Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2018/fall/section 3/Arthur Lee Emerson

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Arthur Lee Emerson
File:UnionStrikersGrabowRiot.jpg
Brotherhood of Timber Workers at dinner in the Lake Charles Jail
BornUnknwon
Tennessee, U.S.
DiedUnknown
Unknown
OccupationLumber worker, Lawyer
SpouseChristine
ChildrenArthur Lee Jr., Ralph Waldo, Jewel, Billy

Arthur Lee Emerson[edit]

Overview[edit]

Arthur Lee Emerson was a union organizer and the co-founder of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW). He was interviewed by Covington Hall for the Federal Writers’ Project on December 15, 1938[1].

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Arthur Lee Emerson was born in Tennessee, but the exact date of his birth is unknown. Becoming an orphan at birth, Emerson spent the majority of his childhood with his foster father, Dr. Parker, who according to Emerson, was “a well-educated and respectable man.”[2]

Rise as a Leader[edit]

At 18, Emerson led a small union of strawberry pickers in Georgia to fight for higher wages and better treatment. This event spearheaded his passions in organizing and participating in future labor union movements. When the Panic of 1907 hit, he began making a living as a lumber worker. As a result of the Panic, companies started to instate the “yellow dog oath” in which workers had to swear against forming labor unions. This action infuriated Emerson, and in 1910, he decided to form organized labor union protests in Louisiana by founding “The Brotherhood of Timber Workers” with Jay Smith. As a result, he became known as the “Andrew Jackson of Southern Labor.” Emerson and Smith led their union of workers in walk-outs and were consistently opposed by other resistant groups. When they partnered and joined forces with a more well-known union group, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Emerson was arrested due to the outbreak of violence at one of their walk-outs. After acquittal in 1921, he suffered a stroke. Due to the large sums of money needed for the trial, the BTW began to dissipate. Following his recovery, Emerson tried to travel back to Louisiana to reorganize the union but was ultimately unsuccessful[3].

Family Life[edit]

He retreated home to the mountains, and it was there that he married Christine and raised four children -- Arthur Lee Jr., Ralph Waldo, Jewel, and Billy, who were all curious individuals eager to pursue higher levels of education. Arthur Lee Jr. wanted to attend military school, Ralph Waldo dreamed of becoming a physician, Jewel a nurse, and Billy was still in high school during that time. However, the Great Depression of 1929 took a toll on Emerson's farm, so sending his children to professional school became almost impossible. He struggled to support his family and his children in receiving a decent education amidst dropping crop prices. In 1938, life for the Emersons returned back to normal, as they slowly began to recover from the economic crisis. The date of his death is unknown[4].

The Panic of 1907[edit]

The Panic of 1907 was one of the worst economic crises in American history, second only to the Great Depression. It began on October 16, 1907 as a result of speculation, or high risk investment in which significant gain is the motive but great loss is likely, between F. Augustus Heinze and Charles W. Morse.[5] They wanted to corner the stock of United Copper but failed attempts had adverse effects on their banks. Investors began running on national banks, an action in which large numbers of customers withdraw deposits from the bank to try and invest in more reliable ones. Soon thereafter, “banks associated with these men succumbed to runs by depositors, who moved their deposits from dubious Heinze banks toward more reliable banks.”[6] The Knickerbocker Trust's president was acquainted with Morse and as a result saw one of the largest bank runs. The Knickerbocker Trust attempted to operate under normal conditions, but after investors withdrew up to $8 million dollars, Knickerbocker could no longer sustain operations[7].

The suspension of operations by the Knickerbocker Trust was the beginning of a wide-scale economic crisis. Americans became skeptical of keeping their funds in large bank corporations and runs on deposits surged. Eventually, J. Pierpont Morgan tried to relieve stress on the banks by using cash to incentivize clients to invest back into the banks[8]. The Panic of 1907 was an unprecedented economic crisis in the history of the United States, and the Federal Reserve system was created to prevent future bank runs[9] .

The Brotherhood of Timber Workers[edit]

The Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) was founded in December 1910 in Carson, Louisiana by Arthur Lee Emerson and Jay Smith. Formed in reaction to the Panic of 1907, it was an organization of timber workers voicing against the injustices imposed upon them. Discontent within sawmill workers stemmed from “unannounced pay cuts and irregular paydays.”[10]

However, due to the growing size of the labor unions, companies soon became fearful that their workers would begin to conduct walk-outs and organize strikes. In response to this, companies began promoting and requiring that workers sign a “yellow dog contract” before employment to pledge their loyalty in not becoming involved as a member of the BTW. Only upon signing the contract was employment granted; otherwise, they would be dismissed and blacklisted[11].

Open to all in the sawmill industry, BTW saw itself evolve as one of the first labor unions to not let race hinder workers from gaining union membership. By combining the forces of blacks and whites, Emerson and Smith left companies with no leeway in seeking out labor from nonunionized blacks[12]. According to Daniel T. Smith, the BTW was “a radical move in the post-Reconstruction South marked by racist terror [...]. This went a long way towards defusing company attempts to split workers down race lines.”[13] By 1912, half of the members were African Americans.

Gradually, the BTW expanded to other states, because it “demonstrated that downtrodden, unskilled, and racially mixed rural sawmill workers could be effectively unionized.”[14] Ultimately, they came into contact with a militant labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and considered joining forces. According to James R. Green, the IWW was notoriously known for its violent philosophies, so “the leaders of the IWW were frequently attacked by leading citizens of the region for advocating anarchism.”[15] However, the majority of the BTW members voted in favor of merging with the IWW, and a strike was called that joined the two forces together. On July 7, 1912 in Graybow, Louisiana, as Emerson tried to promote the labor union and its principles, a violent outbreak “during which an estimated 300 shots were fired, left three men dead, another dying, and over forty wounded” occurred[16]. Emerson and members of the BTW were arrested, and the costs of the trial that followed ultimately caused the downfall of the BTW. By 1913, the BTW had little prominence, with the last subgroups dying out in early 1916[17].

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. Hall, Covington. “The Andrew Jackson of Southern Labor.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-11.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. "Speculation." Investopedia. July 30, 2018. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/speculation.asp.
  6. Moen, Jon R., and Ellis W. Tallman. "The Panic of 1907." Federal Reserve History. December 4, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2018. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/panic_of_1907.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Tallman, Ellis W., and Jon R. Moen. "Lessons from the Panic of 1907." Economic Seminars. May 1990. Accessed October 1, 2018. http://www.econseminars.com/Financial Panics/_Pre-Subprime Crises/Panic of 1907_Atlanta Fed.pdf.
  10. Maroney, James C. "Brotherhood of Timber Workers." Texas State Historical Association. June 12, 2010. Accessed September 22, 2018. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ocbbb.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Smith, Daniel T. "The Historic Tale of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers." CenLamar. April 17, 2011. Accessed October 01, 2018. https://cenlamar.com/2007/05/09/the-historic-tale-of-the-brotherhood-of-timber-workers/.
  14. Maroney, "Brotherhood of Timber Workers."
  15. Green, James R. "The Brotherhood of Timber Workers 1910-1913: A Radical Response to Industrial Capitalism in the Southern U. S. A." Past & Present, no. 60 (1973): 161-200. http://www.jstor.org/stable/650194.
  16. Maroney, "Brotherhood of Timber Workers."
  17. Ibid.

Bibliography[edit]

Green, James R. "The Brotherhood of Timber Workers 1910-1913: A Radical Response to Industrial Capitalism in the Southern U. S. A." Past & Present, no. 60 (1973): 161-200. http://www.jstor.org/stable/650194.

Hall, Covington. “The Andrew Jackson of Southern Labor.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-11.

Maroney, James C. "Brotherhood of Timber Workers." Texas State Historical Association. June 12, 2010. Accessed September 22, 2018. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ocbbb.

Moen, Jon R., and Ellis W. Tallman. "The Panic of 1907." Federal Reserve History. December 4, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2018. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/panic_of_1907.

Smith, Daniel T. "The Historic Tale of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers." CenLamar. April 17, 2011. Accessed October 01, 2018. https://cenlamar.com/2007/05/09/the-historic-tale-of-the-brotherhood-of-timber-workers/.

"Speculation." Investopedia. July 30, 2018. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/speculation.asp.

Tallman, Ellis W., and Jon R. Moen. "Lessons from the Panic of 1907." Economic Seminars. May 1990. Accessed October 1, 2018. http://www.econseminars.com/Financial Panics/_Pre-Subprime Crises/Panic of 1907_Atlanta Fed.pdf.