Susan Plyler Interview 2

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

 SUSAN PLYLER: Is this from the United meeting (inaudible)?

F1: Yeah. Sure is.

PLYLER: Oh, that’s good. I like the way you started, (inaudible).

F1: Yeah. We have to have an icebreaker every time.

PLYLER: Right. How many folks do you expect to come?

F1: Probably about -- with old members and new members, probably about 15. Probably about 15.

PLYLER: OK.

GEORGE STONEY: A little more [power?] (inaudible).

PLYLER: Did the meeting -- do the folks continue to meet during the summer?

F1: No, we kind of cancel it for the summer. Because so many people have a lot of things to do, and a lot of things that were, with school, and so we kind of canceled everything, and with this one, it’s going to be tough, we want to talk about what everybody did over the summer, while we worked and stuff.

1:00

PLYLER: Good. What we did on our summer vacation.

F1: Yeah. Yeah, what we did on our summer vacation. So, we can kind of catch up on stuff. And see if they learned something new.

PLYLER: What’s the first thing you’re going to work on for the fall?

F1: Um, we’re really going to try to get a lot of --

GEORGE STONEY: Turn around a little bit more like that. That -- yeah.

F1: A lot of -- we’re going to try to get more, uh --

GEORGE STONEY: Just keeping turning -- that’s it, that’s right. Yeah, go ahead.

F1: We’re going to try to get -- recruit more members, and we’re going to try to work on getting multi-cultural club in our school. That’s what we ended with last year, but we didn’t really get to finish up on it, because summer came up too -- too soon. So we’re going to work on that, and work on some recreation issues, hopefully, this fall too, and just getting our group together stronger, since we’re new, since we just started in January, so.

PLYLER: That’s really good. I was wondering if, um, any of the parents are going to be involved this time around.

F1: I think parents will be involved, but we’re going to have -- we’re not -- still going to have youth controlling their own group, but we’re going to 2:00have parents involved in a way that -- that it’s almost separate. That the parents will be involved, but they won’t be directly involved in what the youth group is doing, but we -- and I would be involved with the -- with the parents, doing meetings and that kind of thing. Monthly meetings, hopefully, with the parents.

PLYLER: That’s a good idea. Are they going to be organizing too? Like (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)?

F1: I hope so. I hope so, that they’re supporting their -- their -- their young people in doing the organizing, and hopefully they’ll do more fundraising then, a lot of fundraising and organizing, and getting new members in, also. Uh, so it would be educational for them to let go, I think.

GEORGE STONEY: Susan, come right over here.

PLYLER: That sounds really good. Shall I sit?

GEORGE STONEY: Yeah. Mm-hmm. OK, we’ve just -- on the move, we can do that. OK.

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: OK Susan, uh, tell me about the Piedmont Peace Project.

3:00

PLYLER: Piedmont Peace Project is an organization made up of low-income black and white people uh, who are mostly mill workers, um, textile mill workers, farmers. Um, domestic workers, and truck drivers. And other working class people who are -- who have come together to work for social and economic justice.

GEORGE STONEY: Where does the idea come from?

PLYLER: Well, it started -- the organization started about six years ago.

GEORGE STONEY: Tell us where we are, the organization in Kannapolis.

PLYLER: OK. Piedmont Peace Project is located in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and it started six years ago, when the director, Linda Stout, moved back into the area from Charleston, South Carolina, and she had been involved in working for peace there. And moving back into the area, um, realized that there was not even a peace group here, uh, in Kannapolis, and our surrounding cities. So we decided -- she decided that it was really important to try to do that. And I 4:00got involved because I had always been in -- in -- I’d always been interested in those issues. But I never had a peace group to go to.

GEORGE STONEY: Uh, tell us about your own background.

PLYLER: Am I doing OK?

GEORGE STONEY: You’re doing well.

PLYLER: All right. I uh, Kannapolis is my hometown, and I’ve lived in Kannapolis all my life, and I’ve done a -- a variety of jobs, including working in Cannon Mills as a -- a hemmer in the sheet department. And I’ve done other kinds of work. Both of my parents worked in the mill, probably 45 years each. And this has been my hometown, and I’ve lived here basically all my life. And it’s -- I feel like I’m doing miserably, I’m sorry.

JUDITH HELFAND: No.

GEORGE STONEY: No, no, no.

PLYLER: I’ve lost my train of thought, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

HELFAND: We -- we --

(break in video)

PLYLER: I’ll try to get it together, I promise.

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

5:00

PLYLER: Are we ready to go?

JAMIE STONEY: Yeah.

PLYLER: I’ve lived in Kannapolis all my life, and both of my parents worked in the mills probably 45 years, and that, to me, makes it exciting to do this work in the area, because for one thing, everybody that’s involved as an organizer and staff person with Piedmont Peace Project have been raised and lived in this area always. And I think that’s one thing that made us so successful, because we’re not folks from the outside, as um, people here talk about sometimes. You know, this is our home, and we care about it, and um, we feel like it’s important to do this work.

GEORGE STONEY: But you’re linking -- you know, we usually think of these national org-- national movements coming out here from New York or somewhere else, and we think that the provinces or whatever, don’t have that kind of thing. Could you talk about that whole business?

PLYLER: Well the -- actually the reason that we got started doing Piedmont Peace Project in the way that we 6:00do it is we found, when we first started, um, the organization, that the materials that we wanted to show people in public meetings, um, even -- including printed materials and films, were geared toward the college-educated audiences. And most of the folks in our area who are textile mill workers and farmers have an average reading level of probably third to sixth grade. So, we struggled as -- um, as an organization to try to have materials that we could really use, that would be effective. Because we knew that pie charts, and elaborate graphs, and that sort of material that’s typically used, um, in the -- within the peace movement, was not effective here. And to deal with that problem, we decided to talk to local people in our areas to find out what their concerns were. And we would go to their home and just sit with them, and -- and talk with them to find out what they were -- what was, you know, a real concern 7:00to them. And by doing that, we found that people were interested in -- in nuclear weapons, people mentioned time and time again that they were afraid of war starting, and dying in -- in a war, and just having the Earth destroyed. We also heard that people were interested in not having, on a community level, not having adequate water and sewer, or not having the money to send their kids to college. You know, we really found out what key issues people were most concerned about. And what we decided to do to help folks in our area understand the connections like housing and healthcare, um, trying to find the connection between housing and healthcare and the military budget, for instance. We -- we decided that we would talk with them, and get their concerns, and get their 8:00words, and have people tell us. In their own words, what they were concerned about. And we came back and they helped us make materials that we call our peace education materials.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you describe some of those? Mention videotape, and film, and poetry, and all that you said.

PLYLER: Well, with our materials project, we -- we try to use any method that we can, that we feel like is effective. Um, we’ve -- we’ve done flyers on house-- house care-- excuse me, healthcare. Um, and just to give you an idea about how that worked when we were talking to people in their homes, I was visiting one -- with one woman, in a -- a trailer park in our area, and she was -- she was very concerned about the lack of housing, and homelessness. And just out of the clear blue sky, she said, “You know, our government is housing its missiles better than it houses its people.” And that phrase became the front 9:00-- the lead in phrase on one of our flyers on, um, health-- housing. You know, we decided that, you know, what better way could we tell the problem than use her own words to say that?

GEORGE STONEY: Tell that story again.

PLYLER: All right.

GEORGE STONEY: Starting with uh, visiting the lady in the -- in the -- in the trailer park.

PLYLER: All right.

GEORGE STONEY: One day.

PLYLER: When we’ve -- when we decided to work on our materials that we called peace education materials, we went to peoples’ homes in our area, and one story that sticks in my mind is, I was visiting one day with a woman in a -- a trailer park in Kannapolis, and she was very concerned about the lack of housing, and um, the problem of homelessness that we have in this country. And this -- she told me that, you know, it seemed like that we -- that our government houses its missiles better than it houses its people. And I just thought, you know, you know, that’s an amazing -- that -- what better way could say the problem is, it really is. And -- and we came back to the office 10:00and talked about it, and we decided to use that phrase on one of our -- our -- one of our fliers. I’m still doing miserably, I hate this. I can’t get my --

(break in video)

PLYLER: When we decided to start working on our materials, we wanted to hear from people in our community about their concerns. Um, we -- on one visit that I had with a woman who lives in a trailer park here in Kannapolis, uh, she was very concerned about the problem of homelessness, and the lack of adequate housing in our area. And she said, “You know, it seems like our government houses its missiles better than it houses its people.” And that phrase became the opening line on our flier that we used for health -- for housing. Because there was no better way, in our feeling, that could sum up the problem, um, any better than she did it.

GEORGE STONEY: Tell about using video.

PLYLER: We’ve also found that, um, because so many folks in our area have a 11:00low reading level, um, where -- when they don’t respond to the written word, they do respond to video. So, we’ve -- we’ve decided to use that in our -- in our work. And what we’ve -- what we’ve done is, when we have visits with people in their home, we ask if it’s OK to videotape them, and -- and people are very responsive. And so, we just get their words on tape, you know? Them talking about healthcare and housing, and -- and all the concerns that they have, and then we use that as an educational piece.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you tie that in now to uh, stuff that you’ve seen recently with the union?

PLYLER: Well we -- we haven’t done any videotape around the -- the union, except, should I mention about the -- the piece that you showed me with the strike?

GEORGE STONEY: That -- no, (inaudible).

HELFAND: But um, maybe (inaudible) tie in the idea of using workers and 12:00people’s own words with labor education, and (inaudible) how you -- how -- how people are being presented as workers in this town, ever since you can remember (inaudible).

PLYLER: OK.

HELFAND: Is that OK, George?

GEORGE STONEY: Mm-hmm.

PLYLER: At Piedmont Peace Project, we really believe that it’s important to have working class people understand their histories. And one of the ways that we’re addressing that problem is through our literacy program. Right now, we have literacy classes that are going on at our office with people from the community who have varying degrees of um, ability. But we say that it -- it really doesn’t matter, you know, what your skill level is, that everybody has room to learn. You know, that’s how we approach that. And we feel like it’s important for working class people to understand their histories, because in our area, um, I can say for my own self, for instance, I -- I’ve grown up 13:00in this mill town, but I never had a sense of what labor history we had here. You know, my -- both my parents worked in the mills, and -- and I grew up here, but I never really knew the background. I never -- I never knew the history.

GEORGE STONEY: It seems to me that the history’s been all written from Charlie Cannon’s viewpoint.

PLYLER: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you talk about that?

PLYLER: Well, I’m not sure...

GEORGE STONEY: I mean, I grew up in North Carolina, and we all know about Cannon’s.

PLYLER: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE STONEY: But it was almost as though the Cannons were doing it all themselves, we knew the Cannons’ house, the idea that there were several thousand workers who have a history that was connected with that, no one knew. That’s what I want you to tell us about.

PLYLER: Growing up in Kannapolis, I -- I guess I always read in the newspaper, or heard the stories that came out about um, the mill, you know, and -- and the stories like with Mr. Cannon and -- and his family, and how the mill worked. 14:00But I never really had a history, or a sense about the history, that -- about the workers. You know, no-- nobody ever talked about the working people in the mills. And I feel like it’s -- one of the things that we do with Piedmont Peace Project is we want to tell those stories, we want people to understand our history, and what it means to have family that have worked 45 mills -- what it means to have family members that have worked 45 years in the cotton mill, you know, and how that relates to our lives now in Kannapolis.

GEORGE STONEY: Did you know about your own family’s background?

PLYLER: I knew that both of my parents worked in the mills, and it -- but I have to say that it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve really understood the connection. For instance, I just recently read the book called um, Like a Family, and it talked about how, with, you know, historically, with the -- with the cotton mills in our area, folks back in the early years, back 15:00before -- way before the ’30s, they came mostly from farmers, because the economy was so bad at that time that people flooded into the towns that had cotton mills, because that was really the only livelihood at that time. And when I realized that, I was really struck, because both of my parents’ families did that. My father’s grand-- my grandfather was a farmer, and he moved his family here to do work in the mills. And my mother’s family came from the Rockingham, in Richmond County. And they too migrated here to work in Cannon Mills. And I thought that was amazing, you know, but it made me feel like that was my history and I could -- I felt a part of it, to understand that. And I would have never had that experience had I not read that book, because whenever I was in -- in the schools here, um, we never heard those kind of 16:00stories, nobody had a sense of how it all happened, you know, how -- how people came to work in this mill town. You know, and what it meant to be workers here. You know, I never had a sense of that, whenever I was in -- especially high school, folks had a -- um, it was almost like a joke, you know, we all said, “We’re not going to go to work in the cotton mill, you know, nobody’s going to work at Cannon Mills, that’s fine for our parents, and we feel proud of our heritage, we’re really proud of the life that the mill has afforded us here.” But we didn’t want to do it. But, most of us I guess have ended up working in the mill in one way or another, in varying lengths of time. But I’ve worked there. And I always thought that I -- I wouldn’t do that. But I -- I feel like in the mill village, life so revolves around the cotton mill that it’s -- it’s hard not to become a part of that at some point in your life.

17:00

HELFAND: (inaudible).

GEORGE STONEY: Yeah, yeah.

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: OK, fine.

PLYLER: The mill houses.

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

PLYLER: Um, I’ve al-- I grew up in the mill village, my family still lives in one of the mill houses there. And there have been changes over the last years, uh, several -- well years ago when David Murdock bought the mill, he bought the real estate too, and that included the mill village, the houses, and after he decided to sell Cannon Mills to Fieldcrest, he retained the mill village as far as the stores and the -- and the homes there, the houses. And he decided to start selling them to the families, if they wanted to buy them. And it was real interesting living here then, because it was -- one of the things that happened, as -- when the houses were sold, they oftentimes were painted different colors, and that was so -- I mean, it sounds kind of funny, but that was one way of 18:00knowing which houses had been sold, because for years, the textile homes were just painted white, and they all looked alike. And it was only when the houses started being sold that they were painted different colors or -- or had, you know, siding put on that were in pastel shades, and that was -- that was different, you know, people -- that was really different in the mill village.

GEORGE STONEY: Was that a sign of uh, revolt, or a sign of individuality? What would you say that was?

PLYLER: Well, it felt like a breath of fresh air to me. I -- my family does not own our house, but I -- I’ve always thought that was really refreshing to me to get away from those white mill houses, you know, it felt really good to have a little variety in life, I guess. And that’s -- that’s, to me, what -- what happened. And I think people were really proud, those that were able to buy their homes, you know, to -- to show their individuality I guess. It -- it 19:00just, it felt good.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you talk about (inaudible).

JAMIE STONEY: She popping.

PLYLER: I’m -- I’ll put it down.

GEORGE STONEY: (inaudible).

PLYLER: I’ll be good.

GEORGE STONEY: (laughter) Could you talk about, uh, growing up in a mill village? And just say, well, I was born in X year, so that we know that you’re talking about it now, and not way back. And uh, compare it with what you heard from your parents. OK.

PLYLER: Well, I’ve lived my whole life in the mill village, I was born in 1955, and our family lived in a mill house then. And growing up in -- in a mill village was a good way to live then, from my perspective, and for my family. Uh, we -- we always felt like we had enough, you know, we felt -- in fact, I -- I grew up feeling like I was middle class, and it’s only been as I’m an 20:00adult that I’ve realized that we were working class people, and I -- I take great pride in that now. But growing up in Kannapolis was a good -- it was a good place to live. You know, the city schools especially were very fortunate that -- that um, Cannon Mills always put a lot of money into the schools, you know, it was reflected, I guess, in our -- the marching band, for instance, at A.L. Brown High School, it’s very well known for its -- its um, successful band. And they’ve traveled a great deal, you know, they even were in -- in some -- some years ago, when it -- back in the ’70s, they were invited to Holland to the international band competition, and they’ve traveled several different places. So people here are really proud of the band. And the football program. You know, they have Nautilus machines in the football program, and those guys work out, and they -- they’re great, you know? 21:00We’re state champions, so folks have had always a lot of benefits by working -- by living and growing up in the mill village. It’s -- it’s been a good place to live. But, I guess as I’ve grown older, I’ve understood too that not everyone shared those same benefits. It probably wasn’t -- it was probably 1971, or 1972, that black families were able to live in the mill village, generally. There -- there -- they weren’t before then. And so, there have been slow changes, I guess, over the years. And -- and now, it feels to me that it’s more equal for -- for people. You know, black and white families live together in the mill village now, where they didn’t when I was growing up.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you talk about the -- the -- the dependence, as it gets independence, of that kind of -- of uh, and I’m going to use a word that’s 22:00become pejorative, but I don’t mind it, that kind of paternalism?

PLYLER: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE STONEY: Because it seems to me that the Peace Project is working just on that -- that edge --

PLYLER: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE STONEY: -- of are you going just the mill or are you going do it yourself, you see what I mean. OK?

PLYLER: One of the things that we worked -- let me start again, that’s not how I wanted to start. Um, when you live in a mill village, there are benefits, but there are also special circumstances too, I think. I believe you see that especially in the city government, for instance. Often many of the representatives come out of the mills, um, often um, many of the churches in the area are um, the beneficiaries of money that comes from the -- the Cannon 23:00Foundation. And I think while there are very distinct advantages to that, there are also limitations, I believe. Because I think growing up in the -- in the mill village, you -- you just come to feel like everything’s going to be taken care of. Um, I remember especially when I was little, I used to go to -- my father worked in the shop, in the Cannon Mills, and when they had -- I need to start again.

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

PLYLER: My father -- no. I’m losing it.

GEORGE STONEY: (inaudible).

PLYLER: Um, growing up in the mill villages does have its advantages, but it has limitations, too. And some of the limitations that I -- I’ve seen has been that people aren’t -- they don’t feel free to speak out about issues very easily. And I think that the reason that happens is, um, the structures are in 24:00place that -- that keep people from feeling like they can speak out very well. And what I mean by that is, a lot of times, churches in our area are -- have received a lot of donations from the Cannon Foundation, and that’s been very beneficial to this community, I mean, they’ve made this a good community to live, but it’s also pretty -- pretty -- it’s also formed a situation where it’s really difficult for people to speak out sometimes. It makes it hard for people to feel like they can speak out to make changes. And when you grow up in a -- in a mill village, I always felt like, you know, the Cannon Foundation, the Cannon family, Mr. Cannon, was taking care of us. You know, I -- I remember very well being just a little girl, I -- my father worked in the pipe shop at Cannon Mills, and every Christmas they would have a Christmas party for the 25:00workers, and Mr. Cannon, Charlie Cannon, would come, and he knew my name, like he knew the names of all the children there, and he would remember from one year to the next, and it felt like a family. And I think when people grow up in that situation, it -- while there are advantages to that, it -- it makes it hard to speak out. We -- we don’t grow up here with the history of being able to speak out and being involved in organizations like Piedmont Peace Project that work to change things.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, it seems to me (inaudible) may be an idea that you don’t uh, want to consider (inaudible). (break in video) But it seems to me, having talked around people on the street, that people yearn for the time when the -- the stability that they -- at the same time that they kind of fretted, because it was binding them down.

PLYLER: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE STONEY: If you could talk about that a little bit, if you’re comfortable with it. OK?

26:00

PLYLER: I am. One of the things that I’ve seen -- there’s someone driving in, we might need to --

GEORGE STONEY: OK.

PLYLER: -- stop.

(break in video)

GEORGE STONEY: (inaudible). There’s no Charlie Cannon, but (inaudible). No Charlie Cannon.

PLYLER: OK. When I was growing up in Kannapolis, it always felt like the mill and the -- Mr. Cannon especially, was going to take care of everybody. I -- I remember feeling that whenever I was growing up. And over the years, that’s changed a lot. One of the things that happened, when Mr. Cannon died, I think everybody felt a real panic, because we didn’t know what was going to happen next. And after he -- after those years -- I’m losing it. Um, I think people really struggled not knowing what was going to happen next. And when David Murdock bought the mill, it felt -- people were really afraid, not knowing what 27:00was going to happen. You know, a lot of folks in Kannapolis talked about maybe a foreign company coming in and buying the mill, and -- and people really felt afraid. You know, and -- because one thing that I think makes that fear so strong is, at that time, people still rented the mill houses. You know, they didn’t own them then. So, you weren’t even talking about --

JAMIE STONEY: Excuse me. Excuse me a minute. (inaudible) stop, there’s something wrong, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).