From Southern Cotton Mills and Labor, 1929, by Myra Page

From Southern Cotton Mills and Labor, 1929, by Myra Page

By Myra Page

Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, p. 13

The next afternoon I went to see my friend, Marg. Marg was always a tonic, especially after such an experience as last night. Marg knew her Bible–you had to or be an outcast in the village–but her religion didn’t bother her much. She thought and spoke for herself, and few gainsaid her, at least to her face. She belonged to the clan of Allen–feuders and government-fighters–and believed in Direct Action.

“Steps right in, honey,” Marg called from her place in the swing. She pulled her black-and-gray-checkered dress tighter over her bosom, shifted her powerful frame so as to make room beside her, and with the hem of her dress wiped away the little brown streams of tobacco juice which had dried in the corners of her mouth.

“As I wuz sayin’ th’ las’ time you was here, Hutchins mill ain’t so good for wages, but I’ve lived on worse hills. Hutchins is got a good char-ac-ter ‘n that means a lot. All mills ain’t. I wuz in one, once, soon after we come down from the mountains. My ole man hed ceasted, so it wuz jes’ me to care for th’ babies. Every day I locked ’em in th’ house afore I went to th’ mill, ‘n every night I run home scairt th’ house’d burned down. I tell you, them wuz hard days, before th’ hours wuz cut to tin.

“Well, that mill had a bad char-ac-ter, ‘n I wanted to git away. You know, us mill people ain’t got nuthin’ but our moral character, ‘n we wanna keep on to that. Now you may be a good ‘omen, but folks figger that if you live on a hill’s what’s got a bad name, you’re no better thin th’ res’ or you’d move. Well, I coulden move. N’th’ company’s house nex’ to mine wuz a bad house. Time’n agin, I tole th’ sheriff, ‘Jim, make that ‘omen leave town.’ But he woulden. ‘N I see with my own eyes, policymen goin’ in ‘n out. Sech drinkin”n carryin’ on, you navah heard. ‘N my gal gittin’ bigger’n bigger, ‘n me gone all day. So finally I made up my mind I’d take th’ law in my own hands. Our family’s used to that.

“So I gits down my gun, ‘n I starts off to th’ police office. It was a Sadday aftanoon, ‘n th’ room wuz full of officers-of-th’-law, but I walks right up to th’ desk, ‘n I slams my hand down, ‘n I says,’Jim,’I says, “I come to give warnin’. If you doan clean up that bad house before nex Sadday, I will. My gun’s ready. And what’s more,’ her mountain eyes glittered happily as she told this, ‘what’s more, every blue coat ‘n every brass button I see, them’s my target.’

“And that’s how I cleaned up Selby,” Marg concluded. “Come in, Miz Jones,” she called to a little old woman, gnarled like a mountain oak, who was hobbling up the walk. “You wan some of my herbs, honey. Jes’ help yourself. You know where they is. Brew ’em a little ‘n apply th’ warm juice to his rumitiz. It’ll help. You might tie a string around his waist ‘n middle left finger, too.”

“Honey,” Marg turned back to me, “I tell you what’s on my mind. It’s my boy, Tom. He wants to be an electrician, in th’ worse way. Ever since he wuz a littl’ boy, he’s hankered after machinery ‘n things like that. He’s buyed books’n fixin’s of all kinds. Well, his sis’n him ‘n me been savin’ fer seven year now, so’s he cud take th’ course. By corryspondence, they call it. It cost one hundred and fifty dollar, but seein’ as Tom was so anxious, they tole him he cud tek it for ninty-five. But we jes’ can’s seem to git that much ahead. Sickness, or th’ mill runnin’ slow, or somethin’, jes sets us back. Tom’s twenty-seven now, ‘n I doan know’s he ever will.”

“Couldn’t he take it up around here, at school, say?”

“Naw. They doan learn ’em no trade thar but mill work. I tell you, honey, these mill owners wans to keep us in th’ mills. I knows, I’ve a-watched ’em forty-five year now. My gal tells me I shud keep my mouth shut. But I knows.”

Marg peered through the green vines at another visitor coming up the walk.

“That you, Miz Rhoads?”

“Yes’m, it’s me. Kin I hev’n ear o’ core?”

“Help yourself. Only git ’em ripe. ‘N wean ye set a spell?”

Marg lowered her voice. “We live in common like, us six families here.” With her right thumb she indicated the houses fronting the little square of dirt before us. “Each one’s got a littl’ patch. Wages bein’ what they is, we coulden git along without. One raises beans ‘n peas, another, yellers’ ‘n tatters. ‘N me, I raises corn. Whin meal time comes, we jes’ go ‘n help ourselves.

“Now, th’ drought ‘n hot weather is kill in’ our crops, ‘n th’ mill’s only runnin’ part time. I tell you, they’re gettin’ us lower ‘n lower. They wan us on our knees, that’s what. We ain’t low enuf fer ’em, yit. Millionaires they are, Mr. Hutchins ‘n th’ res’. ‘N I remember him as a littl’ boy so poor he’d no breeches to cover him.

“They made their money out of us. I look at their fine houses whin I go to town, ‘n I thinks to myself, ‘You made that out ‘o us. If we waran so poor, you’d not be so rich.”N I rememba what th’ Good Book says about th’ rich ‘n th’ poor. They’ll git theirs when they die.”

“Hell?” I asked.

Marg spit a brown stream neatly between the rails.

“What else?” she answered.

“Well, that idea doan satisfy me,” I replied, and we were off on an argument.

Myra Page (Dorothy Markey) is currently completing an autobiographical novel about her early years in Newport News entitled Soundings. Under the pen name Myra Page she hats written three novels and published numerous articles, stories, and two radio plays in The Nation, New Masses, American Spectator, and New Directions. Articles about the miners’ strike in Pennsylvania in 1985 and an interview with President Cardenas of Mexico, 1987-88 appeared in New Masses. Her work as a writer was interrupted during the McCarthy era when Viking was to publish With Sun in Our Blood, but cancelled the contract; the book was subsequently published by New York’s Citadel Press.