as “the other” and live in separate places, which has led to the historically segregated cities we know today.[8]

Notes[edit]

  1. Folder 507: Harriss, Frances L. (interviewer): Martha Turner, The Halfbreed, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  3. North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  4. Holleran, Philip M. “Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills.” Social Science History 21, no. 3 (2011). doi:10.2307/1171617.
  5. “Pompous Judge Deserves Spanking over Child Labor Law.” Wisconsin State Journal. Wisconsin State Journal, 1917. http://host.madison.com/wsj/opinion/column/pompous-judge-deserves-spanking-over-child-labor-law--/article_68be7b27-4842-57e2-8dbc-d197f9de620c.html.
  6. Holleran, Philip M. “Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills.” Social Science History 21, no. 3 (2011). doi:10.2307/1171617.
  7. “Pompous Judge Deserves Spanking over Child Labor Law.” Wisconsin State Journal. Wisconsin State Journal, 1917. http://host.madison.com/wsj/opinion/column/pompous-judge-deserves-spanking-over-child-labor-law--/article_68be7b27-4842-57e2-8dbc-d197f9de620c.html.
  8. Alana, Semuels. “Segregation Had to Be Invented.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, September 7, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/segregation-invented/517158

References[edit]

Alana, Semuels. “Segregation Had to Be Invented.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, September 7, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/segregation-invented/517158

Bengtsson, Tommy. “Socioeconomic Inequalities in Death from Past to Present: An Introduction.” Explorations in Economic History 48, no. 3 (2011). doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eeh.2011.05.004.

Folder 507: Harriss, Frances L. (interviewer): Martha Turner, The Halfbreed, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Holleran, Philip M. “Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills.” Social Science History 21, no. 3 (2011). doi:10.2307/1171617.

Kirshenbaum, Andrea Meryl. “‘The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina’: Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.” The University of North Carolina Press 4, no. 3 (1998). doi:https://doi.org/10.1353/scu.1998.0060.

North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Pompous Judge Deserves Spanking over Child Labor Law.” Wisconsin State Journal. Wisconsin State Journal, 1917. http://host.madison.com/wsj/opinion/column/pompous-judge-deserves-spanking-over-child-labor-law--/article_68be7b27-4842-57e2-8dbc-d197f9de620c.html.