Saturday, April 26, 2008

Class Relations in the 1920's and 30's.


There were many class inequities and much class consciousness in the 1920's and 30's. Mill workers were generally considered inferior. Many things that working class people (both black and white) had to endure were not right.

Celestine Sibley liked to point out that people in the South were proud to be poor and "working class." This meant they were honest and at least not "carpet baggers."

Aubrey Simms, a cousin and I talked briefly about this when he told me how his father did not want him to get a job in one of the cotton mills only a few miles from thir farm, even after it became increasingly difficult to make a living on the farm and unions were making changes such as better wages and decreased working hours in textile mills.

The advent of World War II and the need for textiles for the army made it more "respectable."

No doubt the mill owners and officials were paternalistic toward mill workers. Mill hands! People were called "hands"! It is difficult to be intelligent (or so we thought) and perceptive and have to work 12 hours a day for barely enough income to survive. But in those days people were thankful for any job and no one seemed to have thought it was "the Government's " responsibility.

This was the situation "down South" after the South lost in the War Between the States and before the wage and labor laws. This seemed to be the lot of most people who worked in textile factories in the South in the twenties and thirties.

My mother (whether correct or not) felt that the mill officials tried to "run the church" as well as the mill and the town. So employees looking with disdain toward the employer is nothing new. I think Mama was right in that the Bibb officials probably did try to exert as much influence as possible on the churches. After all they had a responsibility as they had built three impressive "up to date" brick church buildings, a Methodist, a Baptist and a Presbyterian church.

The companies who brought their cotton factories south for cheaper labor after "the war" ("The War Between the States") built the whole town including schools, churches, business, police, fire and community buildings.

Probably mill owners and officials did the best they could for their times and understanding. When we look in the past to criticize or to re-write history we need to keep this in mind.

The mill owners and officials felt that they must look after their workers (some of whom were illiterate and superstitious.) As uneducated and lacking in social graces as we were, I remember Mama being disconcerted at the superstitious talk and grammar of a few co-workers and people in our town.

Mama told me that when they first moved to Porterdale she felt that she had moved to the "jumping off place" in her strange surroundings. She seems to have thought of it as a wild and pagan town. Many of the rough, non-Christian crowd seems to have been our neighbors back of the large brick Osprey mill building.

Mama (with some condescention) was especially horrified to see that when the children would get into fights as they played together, the mothers would often dash outof their houses and take their child's side of the argument. Sometimes the mothers would get into loud shouting matches and even physical fighting. Some of the women actually got so mad they "cussed."

Mama pbserved and commented on the fact that the children would often be back happily playing together while their mothers were still angry and hostile toward one another.

Sis (my sister Louise ) told me this story: When we first moved to Porterdale, my young brothers,Charlie, Tom, and Jack, were out playing with the neighborhood boys and got into a fight.

One of the mothers came storming to our door, saying, "Miz Baird, I've come to'whoop' you!" Mama opened the door and calmly said, "Well, come right in, Mrs. Smith,and tell me what I've done to need a whipping ." Sis was happy to report that Mama made friends with the woman and did not get “whooped.”

Speaking of cursing or "bad words" as we called it, I never heard even slang inour house -- and rarely in the neighborhood. One day when the little boys were playing out in front of our house at 32 Hazel Street (the larger house we lived in before my father died), I heard my brother Jack say, "Oh, Heck!"

I was shocked . I was concerned for his immortal soul. Of course, I did not say anything. Since I remember this so vividly as being in front of the house where we were living when my father died, I was 7 or younger at the time, and Jack was about 12.

Before I started to school, my parents were able to move to a house in a "quieter part of town." I have no memory of women fighting in the streets.

Our neighbors on Hazel Street were hard-working church folks and, like my parents, although unschooled by today's standards, were intelligent with old-fashioned common sense and a strong Protestant work ethic.

They did not seem to consider themselves "victims", nor did they seem to be lacking in self-esteem. After all, we were made in the image of God and so important and loved that Jesus died for us.

For me, is was a good neighborhood in which to grow up, even though I was well-aware that many Covington residents put mill workers in a box labeled "inferior."

Covington (our "town") was the Newton county seat. Porterdale was a village with three large textile factories owned and operated by Bibb Manufacturing Company. Covington also had a "Covington mill village" as a part of the town.

In Porterdale, we also had two large brick school buildings with grades one through nine and a "teacher's cottage" across the river but in walking distance to the school. It was a two story house to board school teachers, a well built attractive ante-bellum house.

A friend of mine recently was visiting with me. When I told her I lived in Porterdale as a child. She told me her mother had taught school in Porterdale when she was barely out of her teens and before her marriage. Her mother apparently had had a store of stories show-casing the quaint ignorance of mill folks in Porterdale. I would like to have heard the stories but she changed the subject when she learned I had lived there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How interesting! I enjoyed the story about the "whopping."

You are so right, when we look at the past, it is important to understand the thinking and understand of the time.

I enjoy hearing about your growing-up years and your parents.

Love you! Debi