Susan Plyler Interview 1

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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0:00

 GEORGE STONEY: What happened to Charlie Cannon died, that’s what I -- I think that’s going to be a little crucial for us, OK? All right?

JAMIE STONEY: Rolling.

SUSAN PLYLER: I remember growing up in the mill village, I always had a sense that we were going to be taken care of, that everything was all right, you know, we had a home, um, I always felt like my parents would have a job in the mills, and it really lent a lot of security, I think, you know, it felt like we were going to be taken care of. And I remember when I was little, uh, my father worked in the -- in the pipe shop in Cannon Mills, and every year, they would have a Christmas party for the workers and their families. And I remember so well that Mr. Cannon knew my name, and he knew the name of all the children that were there, and it really felt like a family. You know, it -- it really felt 1:00like people were related and working together for the same thing, and after he died, that really changed. I remember very well my mother especially was so distraught at his death, and he made himself known to the workers. I mean, I remember my mother used to say that he would work -- he would walk inside the mill and talk to people on their jobs. I mean, he knew people. And I think that made us all feel related somehow. And when he died, everything was changed. I remember my mother wanted us to -- to drive by the cemetery, you know, later in the day, after the funeral happened. We -- we drove by, and it was just sad, you know, everybody was distraught in the whole town, and -- and I think from that point, at -- until David Murdock bought the mill, people were really scrambling for that same sense of security. And one of the things that 2:00happened right before the -- the purchase of the mill by David Murdock is, um, the town decided to become incorporated, you know, up until that time we had the distinction of being the -- I believe it was the largest unincorporated town in North Carolina, and um, the folks, for once, decided that it was important that we had our -- that we sort of put down stakes, I guess, that -- that we have some security in this -- in the town itself, so Kannapolis was incorporated along that -- the same time, and then when David Murdock bought the mill, people were really afraid because many folks were concerned that it might be sold to a -- a foreign company. And it made -- it seems like all the security that we had during my years growing up with Mr. Cannon and his leadership, we felt like we’d lost all that. So people were afraid, and during the years that Mr. 3:00Murdock had the mill, people I believe felt that same kind of strong guidance. They looked to him sort of like they did Mr. Cannon, I believe. And I believe that is one of the reasons that the union didn’t win in the last fight back in 1985, you know, he talked to the workers and said, “You know, I’m going to take care of you, you know, just things are going to be OK,” and I believe that people wanted that. And I believe that’s why the union lost in ’85. And when he sold the mill to Fieldcrest, I think people even more desperately felt afraid, not knowing what was going to happen. And it just seems like generally, the -- the level of um, dependence, I guess, has been shifting. I feel like people in -- in Kannapolis are feeling more like they need to look after their own concerns more and more, and I think that started back with the 4:00incorporation of the city, and I think you can see it within the mill workers right now, even with this present campaign that’s going on, to unionize Fieldcrest Cannon. I believe that some of the promises that happened back in ’85 definitely weren’t followed through with. Um, shortly after the union lost in ’85, the mill was sold two months later, so people were left feeling like they didn’t know what was going to happen next. There was nothing to look to anymore.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you relate all of this to a union tradition here, or a lack of union tradition, when you grew up, and in your family?

PLYLER: Can we stop filming for just a minute?

GEORGE STONEY: Sure. (inaudible).

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: Uh, go ahead.

PLYLER: I don’t know what we’re --

GEORGE STONEY: The -- a union tradition, or a lack of union tradition, connected 5:00with the mill village and your growing up.

PLYLER: Well I remember growing up, um, I remember one fight back in probably 1974, I believe it was, there was um -- that’s a copy machine, it sounds like. Back in 1974, I remember uh, there was a union fight then, and I remember feeling very afraid about it. You know, I was much younger then, and didn’t really have the experience that I do now in understanding how the system works around here. But I was really, really nervous, because I felt like nobody knew what was going to happen, you know, it just felt like a really threatening thing. And in 1985, um, I believe folks looked to David Murdock in the same way that they had looked to Charlie Cannon, that things were going to be taken care of, and that they were going to -- they were all together, and they were going to be taken care of, and things were going to be all right. But I feel like 6:00now, people -- from my experience, just talking to people in the community, people are -- are not believing that so much anymore. I believe they understand now more and more that they need to have some voice themselves in speaking out. And I think just from my perspective, I -- I feel like people that grow up and work in a mill village, they just don’t have that experience of being able to speak out on issues. You know, they’re -- they’re afraid because the mill controls so many different areas of our life here, and I feel like people now are just beginning to speak out. I know with Piedmont Peace Project, that’s one of the things that we’ve worked on is just helping people to feel comfortable, you know, speaking out on issues. And it’s a struggle, I felt that same fear myself. So, I know what that’s like.

GEORGE STONEY: Was there -- when you were growing up, did you have any knowledge of the -- what happened here in 1934?

7:00

PLYLER: It’s only been within the last year that I’ve really understood what happened in 1934 with -- with the general textile strike. You know, I’ve lived in Kannapolis my whole life, but I didn’t even know that, I never had a sense that that actually happened. And if I -- I mean, if I had even heard about it earlier, I’m sure that I would have probably thought that it happened everywhere else, instead of Kannapolis. And it’s only been in -- within just the last several months that I’ve understood that it didn’t happen here because um, National Guardsmen came and -- and put the strike down. You know, people here weren’t even able to go out on strike. And I never knew that growing up, you know, I’ve lived here my whole life, and I never had a sense of that.

GEORGE STONEY: You mean -- you mean that there was a big strike, and the National Guard walked the streets and so forth, and you, as a young girl growing up here, never heard about that? You just -- ex-- explain all that.

PLYLER: Well, I -- it’s only been in the last several months that I’ve really understood what happened in the 1934 general textile strike. You know, 8:00I’ve -- I’ve lived here my whole life, but I never had a sense that that even happened. And if I had, I mean, I guess I -- maybe on some level I’m -- I read about it in a book or something, but I never knew what happened in Kannapolis. And I’ve come to understand that there was no strike here because the National Guardsmen came at the request of Mr. Cannon and put down the strike, people weren’t even able to go out on strike here. You know, and I think that’s amazing. To me, to have lived here my whole life and not even know that, and I’ve just learned that my father was a boy during those years, and he -- he has memories of that, but he doesn’t talk about it very much. And I’m not sure if it’s because he truly doesn’t remember, or that it’s hard to remember that, but he remembers National Guardsmen coming, and he tells 9:00me that they used to have machine guns set up on top of the mill. And he -- he remembers that, he saw that, and he -- but he doesn’t talk about it very much. And I think it’s -- I think it’s hard -- I -- I don’t know, um, maybe it -- maybe it comes from different things, maybe he feels like it’s -- it’s really hard to know that that happened, you know, on one level, he might feel that it was really wrong, what the National Guardsmen did. I’m speaking for him, I don’t -- I don’t know this, but there might be that kind of feeling from people that came from that period of time, that it was an OK thing to do, that -- that, you know, the mill was going to take care of them and they were protecting those jobs. You know, maybe they really felt that it -- that they were being looked after again.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, we know -- we’ve been all over the South, and we know that there’s so many people, these were very painful memories. Uh, there are two ways of handling pain. One is to face it, and the other is to --

10:00

PLYLER: Yeah, block it out.

GEORGE STONEY: Deny it. Could you talk about that?

PLYLER: Well, I’ve come to understand, in my reading and my studying this issue, that -- that those were hard years, the strike was a very desperate time for people, with the economy and everything, you know, people were really struggling to -- to live during those years. And I -- I believe that people that have memories of it might have a hard time recalling those, or talking about it, because it was such a painful experience for people, you know? They -- it’s hard -- I’ve found out that when people are talking about issues of loss or grief, it’s really hard for them to say it. You know, they might, I can’t -- I can’t say this. I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time.

GEORGE STONEY: (inaudible).

(break in video)

PLYLER: I believe -- I don’t know how to start it. Do I need to talk about how it happened with Murdock and -- and that again?

11:00

GEORGE STONEY: No, no. Just -- this is back -- way back yonder.

PLYLER: Well I’ve just come to understand what happened in our area during the time of the 1934 general textile strike. And it’s only been in my reading and my trying to study this period that I’ve understood that there wasn’t even a strike here, people in the mill weren’t even able to go out on strike, because the mill called in the National Guards, and they -- they put it down. You know, I’ve seen clips of that, and it -- it amazes me to -- to recognize those mill gates and see that van pull up, and have National Guardsmen with bayonets on their rifles standing there, and not letting people go out on strike. You know, I think that’s -- that’s appalling to me.

GEORGE STONEY: And your father saw it? And hasn’t told you about it?

PLYLER: No, I -- all my life, I never knew it until just the last year. So, and I think that it might be hard for people to talk about, because they -- I don’t know, the union has always been portrayed as this evil force that’s 12:00trying to take over people, or trying to, you know, take their money and not give them any kind of say so. And that’s just -- the opposite is true on that. That, you know, the -- if anything, people have lost their voice all through the years by working in the mill without any kind of representation. And that’s -- that’s a scary thing to me. You know, I’ve -- I guess in the work that I’ve been doing, in -- in organizing work, I’ve come to understand how important it is for people to have a voice, you know, and I’ve seen that when that happens, it -- it goes from one area of a person’s life to another area. And I -- I think a lot of people get tired of the word empowerment, because I don’t know, they -- they may not understand the -- the meaning, but I -- I understand what that means, growing up in Kannapolis, and 13:00not having that experience of being able to speak out on issues. Being afraid to. And then finally getting the feeling of self, I guess, or some comfort level, anyway, of feeling like yeah, I do have a right to speak out, and it’s important for me to talk about what I’m concerned about. And personally, as a person who lives now in Kannapolis, that’s what I hope will happen with the union vote this time. I think it’s important for people to be able to speak out. And when they get empowerment in their job, I feel like that it will go to other areas of their life, and they’ll feel more and more able to speak out about issues that they’re concerned about, and work for change.

GEORGE STONEY: Great. OK. Judy, I think from my standpoint, that’s all --

(break in video)

PLYLER: I got involved with Piedmont Peace Project about six years ago, when it was starting. And the reason that I -- I wanted to be involved is because I’d been in-- I’d been interested in issues about peace and justice before, but 14:00there was no place to do work together with other people to make changes in our area. And there was not a peace group, no kind of group that I could be involved with, until the organization. And from my perspective of working -- having worked in the mill myself, and having come from a mill family where both my parents worked for 45 years in the cotton mill, I really feel like it’s -- it gives me a chance to speak out for the first time on issues that I’m -- I’m really concerned about. I feel like one thing that Piedmont Peace Project has been able to do has been, we’ve been able to pull together low income black and white people in our area to work together on issues of concern, and most of the people that work -- that are involved in our organization are 15:00textile mill workers. You know, many of the folks that are involved with us work in the mill now, or have worked. I’ve worked there myself, you know, all of the staff people of Piedmont Peace Project have worked in the mills before. So, we -- we come from this area, it’s our home, and we -- we -- we know what it’s like to live here. You know, we didn’t come in from the outside and try to make changes, or tell people what they needed to do, you know, this is our home, and we’re working together to make changes. Is that anything at all like you need?

GEORGE STONEY: Oh, good.

JUDITH HELFAND: Yes, absolutely.

JAMIE STONEY: I think --

(break in video)

16:00

JAMIE STONEY: Everybody kind of contemplate your navel for 30 seconds. (pause) OK.

GEORGE STONEY: OK, good.

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible).

(break in video)

HELFAND: [Call this guy?] for us, and then see what time -- does she have your number?

GEORGE STONEY: Well I’ll call it, let’s see (inaudible).

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible).

HELFAND: Wait, George.

JAMIE STONEY: Mill worker’s (inaudible) bunch of literature from both sides, I don’t know if you want to take a look at it or -- or not, (inaudible) number, name and number. He’s gotten -- he knows people inside (inaudible).

HELFAND: Isn’t that great?

JAMIE STONEY: Several articles in a magazine that came out today, in a magazine about (inaudible).

(break in video)

HELFAND: (inaudible). Let’s see.

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible)? All the vibrations and (inaudible) the sounds of the cars.

17:00

PLYLER: (inaudible) without music, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible). Of course.

HELFAND: (inaudible). It’s [going to be great?].

PLYLER: Uh-huh. I have a whole trunk load of those posters. (overlapping dialogue; inaudible). That have those nuclear -- nuclear bomb (inaudible).

HELFAND: (inaudible).

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: See it down on the left there?

JAMIE STONEY: Yeah. I’m going to pan over to the building.

GEORGE STONEY: (inaudible). Leave it that way, that (inaudible).

18:00

(traffic noises)

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

JAMIE STONEY: We’re going to be rolling.

GEORGE STONEY: OK. Tell us about living in a mill village.

PLYLER: I’ve lived in this town my whole life. Yeah, I grew up in the mill village, and continue to live in Kannapolis now, here at this house. And I -- I have a lot of good memories about being in the mill village when I was growing 19:00up, you know, there were real advantages, it was a good -- we felt like it was a good place to live. But it -- but it’s also really interesting as a -- since I’ve been an adult, and looking back, I’ve realized that for instance, in our high school here, um, back in the ’70s, whenever I was there, in the vocational building, they had looms set up, so that kids could learn how to weave, and then um, after a certain point of the day they would leave high school and then go to the mill, and work on second shift.

GEORGE STONEY: I’m sorry to -- we’re going to have to do that again, because we’re getting too much --

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: What’s your address?

(break in video)

JAMIE STONEY: Speed.

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

PLYLER: Well, my name is Susan Plyler, and I grew up in -- in Kannapolis, and have lived basically all my life in the mill village here. And I have a lot of 20:00good memories of when I was growing up, and -- but I also know that we had really unique things, probably, that other people may not understand, and one of the things is I remember back in the ’70s, when I was in high school, in the vocational building at school, there were looms set up from Cannon Mills where kids from the high school could learn how to weave, and then after a certain point of the day, they could get off from school and go into work, and work there on second shift. So, a lot of folks right out of the high schools go to work in the mill, and stay there for years. Work there basically their whole life. Is that another train? (laughter)

GEORGE STONEY: Now we’ve seen the phrase, like a family, often used. Could you speak about that aspect of mill life? Mill village life.

21:00

PLYLER: It felt like a family when I was young. Um, the -- the one thing that comes to my mind that felt most like that was whenever I was just a little girl, my father worked in the -- in the um, I forgot where he worked. When I was a little girl, it felt like we were all part of a family, because my dad worked in the pipe shop in Cannon Mills at that time, and they would have Christmas parties where the mill workers and their families would gather together, and every year, Mr. Cannon would come to those parties, and he knew my name, and he knew the names of all of the children that were there, and it just felt like we were all related somehow, that it felt like a family. You know, he -- he didn’t seem like a celebrity, or, you know, anything like that, he just seemed like a regular person, one of us. Like an -- like an uncle or a 22:00grandfather, maybe. And it -- it did feel like we were all related somehow. I guess it was just one big family.

GEORGE STONEY: Was there ever any resentment that he had this great big house in Concord that he didn’t even live in this town, and did anybody think about that, or talk about that kind of thing?

PLYLER: I never really sensed any um, anybody feeling mad about that. About how the Cannon family had a -- a big fancy house on Union Street in Concord. I never -- I never experienced that, my family didn’t talk about that, and I don’t remember it, hearing anything, like my neighbors or anybody saying that. It was more like well, that’s -- I mean, I -- I can remember, and I can show you now the house that he lived in if we drove down the street. But I never -- I never felt that people were angry about it, or felt that it was unjust. It just felt like that’s the way it was, that, you know, that’s -- that’s where he lived, and this is where we lived.

23:00

GEORGE STONEY: Very good. Uh, now could you talk about the relationship between your neighbors, and how they got along, and how they looked after each other’s children, or whatever happened. We’ve heard a lot about that, in older times, it’d be interesting to hear that from somebody of your age. Just say, I came along in the ’60s, or whatever it was.

PLYLER: Well, I was growing up in the ’60s in Kannapolis, and even early ’60s, uh, I -- I can remember that the neighborhoods were generally really close, usually there were a lot of children, and we all played together. And we were also in and out of each other’s homes a lot, and -- and what happened with a lot of mill families is that maybe one parent might work first shift, and the other second shift. And there were -- there were times when there wasn’t a parent in the home, and usually um, kids pretty much just hung out at home, and then they would go to neighbors’ houses a lot. And I -- I know that I can 24:00remember having kids come and -- and eating dinner with us, or something, or me being in another yard playing, and -- and having dinner with them, or something. But there -- I think that the phrase latchkey kid that you hear now, I think that there were a lot of latchkey kids in Kannapolis at that time, but nobody really called it that. It just -- that was just the natural way that, if your folks worked on second shift, then you just hung out until they came home.

GEORGE STONEY: And neighbors watched neighbors, because you knew each other, I suppose.

PLYLER: Oh yeah, the -- the neighborhoods in Kannapolis, I -- the ones that I grew up in, are -- they were always close. You know, that people would visit back and forth in each other’s homes, and I guess we all looked after each other.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, in some places in the old days, they kept talking about people uh, the supervisor uh, ruling the village, and if a -- a girl got in a 25:00family way, they would chase the family out of the mill village, or if people got -- used alcohol, was there anything like that in Kannapolis?

PLYLER: I’m sure that we had our share of um, having families leave for one reason or another, if they didn’t comply, or if they didn’t, you know, follow the rules, or if maybe one of the parents -- I don’t -- let me stop a minute --

GEORGE STONEY: Sure.

PLYLER: -- and just say, I know a story about a person who grew up in Kannapolis, but I don’t know if it’s fair for me to say it.

GEORGE STONEY: Well, you -- if you can do it without attribution. Yeah?

PLYLER: Well, I think that -- I think that people, when they were living in the mill village especially during the early ’60s and all through those years, there seemed to be an unwritten set of rules. I mean I was young during that time, and I don’t remember, but I -- I have friends now who, one in particular, he -- he told me the story about how, when he was just a little boy, 26:00his father died, he was nine years old, and he had worked in the mill, and when he -- he died, shortly after that, um, the mill approached his mother and said that they would have to leave, so he and -- you know, she had to pack up five little children and move to another place. And I never knew that when I was growing up, I never had a sense that that happened to anybody, but I’ve heard stories now. And it saddens me, you know, it really just, it doesn’t seem like a -- a fair thing to do.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, did they -- did they uh, kind of rule your deportment? Again, in some of the older mill villages, they said that you couldn’t drink, or if you, uh, misbehaved in any way, that the -- people saw it both plus and minus. They said, you -- if your neighbors had a loud party, all you had to do was go and tell your supervisor. He’d straighten them out. Other people 27:00said, “We couldn’t have a party, because.”

PLYLER: I’m sure that there were those kind of rules in Kannapolis where if -- if people were too loud or, you know, didn’t comply in one way or another, that they’d have to leave. It -- it seems like that was the kind of thing that just got took care of, and maybe -- I don’t remember having a strong sense of that growing up. And maybe -- I don’t remember having a strong sense of that growing up, and I’m -- I’m sure it probably happened. But, I guess as far as things getting taken care of, that just was the feeling in general that, you know, people would be looked after, things would be taken care of, you know, that it would just, everything would happen the way it was supposed to happen, you know, I remember feeling that really strongly when I was growing up.

GEORGE STONEY: OK. Now, is there a -- is there anything else holding --

(break in videox)

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible).

GEORGE STONEY: Yeah.

28:00

PLYLER: Well, I grew up in Kannapolis, and like so many other folks, I just never had any experience about speaking out about issues that I was concerned about. And I guess the thought of doing that was really scary to me, because for one thing, it just never happened. People didn’t do it here. And when I first started thinking about being involved in an organization that would take a public stand about issues, it was really scary to me, because I thought well, you know, I’m going to get in trouble, people won’t like me anymore, you know, and the more I thought about it, I just felt like it was im-- it was so important to do that, that it was I guess worth -- worth the risk, you know, I just felt like it was an important thing to do. And when I got involved with Piedmont Peace Project, it -- it helped me be able to see how much -- how much better it is for us when we’re able to join with other people that are 29:00concerned about the same kind of issues, and be able to speak out about it. You don’t feel like you’re by yourself anymore. And it -- with me, I think it helped me be strong enough to do -- to make my own changes, it helped me look at the family issues that I had growing up, and how that affected my life as an adult. And that -- and in some ways, I guess getting involved in doing organizing work and knowing how it -- how strong that is when we’re able to speak out about issues that we’re concerned about, it -- it helped me be able to deal with issues in my mother’s care. She’s disabled and in a nursing home, and it helped me be strong enough to fight for her to be at a good place, and it also gave me the strength, I guess, as an adult, to be able to say well you know, I -- I can do things on my own, I want to go back to school and, you know, I’m -- I’m doing that now. And to me, it -- it might not seem related, but it is. In -- in me, because I think being -- being -- being able 30:00to feel like I’m strong enough to take a stand on issues that I care about, things that just aren’t right, has made me a stronger person.

GEORGE STONEY: Very good.