Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta's Fulton Mills / Edition 1

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In May 1914, workers walked off their jobs at Atlanta's Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, launching a lengthy strike that was at the heart of the American Federation of Labor's first major attempt to organize southern workers in over a decade. In its celebrity, the Fulton Mills strike was the regional contemporary of the well-known industrial conflicts in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Ludlow, Colorado. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the strike was an important episode in the development of the New South, and as Clifford Kuhn demonstrates, its story sheds light on the industrialization, urbanization, and modernization of the region.

Drawing on an extraordinary collection of sources—including reports from labor spies and company informants, photographs, federal investigations, oral histories, and newly uncovered records from the old mill's vaults—Kuhn vividly depicts the strike and the community in which it occurred. He also chronicles the struggle for public opinion that ensued between management, workers, union leaders, and other interested parties. Finally, Kuhn reflects on the legacy of the strike in southern history, exploring its complex ties to the evolving New South.

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Editorial Reviews

Melissa Fay Greene
This crucial moment in American labor history is set before the reader not only accurately and comprehensibly, but with Kuhn's quintessential compassion and humanity.
David L. Carlton
Historians of southern labor, business, society, and culture will profit from it.
From the Publisher
This crucial moment in American labor history is set before the reader not only accurately and comprehensibly, but with Kuhn's quintessential compassion and humanity. (Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing)

Historians of southern labor, business, society, and culture will profit from it. (David L. Carlton, Vanderbilt University)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807849736
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 9/24/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Clifford M. Kuhn is associate professor of history at Georgia State University and director of the Georgia Government Documentation Project. He is principal author of Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948.

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Read an Excerpt

Contesting the New South Order
The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta's Fulton Mills

By Clifford M. Kuhn

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826448


In his flawed epic The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash described how "the Southern mill worker had pretty fair cause for complaint" on the eve of World War I. Moreover, Cash wrote, "Looking casually at the scene, you might easily have concluded, indeed, that he was responding to it directly, vigorously, and with clear eyes. For in 1913 a big strike would break out in Atlanta, and from there spread to other places in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee."[1]

Cash was referring to the strike at Atlanta's Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills (which actually began in 1914), an event at the heart of the American Federation of Labor's first attempt to organize southern workers in over a decade. The year-long strike attracted considerable regional and national attention, from cotton manufacturers to the labor and reform press to a host of federal investigators. As United Textile Workers (UTW) organizer Sara Conboy declared, the Fulton strike "brings before us the whole Southern textile situation." At least in its celebrity, it was the southern counterpart of the contemporaneous industrial conflicts in Paterson, New Jersey; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Ludlow, Colorado.[2]

Yet Cash also warned that "it is necessary not to read more into this than it contained." As with other previous southern strikes and organizing drives, because it did not bring about lasting modern trade unionism into the textile South, Cash felt that the Fulton strike was "mere foam before passing gusts," a largely spontaneous, ephemeral action of little lasting consequence.

Cash's perspective contained numerous problems. He presented a single, monolithic portrait of Southern mill hands, what might be called "the mind of the male textile South." He narrowly equated "true" class consciousness with the establishment of enduring labor organizations and maintained that southern workers were inherently incapable of attaining either. And he was wrong about the significance of the Fulton strike.

Fulton Bag president Oscar Elsas would have surely disagreed with Cash's assessment of the strike, all of his numerous public pronouncements to minimize its significance to the contrary. For Elsas, the strike certainly mattered, a lot. Because of the incipient union activity at the plant, he hired labor spies to infiltrate the union, the shop floor, and the surrounding community, a practice he would continue into the 1920s. All told, over forty "operatives" filed some 2,700 daily reports to mill management during the six years after the strike's onset. Elsas also launched a vigorous campaign against strike sympathizers that reached high into national financial and corporate circles. He spent a great amount of time preparing for federal investigations of the Fulton situation and the southern textile industry. He drew upon his experiences in the strike to advance unified anti-union employer action at the local, state, regional, and national levels, at the strike's end joining the board of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). And he substantially revamped the company's industrial relations policies in the strike's aftermath.

There were other people involved in the matter from different vantage points who also would have taken issue with Cash's assertion that the Fulton strike was ultimately inconsequential. The local branch of the Social Gospel-influenced Men and Religion Forward Movement (MRFM), one of the nation's most active chapters, spent thousands of dollars on newspaper advertisements to draw attention to the matter and linked the Fulton situation to broader concerns of industrial justice and Progressive Era reform. Similarly, UTW and AFL leadership saw the Fulton dispute as central to the southern organizing drive and a key battle in a larger contest for public opinion over the labor question.

Others experienced the strike in more personal ways, no less significant, as the lives of Sallie and Robert Wright illustrate. Sallie Wright, who worked in the printing department of the company's bag mill, was closely monitored by management and then discharged from her job after she expressed interest in the union. Her husband, Robert, who ran a cutting machine in the bag mill, joined the strike after witnessing the wholesale eviction of union members from company housing.[3] One of those evicted was musician "Fiddlin' John" Carson, a weaver at the mill, who would become a pioneering star of country music radio and recording.[4]

Robert Wright quickly became one of the union's most active members. He was a regular speaker at the daily union meetings, touching on a number of concerns and fears of Fulton workers that extended well beyond working conditions alone. In addition, Wright described child labor practices at Fulton Mills, raising an issue that not only attracted national sympathies but was also at that very moment the focus of a coalition of local Progressives seeking to strengthen Georgia's child labor laws. He denounced the unsanitary conditions in the mill village, the head of the firm's internal security force, and the complicity of the local settlement house with management.[5] Wright also provided testimony about the work rules at Fulton Mills to an investigator for the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR) and supervised a picket line to keep newcomers from working at the mill.[6] For his efforts, he was made president of UTW local 886 in August 1914.

Yet Wright soon became disillusioned with the chief union organizers, who became increasingly overwhelmed as the strike dragged on. The union-sponsored commissary was a major problem, since hundreds of people from Atlanta and across the Piedmont flocked to it. Wright claimed that most of those who got food from the commissary were not even Fulton workers but rather "hoboes and bums that blowed in here on a cyclone from everywhere" while "the real strikers fair and square" were shut out. In addition, Wright resented the leadership of the chief local strike organizer O. Delight (Mrs. E. B.) Smith, an active trade unionist who repeatedly challenged and transgressed conventional gender norms. Smith was a particular target for mill management, and she ultimately left town in disgrace as the strike and her marriage fell apart. Yet, over thirty-five years later, she still recalled the strike as the most significant event in her long and illustrious career in the labor movement.[7]

Aiding and abetting Wright in his grievances against union leaders was Harry Greenhough Preston, one of the ablest labor spies employed by the company. In addition to encouraging Wright, Preston became the union song leader and wormed his way into the top levels of the UTW. In contrast to Smith's downward trajectory, he was rewarded for his activities during the strike by being named southern vice president for the Railway Audit and Inspection Company, one of the nation's leading industrial espionage firms.

Until recent years, accounts and memories of the Fulton strike had remained isolated threads of the past, largely buried and not really woven into any larger narrative or analytical fabric. Outside of Cash's passing reference and a few dissertations devoted to other subjects, the strike received scant mention in the historical literature until the 1980s and 1990s.[8] And it was not included in the numerous journalistic treatments of the adjacent neighborhood called Cabbagetown that began to appear in the 1970s.[9] For a long time, it seemed that Cash's interpretation of the event had prevailed.

There are several reasons for this negligence. Cash himself contributed to a historical literature that for decades largely portrayed textile workers in two-dimensional terms, as downtrodden, passive victims of an overarching paternalistic system. Then, too, the relative paucity of available textile industry records mitigated against more nuanced, detailed historical treatments of the southern cotton mill world.

The situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Drawing from larger currents in the history profession as well as from oral and other previously underutilized sources, a burgeoning literature has with great sophistication challenged the previously received historical wisdom on southern textiles. Among others, David Carlton, Allen Tullos, Douglas Flamming, and historians associated with the University of North Carolina's Southern Oral History Program have—often from quite different perspectives—greatly expanded our understanding of workers, managers, and members of mill communities alike.[10]

These studies of southern textiles, along with a larger historical literature exploring the contours of the New South more generally, have helped retrieve the Fulton strike from the dustbin of history in recent years. Even more significant has been the discovery of numerous, illuminating primary sources relating to the strike. In 1983, a staff member at the George Meany Memorial Archives in Silver Spring, Maryland, found a three-volume annotated photo diary of the strike compiled by organizer O. Delight Smith. Around the same time, historians came across the records of the extensive federal investigations of the strike undertaken by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Commission on Industrial Relations. These records included affidavits from children and other workers; interviews with mill management, members of the Men and Religion Forward Movement, and others; information on working conditions and management practices; material on worker housing; union publications; and numerous photographs. In all, they comprised arguably the most comprehensive documentation of any southern industrial dispute of the period.

Yet they paled in scope to what was unearthed in 1985, when archivists and historians at the Georgia Institute of Technology obtained what had been left behind in the vaults when the former mill was sold. The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills collection at Georgia Tech includes architectural blueprints, plate glass negatives, personnel records, accident reports, affidavits, clippings, transcripts of the CIR hearing on the strike, payroll books and ledgers, presidential correspondence, thousands of daily reports from labor spies, and a large volume of internal memos from company informants.

The discovery of these materials has spawned a renewed interest in the Fulton strike, among both historians and the general public. These sources have also contributed to a greatly enhanced appreciation of the strike's significance in southern and labor history. In fact, historian Robert H. Zieger has recently described the Fulton strike as "a critical moment in the history of the New South." We have come a long way from W. J. Cash's description of the event as "mere foam before passing gusts."[11]

This book explores that moment in its complexity. Thus, it differs from an earlier treatment of the Fulton strike by my friend and former colleague Gary Fink. While Fink acknowledged that the strike was "much more than an industrial relations quarrel," entailing "ethnic conflict, gender divisions, social and economic reform, regional and sectional differences, and the textile industry's rendition of the gospel of efficiency," he primarily treated the industrial relations at the firm. Accordingly, the principal strengths of his work are the descriptions of mill management's industrial policies and of the use of spies to help implement and enforce these policies, both during the strike and beyond.[12]

My work departs from Fink's in several ways. The unparalleled documentation of the strike and of life and labor at Fulton Mills more generally, offers the opportunity to provide a multidimensional portrait of the world of workers and managers in the New South and to test, challenge, and perhaps reshape some of the generalizations about southern textile workers in such synthetic works as Like a Family, Habits of Industry, and Plain Folks in the New South.

I also situate the Fulton Mills community within the larger milieu of the urban South during the Progressive Era. In this regard, I am following up on the admonition by Edward Ayers in The Promise of the New South that "[t]he mill people were part of the unstable and rapidly evolving world of the New South, and we should not allow the images conjured up by the phrase 'mill village' to obscure the connections between the operatives and the world beyond."[13] Atlanta during this period was a rapidly growing city that in many ways epitomized the tensions between traditional ways and modern times that marked the New South. Within two years of the Fulton strike, the city experienced animated public debates over child labor and Sunday movies, a successful campaign to clean up the local red-light district, a major streetcar strike, and the Leo Frank case. In one way or another, members of the Fulton Mills community interacted with all of these developments. In other ways, too, Fulton workers related to a broader white working class, black Atlantans, and different constituencies of white middle-class citizens. It is impossible to fully comprehend the strike without an understanding of this larger urban context, a context that, in turn, the strike itself illuminates. As with the historiography on textiles, such a look at Atlanta also tests recent generalizations about the contours of southern Progressivism.

Finally, I explicitly link the Fulton situation to southern industrialization and labor-management relations more generally. At the center of the AFL's first attempt to organize southern textiles in over a decade, the strike drew attention from a wide assortment of parties, from Georgia senator Hoke Smith, to manufacturers throughout the region, to representatives of the National Association of Manufacturers, to congressmen from New England textile districts, to investigators from federal agencies, to trade unions and reform groups across the country. This work sheds light on both the coordination and the divisions among southern textile manufacturers in developing an industrial relations strategy, the fate of the United Textile Workers' southern campaign, and the relationship of textile workers and owners to local, state, and regional politics.

The title of this book, Contesting the New South Order, suggests several historiographical debts and debates and some of the book's overarching themes. Robert H. Wiebe's The Search for Order, though criticized from various perspectives over the years, continues to offer one of the most useful interpretative frameworks for understanding the Progressive Era.[14] Wiebe's notion of modernization, his concern with the contours of American democracy, and his attentiveness to conflicts in language and communication all have relevance to the Fulton situation.

Certainly nowhere were Americans more concerned with order and disorder than in the New South. In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a new industrial order, a new urban order, a new racial order, and a new sexual order emerged in the region, along with numerous attendant anxieties, fears, and frustrations. Each of the participants in the Fulton strike—from Oscar Elsas. to O. Delight Smith, to Harry Preston, to Fiddlin' John Carson, to the Men and Religion Forward Movement members, to people like Robert and Sallie Wright—embodied this tension between traditional ways and modern times, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as it were. This work joins a growing historical literature that explores the nature and degree of change in the New South, its "newness," in other words, along with reaction and resistance to that change.[15]

Despite considerable pressure to conform, the New South was hardly static or monolithic. In Atlanta, as throughout the region, southerners with diverse vantage points, backgrounds, and available resources, who were often in conflict with each other, sought to make sense of and shape their rapidly changing world. The outcomes of southern history were hardly foreordained, though they might have seemed so in hindsight by W. J. Cash and others. The Fulton strike of 1914-15 reveals in high relief many of the complexities and contingencies of the New South.

The first chapter of the book is a nineteenth-century prologue, tracing the evolution of the Fulton firm and its work force through the turn of the century, in order to offer some necessary historical background to the strike. Chapters 2 and 3 provide detailed descriptions of the Fulton community and how this community intersected with broader developments in Atlanta on the eve of the strike. Chapter 4 details the proximate causes of the strike and the evolving strategies and tactics of management and labor at the strike's outset. Chapter 5 explores the activity and attitudes of Fulton workers themselves during the strike, on the picket line, in the community, on the job, and at the union hall. Chapter 6 examines the spirited contest for public opinion through the strike, in particular it looks at the creative use of photographs by both parties in the dispute and the role of the Men and Religion Forward Movement in the matter, along with Oscar Elsas's counter campaign against the MRFM. Chapter 7 illustrates how the strike figured in regional and national labor-related debates and politics, from the halls of Congress, to the CIR, to employer organizations like the NAM, to the labor movement. Finally, the Conclusion details the strike's aftermath and legacy at a variety of levels, showing how the Fulton strike, its context and meanings, were inextricably intertwined with the evolving New South.


1. Cash, Mind of the South, 248. For discussions of Cash and his famous work, see Woodward, "Elusive Mind of the South," 261-84, and Clayton, W. J. Cash, especially 192-222.

2. Golin, Fragile Bridge; Tripp, I.W.W. and the Paterson Silk Strike; Cameron, Radicals of the Worst Sort. Quote from New Bedford Morning Standard, 21 October 1914.

3. Testimony of Mrs. R. H. [Sallie] Wright, 20-21, "Testimony for the Defendants."

4. Wiggins, Fiddlin' Georgia Crazy, 19-45.

5. Report of no. 115, 8 July 1914, Folder 7, Box 1, Operative Reports.

6. Testimony of R. H. Wright, 10-11, and Testimony of R. H. Wright (recalled), 2, both in "Testimony for the Defendants"; Reports of no. 115, 7-11, 14, 17, 27-29 July 1914, Folder 7, and Report of no. 115, 26 August 1914, Folder 8, all in Box 1, Operative Reports; Testimony of R. H. Wright, in Weed, "Preliminary Report," and Daly Report.

7. Testimony of R. H. Wright, 14, and Testimony by R. H. Wright (recalled), 3, 6, both in "Testimony for the Defendants"; Robert H. Wright to Harry G. Preston, 10 September 1914, Folder 9, Box 1, Operative Reports; Hall, "O. Delight Smith's Progressive Era."

8. Mercer G. Evans, "History of the Organized Labor Movement in Georgia," 82-86; Nesbitt, "Social Gospel in Atlanta," 133-39; Deaton, "Atlanta during the Progressive Era," 125-27; Brooks, "United Textile Workers of America," 301-2; George S. Mitchell, Textile Unionism and the South, 34-35; Marshall, Labor in the South, 86.

9. For instance, AJC, 15 December 1974, 19 May 1979, 29 August 1982, 17 September 1982, 6 March 1983; AJ, 9, 29 May 1980; New York Times, 30 October 1984; AC, 5 August 1988, 21 April 1991; "What's Cookin' in Cabbagetown"; Flowers and Putter, "Cabbagetown," 34.

10. For overviews of the recent historiography on southern textiles, see Zieger, "Textile Workers and Historians," 35-59; Zieger, Introduction to "Southern Textiles," 3-8; Beatty, "Gender Relations in Southern Textiles," 9-16; Carlton, "Paternalism and Southern Textile Labor," 17-26; McCurry, "Piedmont Mill Workers," 229-37.

11. Zieger, Introduction to "Southern Textiles," 7.

12. Gary Fink, Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Strike, 7.

13. Ayers, Promise of the New South, 116.

14. Wiebe, Search for Order; Galambos, "Emerging Organizational Synthesis," 279-90; Cmiel, "Destiny and Amnesia," 352-56; Leon Fink, "Search for Order Reconsidered."

15. For instance, Hall, "Disorderly Women"; Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow; Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom; Ayers, Promise of the New South; Carlton, Mill and Town; and Flamming, Creating the Modern South.

Excerpted from Contesting the New South Order by Clifford M. Kuhn. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The Making of a New South Business, 1868-1900 8
2 Atlanta: Metropolis of the South 33
3 A Busy Industrial Community 56
4 Causes and Commencement 89
5 We Thought We Knew Our Help 123
6 To Present to the Public a True Picture 149
7 The Fight Will Be Centered There 184
Conclusion: The Strike's Legacy and Place in Southern History 215
Notes 233
Bibliography 275
Index 289
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