Harry Ashmore Interview 3

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
Transcript
Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Index
Search This Transcript
X
0:00

GEORGE STONEY: The cotton mill villages as you remember them around Greenville. Ok Jamie?

JAMIE STONEY: We’re rolling.

HARRY ASHMORE: I’m Harry Ashmore and I was born in Greenville, South Carolina and reared there and went the public schools of Greenville. When to college at Clemson in the next county over and worked on the newspapers in Greenville until World War II and after that I moved to Charlotte where I became the editor of the Charlotte News in North Carolina, again in the Piedmont textile belt. And Greenville billed itself, the Chamber of Commerce billed Greenville, as the textile center of the South and I think that was almost literally the case. I have been writing about it, reminiscing about it, have said that it some ways it probably represented Henry Grady’s idea of the New South as much as any place 1:00you could find. Greenville and Spartanburg, which today have practically grown together, that was far and away the most populous part of the state. And it was where all the industry, effectively speaking, that South Carolina had, was concentrated in that textile belt. Now that resulted for two reasons: one was the piedmont country was right against the mountains, you could look out any window in Greenville and see the Blue Ridge. The upper end of the county that joined North Carolina and Tennessee and it was mountainous. And this was hill country, Piedmont country, the lower end of the county was flattening out to some degree. It had never really been plantation country, although there was some pretty big plantations and farms in the river valleys. Also it was a place where Buck Duke created the Duke Power Company and harnessed these mountain streams for electricity which made the cotton mills possible. The mills had come 2:00in there I suppose really to use originally water power because there were streams of sizable streams coming in down from the mountains. But by the time I came along of course the mills were old they’d been there quite a long time. They were still moving in, this was a time when there was a great displacement from the textile mills from New England moving South to take advantage of the climate and the proximity to the cotton fields and also primarily to take advantage of the endless supply of cheap labor and this was because the farmers white and black were being forced off the land. This was the time of the great, before there was any soil reclamation and I can remember the rivers all ran red, the top soil was all washing away. It hadn’t been very well suited for cotton anyway but they’d try to grow it. And so literally these people who owned the 3:00land, and this was in the Great Depression, were starving and so for a generation they had come into the cotton mills as the cotton mills started. People writing about the period before my time when these mills were first founded, most of em were founded by local people and Joe Johnson has said that it really was almost a mission that the South and the end of Reconstruction was in such terrible shape, people were starving, ministers, bankers and other aristocratic folks would ban together to start a mill to give them something, some work to do. And of course they only gave the work to whites. They didn’t -- the blacks were absolutely banned from these villages and the mill villages grew up I suppose originally out of necessity. Built their own housing because there was no place for people to live. And Greenville, because I guess the city 4:00fathers foresaw what was going to happen they saw to it that all the mills were outside the city limits and they refused to expand the city limits to take them in until finally there were probably more people living outside the city limits just around Greenville than there were inside. Population as I recall when I was growing up was something like 30,000. But the county was the most populous county in the state. Spartanburg next, Spartanburg was about 25-30 miles away. So these mill villages dotted the county and they surrounded Greenville. And in the mill villages the company owned the land, the houses, the streets. They maintained the -- such public services as were provided and they had taxing power. For example, all of the mill villages around Greenville were linked together in a single school district which was jointly maintained by the mill 5:00owners. And it was really a pretty good school district called Parker School District. But the result of it was when I was growing up going to the public schools in Greenville, I had practically no classmates who were what we would call scornfully, lint-heads. And people, proper people, who lived inside the city limits looked down upon these people. They were somewhere a little bit above the level of blacks but in a way I think they probably were more scorned. I mean you would have some kind of warm relationship on a master-servant basis with blacks who surrounded you, knew a lot of blacks, you didn’t know any lint-heads and you disapproved of them. Of their lifestyle, scorned em, they were the rednecks, lint-heads, lint-heads as we called them, a term of opprobrium, surely. And I recall when I was in grammar school, there was one small cotton mill inside the city limits of Greenville that was in the vicinity 6:00of where I lived, it was called Camperdown Mill. [airplane sound]

GEORGE STONEY: Just a moment. Chris?

CHRIS: Yes sir.

GEORGE STONEY: Let’s just stop.

[break in video]

ASHMORE: When I was in grammar school, there was one cotton mill inside the city limits of Greenville that was not too far, it was in the same area of the city where we lived, whole city was not very big to begin with. And Camperdown, which was a small mill, but it probably had maybe 50-100 families who lived in the cotton mill village which was right adjacent to the Furman University campus, which was then downtown. And so there were five or six kids from Camperdown who were in my school, grade school I went to, a couple that I recall in my class. One of em I recall very vividly was a big kid, he was about the biggest kid in the class named Moke Tuppleton. I have no idea what ever became of Moke, I haven’t seen him in seventy years or something like that. But Moke became a great friend of mine. I was sort of a smart-ass kid and constantly getting in 7:00trouble… (airplane sound)

GEORGE STONEY: Oh I’m sorry, we better…

[break in video]

M1: Yeah I think we’re pretty clear.

GEORGE STONEY: Yeah roll it. Alright sir.

ASHMORE: There was one cotton mill inside the city limits of Greenville little mill called Camperdown, it was made of probably 50-100 families who worked there and lived in the village and that was the only one inside the city limits and it was in the area of the city where the grammar school that I attended was located. So we had 4 or 5 lint-head kids in grammar school when I was there and a couple of them in my class. One that I particularly remember and remember very vividly was a big kid named Moke Tuppleton. And Moke and I became friends because I was a sort-of a smart ass kid and I was constantly getting in trouble and frequently getting beat up by other kids, I wasn’t very good with my fists, but Moke became my protector and I think I helped him with his lessons 8:00and he looked after me and after I took up with Moke I didn’t have any more trouble with the other kids in class because he silenced them. And that’s about the only memory I have of him and I have no idea what happened to him or the others.

GEORGE STONEY: Would you ever think- talk about the possibilities about going home with him…

ASHMORE: No I don’t think the question of it came up. We would play together after school…

GEORGE STONEY: I’m sorry again, about going home with him.

ASHMORE: That’s right, say no I don’t think I recall ever having gone home with him or taking him home with me. I don’t think that was a conscious decision, I think that if it’d come up if he’d have suggested it, I might well have gone or I wouldn’t have thought anything about taking him to my house but it just didn’t come up. We would play after school was out, bunch of kids would usually get together, sometimes on the school playground or around vacant lots or whatever. These were in the very early grades, I’m talking 9:00about 2nd, 3rd grade and my memory is not the best under the circumstances but I don’t recall any social interactions. Really I think this relationship would have been very close to what happened in southern schools when blacks were admitted. I think it was the same kind of social barrier, unspoken, nobody said anything about it. I think the kids were treated correctly by the teachers and I think if anything, they may have had some help, because they needed it. They were clearly inferior in terms of literacy because we had all grown up in households where people spoke correct English and talked to kids and they came out of a background where the language was countrified and damn near old English in some cases. Very different, the accent was quite markedly different. So they were set apart and I say I think the situation would probably be comparable to 10:00what happened when the blacks came in.

GEORGE STONEY: I am sorry we are going to have to start that again because we are picking up a little noise in your microphone.

ASHMORE: Ok, how far back do you want to go?

GEORGE STONEY: Just talking about their difference, the differences between yourself and the students.

JAMIE STONEY: I think it was more like when black kids first came into Southern schools.

GEORGE STONEY: Yeah. Ok.

ASHMORE: So I think probably the distinction would be very close to that that I understand happened, I was far past that age myself, but when blacks were first admitted into the white schools in the South and there was distinction made whether consciously or unconsciously unspoken in many cases, but they were set apart and they were clearly different and the lint-heads were that different from us. There were matters of accent, matters of literacy, matters of dress, matters of manner. I don’t think that we were particularly conscious of it except it was a visible difference, it was an accepted difference. I don’t 11:00think anybody belabored it but it was there. They had after all, we, the rest of us, the city kids, had grown up in households where people spoke relatively correct English and where there were literate, where there were books and people could all practically all of us could read write before we got to school because there was no kindergarten in those days I think we went to school at age 6 – and these kids came in, as many black children who come out of the black underclass, they entered school without these communications skills that were natural to us, and that set them apart. So that was a distinction and as I say, I don’t think anybody talked about it much and I think again, because you have this sort of tradition of politeness in the South, I think we would not have said lint-head in the presence of one of these kids anymore than we would have been allowed to say nigger in the presence of a black. It was that kind of 12:00manner question.

GEORGE STONEY: Do you remember later on when you were going out to the, must have gone out to these villages, at some time as a newspaper person?

ASHMORE: Yes I did fairly often in the years after, when I got out of college at Clemson I went to work on the Piedmont, which was the afternoon daily newspaper in Greenville and this was the time of the textile strikes. This was 1937 and they were still going on. They had begun in 1934 and everybody was quite conscious of that in Greenville at that time because we had in Greenville county, we had really one of the massacres at Honea Path where 7 or 8 people were killed on the picket line. And the National Guard was called out and I can recall coming home for summer vacation once from college my older brother worked on a weekly newspaper in Greenville and he was covering some of this action and 13:00I recall going down to Honea Path with him just to see what was going on. This was after the shooting down there. But the National Guard was in place and I can recall these machine guns setup at the gate and the guards patrolling and this link fence all along there. I don’t recall that there were any pickets out there at at that time but the guard had been put in there, I suppose, after the shooting. And the guard was frequently turned up in these mill villages when there was any kind of disturbance and by the time I came along, the strike, the union was still in existence, it was organizing I don’t recall that there was much in the way of active strikes during ’37; there may have been some. But there was a great deal of union activity. And as a reporter I got to know several of the union people. There was a woman who was in charge of the textile 14:00union operation in Greenville, names Elizabeth Hawes a very attractive young woman that I pursued a little bit, I wasn’t married then, but I would take her out and buy her a beer and I was operating in line of duty, I was trying to get the inside information about what the union was doing and she was trying to convert me and neither one of us was being very successful to the union cause. But she was a Vassar graduate and a very dedicated young woman who had no Southern background, I’m sure no union background. But she was one of the kind of people like Eleanor Roosevelt who had taken up the cause. And then visiting Greenville occasionally, and I would interview them, were two notably figured in the union. One of them was Lucy Randolph Mason who was this FFV [First Family of Virginia] lady who was an organizer for the union and I always thought it was …a deupty sheriff could hardly pick up anyone named Lucy Randolph Mason and slap 15:00‘em in the clink, I mean, Ms. Randolph, Ms. Mason had thought of free passage almost anywhere she went, lending respectability to what was an otherwise unrespectable enterprise. The other one, this used the same reason, was a very eloquent Methodist minister named Witherspoon Dodge. He would come in and preach and I think even some of the downtown churches would let him have a pulpit occasionally...this chair is sinking on me…

M1: I just noticed that too.

JAMIE STONEY: That one I’m gonna sell that one to Bob Saget.

ASHMORE: Right let me make sure I haven’t pulled this loose.

M1: Let me try one thing. Yeah I saw that.

[break in video]

GEORGE STONEY: She was in her fifties, so I guess that was right. OK, could you talk about Lucy Mason again then.

ASHMORE: Yes, some of the leading figures in the movement, the union movement 16:00that came to Greenville, and as a young reporter I interviewed them, and I had two that I remember very vividly. One was Lucy Randolph Mason, Ms. Lucy Randolph Mason, who obviously and was every inch an FFV and lent respectability to say the least, to the movement because you couldn’t imagine a deputy sheriff picking up somebody named Lucy Randolph Mason who looked like she was always wearing white gloves and throwing her in the clink. So that was one of her great missions, was to say she had to be accepted whether people approved of her or not. She had all the connections, she was a good deal more aristocratic than anybody else in Greenville I think. Had better old lines to the old South. But the other one was Witherspoon Dodge who was a Methodist minister and a very eloquent preacher and he again lent respectability of the cloth to the movement as I say, I don’t recall for sure whether for sure he was allowed to occupy a 17:00pulpit in one of the downtown Methodist churches but I’m sure he occupied pulpits in the mill villages…well maybe he did or didn’t because the churches were owned by the management but they did have churches.

GEORGE STONEY: I’m sorry, let’s do that again. Talk about Witherspoon Dodge and then the churches being owned by the management.

ASHMORE: Well another person that I recall was Witherspoon Dodge who was a very eloquent Methodist minister who worked for the union and travelled the South and he came to Greenville occasionally and I remember interviewing him. And he again like Lucy Randolph Mason, lent respectability to the movement a man of the cloth and obviously a well-educated and really erudite fella, said I can’t recall whether any of the downtown Methodist churches ever allowed him to occupy a pulpit, I am reasonably certain that he probably did a good deal of preaching in the mill villages which did have churches. And I suppose they had Baptist and 18:00Methodist and Presbyterian churches would have been the usual thing but I doubt the Episcopalians out there, certainly no Catholics but any case churches existed in the mill villages but they were owned by the management along with everything else, the streets and the houses. So whether he was actually allowed to preach from the pulpit or not I don’t know. But he was certainly around and he was very impressive and a very dedicated man; I had a great respect for him. So the villages were all a pattern, they were really not too bad. They had individual houses I think probably they all had indoor plumbing and they had electric lights. Then there was a company store that was of course part of the keeping them in peonage. In those days, this was in the Depression was still going on and one of the things that would happen to the economy in Greenville 19:00and would almost paralyze it: the mills would go down to three days and two days a week and when that happened of course the hands were only paid about half or less than what they were normally paid and that meant the retail trade in Greenville which was heavily dependent, my father was a merchant, he had a shoe store, and so they were heavily dependent, the economy was dependent on the lint-heads to a large extent. So when the mills shut down or cut back it really was a matter of great moment and the people were quite aware of it. The conditions in the mill villages were physical conditions were not really too bad and I think it has to be remembered that the old mills before they were taken over by national management which has since happened at virtually all of them but the biggest mills around Greenville were still owned and actually operated by old Greenville families. They were sort of the aristocrats of the town, they 20:00were the wealthiest people in town. There were probably six or seven of those families that I can recall. And I was in school with their children I knew them of course all quite well. And they had started at a time at the end of Reconstruction when the South was really in a plight and people were leaving the land, cotton prices had sank, nobody could make a living on the land anymore, and whites and blacks were being forced into bankruptcy they were losing the land if they owned it and they couldn’t maintain it and they couldn’t make a living so it was kind of a civic enterprise as I’m told reading about it, the leading citizen in these towns would get together and form a company and build a cotton mill, in part to provide employment for these people. And because the mills had no housing they, whether they intended to make it a company town or not, they did, it may have been in part almost necessary to provide some place 21:00for these people to live who were coming right off the farm that’s where they came from. And of course by the standards of that day, I don’t know whether working conditions were any worse there than they were in the cotton mill in New England for example. There was child labor, the children worked, the women worked, they used to say you worked from can to cad and that’s how…and then one of the issues that the unions would make was the stretch out. The stretch out was really began to put in more efficient machinery and keep the production up, cut the hours back, or made them work longer hours. So at that time, the wages and hour laws came in under the New Deal and one summer before I went to college, only time I ever worked in the cotton mill, I worked at the Union Bleachery, Southern Bleachery I guess it was, there was two bleacheries. I had 22:00a white collar job, I worked in the patagraph department. this was print bill at a bleachery and it also did a print cloth. So they’d make these templates with a cup and design, flowers or whatever it was on to this thing and etched it out, then that made the roll from which they printed, from what amounted to a printing press. So I worked in there transferring this stuff. And I recall that that must have been in 1933, I guess, and I think our work week then was 55 hours: ten hours a day, five days and five hours on Saturday and the wages and hours laws, the first wages and hours laws came in and I think it cut it to 48 hours, something like that. And also raised the pay. I was getting paid on a weekly basis, I’ve forgotten what is was but it wasn’t—the first minimum wage was quite low it was something like $0.25 an hour maybe, I don’t recall. 23:00Things were relative I mean it was still substantial increase and that’s my only experience. I worked there I guess about two months in the summer then went off to college. Never had any desire to go back to work. Now I had the best end of the work place. I got the job because my brother, who’d just gotten out of college, he’d gone to Clemson, he was textile chemist and he was working there in the managerial experimental laboratory part of the place, mixing ink or whatever. He lasted about six months, and he decided that was not for him and so there was no air conditioning in these places and you can believe me in the summer it was hot you sit there with the sweat running off of you. But I say I was in the white collar section of the cotton mill I wasn’t really in where the loom fixers and the fellas where the really hard labor, talk about the loom fixers squat, where you had to squat down and work on the bottom of the loom, 24:00spinning and weaving. I say I don’t, that certainly it was a hard existence and low-paid existence, but it probably was better than what they had on the farm that they came from.

GEORGE STONEY: Could I ask you something now. You mentioned that the merchants were so beholden to the cotton mill workers for their trade, and yet it seems to me that the Chamber of Commerce were very much against the unions which were trying to raise those wages, could you talk about that?

ASHMORE: Oh yes the Chamber of Commerce were I think without exception, reactionary. They were opposed because the olders were opposed and the alders dominated the economy. The Greenville News where I worked had actually been owned by one of the mill barons and had sold it to the man who owned it when I was there named Elijah Peace, a Bony Peace his father, the old man who’d been a printer and for public relations reasons Captain Smythe, who owned the paper 25:00decided he better unload it, I mean they were getting so much criticism. This was back I think in the early ‘20s and apparently some reaction I don’t think there was much of a union movement then, but in any case he sold it to this commercial printer who became the publisher who’s now, the family is extremely wealthy now because its became a chain, its now Metro Media something like that, I’ve forgotten what its called. But in any case, that’s an indication, I mean, they dominated the media and The News and The Piedmont when I was there, I have no idea if it had an editorial position that would have been in favor of management. I wasn’t under any instructions to slant the news particularly, but we didn’t cover it with a great deal of depth. I would think, I would interview these people if they were fairly prominent when they came to town. And I reported it straight and as far as I know it wasn’t 26:00slanted. But certainly there was little if any support for the union outside of the cotton mill villages and the hostility was certainly there. It was not -- its strange, I guess it’s a particularly Southern characteristic, the main instrument for discrediting the union was to keep them from being respectable. You see it was not respectable to support the union. This was beyond the pale, it was like the same thing about race: you could be very fond of blacks you could have blacks that you were very intimate with, as long as it was a master-servant basis, but it was not respectable to socialize with them in any way, and the cotton mills were the same way. And I think it was that aspect of it that had as much to do with the hostility. Now actually the economic interest of the community would, should have been identified with the union. It wasn’t 27:00so much that these people were frequent customers but they had enough money in circulation so that when their money dried up, then the whole economy went down, and also the fact that they were out there working at the very low wages that prevailed kept the wages down throughout the city.