Communities Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: Breaking Generations of Silence

Marion Manufacturing Co. All photos courtesy of McDowell County Historical Society

The Marion Massacre

By Lauren Stepp

Growing up in Marion, Megan Stevens remembers her family members and neighbors whispering about that bloody day. She remembers them shaking their heads, eyes downcast and doleful. When Stevens pressed for more information, she was hushed. “It ain’t something anyone thinks about or talks about if they can help it,” says Stevens.

But when she went off to study history at college, Stevens unveiled her town’s gory past. She dug into archives and interviewed locals, breaking generations of silence. Her hometown’s 93-year-old secret—the Marion Massacre—was a secret no more.

The massacre took place on the morning of October 2, 1929. Months earlier, mill workers at Marion Manufacturing had unionized. They were desperately overworked and underpaid. The post-war recession forced mills to cut expenses by adopting a strategy known as the “stretch-out.”

Mill employees

Essentially, weavers were ordered to manage an entire room of mechanized looms by themselves. This doubled and sometimes even tripled workloads.

Efficiency techniques aside, “the mill workers were already teetering on the brink of rebellion due to their living conditions,” Stevens writes in her graduate thesis, A Missing Mountain Memory: The Marion Manufacturing Mill Strike of 1929.

Marion, like other southern mill villages, was a “company-owned town.” Workers bought groceries at the company store and lived in derelict homes rented from the mill for 20 cents per room. In some homes, up to 12 people shared four rooms. Without running water and private outhouses, tuberculosis and other diseases spread like wildfire.

Desperate for a better life, workers went on strike on July 11, 1929. The next two months were a flurry of arrests and evictions. The strike ended on September 11 when the mill agreed to “operate on a 55-hour-per-week schedule.” The mill also agreed not to discriminate against union members. But when managers failed to rehire 114 unionized workers, tensions reached a crescendo.

On October 2, likely early in the morning, an unknown number of workers flooded out of the mill. They were met by Sheriff Oscar Adkins and his 11 deputies. Shots were fired by the police, leaving three men dead and three fatally injured. The hospital refused to care for the injured men, noting that the mill’s insurance wasn’t responsible for strike-related expenses. Those three men died.

Looking back, Stevens understands why Marion residents stayed quiet about the massacre. Even after 93 years, there’s still shame. Some old-timers feel shameful about the union presence, which was often associated with communism. Others feel shameful that they didn’t fight harder for their neighbors who were murdered in cold blood. “It all boils down to a need to cover up this event,” says Stevens.

While studying at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Stevens focused her graduate work on the massacre because her relatives worked at Marion Manufacturing in the 1920s. But she also wanted to remember the strike because “it’s a defining Appalachian event,” she says. “It’s a micro-revolution that showed the resilience and determination of the people, and the drive to fight for what’s right even in the face of insurmountable odds.”

To learn more about the Marion Massacre, visit McDowellCountyHistoricalSociety.weebly.com.

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