Lucille Thornburgh Interview 5

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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´╗┐THORNBURGH: Yeah, ah-huh, yeah that was one of them. that was one of the early things that the old AFL was fighting, that differential, they, they hated that differential. The labor movement, such as it was, you know, it was pretty weak at that time, but I remember that that was one of the things that even the central labor union counsel here, and all these people, were fighting that, because that differential, that was a very unfair thing.

HELFAND: Well, you know, management fought for that differential.

THORNBURGH: Oh, I know they did, sure they did.

HELFAND: Do you want to talk about that?

THORNBURGH: Because see, I can't talk about that, because I don't know that much about it, but I know a lot of the mills, see, in the South, were owned by northern companies, a lot of them were. They weren't southern owned and 1:00naturally, they came down here and set up their mills because they had that differential.


THORNBURGH: Now, what's your next subject?

HELFAND: My next subject is how you all -- is actually how you organized. What are the things that -- why the UTWA? How did that become your local union?

THORNBURGH: Well, it was the only textile workers union there was.

HELFAND: But how did you find out about it?


HELFAND: Pretend we don't know anything.

THORNBURGH: OK, let's see, how will we start that? Ready?

M: Yeah.

THORNBURGH: OK, let's see how it started. We had -- I forget, to keep your head down here. We had discussed some among ourselves. I was working at Cherokee Spinning Company in 1934, and we had talked some, around, among ourselves. We'd 2:00been reading about unions being organized at other places, in other cities, and we just talked about it. We didn't know what to do, we didn't know anything about unions. But a union organizer, he was a railroad boilermaker of all things, came into Knoxville to organize the mills here, and the first place he started, the AFL. Now not AFL-CIO, because it was just AFL then. He was a general organizer for them and they sent him here to try to organize the mills and factories here, and as soon as we heard about him being here, one of our weavers got in touch with him and told him that there was people at Cherokee that wanted to organize a union. Well he was happy to hear that and he called us up to his hotel room, up in the Farragut Hotel, to discuss it with him. Six 3:00of us went up to talk to him and he told us exactly how you go -- he did not give us any background of the labor movement, none at all. He just told us what we needed to do was get seven people to sign a charter and apply to the AFL and we'd get a charter, and then we could start organizing around that, which we did, we ordered the charter. And he stayed here and he told us to call a meeting and that he would come to the meeting and help us get organized. He didn't know anything about the textile industry at all, but he did know the labor movement, and he explained to us in detail, what you're looking for is shorter hours, better pay, and better working conditions, that's all. We didn't talk about any insurance, holidays, sick leave, or anything like that at all, we just talked about this. And then we started taking in members. We met at an 4:00old hall up on Gay Street, every Saturday morning. See, at that time, we, we were working on this, we didn't have to work on Saturday, and of course the Friday night, night shift was off, so we could all go up there on Saturday morning, and on Saturday morning, every Saturday morning, we filled the hall. Everybody had joined and the initiation fee was two dollars, but he waived the two dollar initiation fee, so we took them in for free and everybody signed up. There was 603, I believe the number was, of employees there, and we had 603 members. Everybody joined, and all we had to talk to them about was this hours, wages and working conditions, that's all, and they joined. And we started meeting every Saturday, uptown, and we had a crowded hall. We had elected our 5:00officers and we were really in business. This organizer had told us what to do. See, none of us knew anything about organization. He told us what to do, how to elect our officers, which we did, and thank goodness, we did have one man who had been in a union somewhere in North Carolina. The union had failed but anyway, he had been in it. His name was Preacher [Camel?]. He was an itinerant preacher and of course, he wanted to be a leader, because he was preaching up on Market Square every Saturday and then organizing all week. But he wanted to be a leader, so he made a good president of our local union there. He was the president, I was the secretary, and we had the union going and we'd meet every Saturday morning, and we kept meeting until another organizer came to town and 6:00he told us it was time for us to try to get a contract with the company, which we did. He helped us draw it up, and we had this contract all underway and was in the process of making an appointment with management, to get our contract negotiated, when the nationwide textile strike was called. We hadn't been organized, it was less than a year, about six or seven months. There was no leadership except this one itinerant preacher, that was the best leader that we had. Still, we were called out on strike and we thought, and the AFL organizers and all of them told us that we should come out on strike, that's your international union calling the strike, and we went out on strike from that. I have always thought, and still do today, that calling that strike at that time 7:00was a mistake. If we had been left alone and not called out on the strike, I think we would have got some kind of a contract signed and we would have still had a union. But with the people, we went out on strike, and with the people, had nothing, Depression days, we had nothing but that little paycheck that was coming in, and the men's wives were needling them to go back to work. There was children, their children were getting hungry, the rent was due, and so gradually, they got an injunction against us, that we couldn't -- that we couldn't picket any longer. So then the strikers started drifting back and our union was gone. The union -- the strike was lost and the union was gone. Now what?


HELFAND: That was a long story.

THORNBURGH: Yes it was.

F1: But Lucille, the union wasn't gone, because I saw, in your scrapbook, you have letters, letters that came back to you from the UTW president, and he was saying how, how proud he was that you were still working for your local, even though the membership wasn't backing --

THORNBURGH: That's right.

F1: -- not you necessarily, but you --

THORNBURGH: That, that's right.

F1: -- as an officer, were still working for the union.

THORNBURGH: That's right.

F1: Working for your local, keeping your local alive.

THORNBURGH: That's, that's right, that's right.

HELFAND: Tell us that.

THORNBURGH: Well, they were, the strikers were drifting back, and I still tried to hold the, the union together, even though they were going back. I thought, well we can hold -- if we can just hold the union together and keep our people here, we can work for a better day. But it didn't work out and for good reason. 9:00So many of us were blacklisted, and these people that were blacklisted, many of them, like I had said before, they were married men, they were with married women, for that matter, and they had children, and they had to have a paycheck coming in. We didn't get any strike benefits at all, so these people left town. They went to another mill, where they weren't blacklisted. I'm sure they didn't pay any attention to it in North Carolina, about a blacklisted weaver in Knoxville, Tennessee, or they didn't tell them. They just had to move to where the job was. So that was how we lost the union, but I did keep working to try to hold it together, but it was futile, I couldn't do it.

HELFAND: How did -- how were you feeling, I mean what was your daily life like when you were trying to hold this union together?


THORNBURGH: It was sad. I would try and I had very few people cooperating with me. The ones who would have been good union members, that were blacklisted along with me, had left town. So it, it was, and I finally saw that it was just a losing proposition altogether, that I couldn't do it, it was, and I needed to go to work. But of course I couldn't go to work, not only in a textile mill, but I couldn't go to work anywhere in Knoxville, because I had been accused of being a communist and I was a blacklisted textile worker, I was a trouble maker and all those things. So thank God for TVA, they gave me a job as a file clerk.

HELFAND: That must have made -- I mean, I can't imagine. If all my friends, if all the activists from New York City just had to leave New York City, what would New York City be like?

THORNBURGH: I know it.

HELFAND: If everyone had to leave Knoxville, what were they trying to do?


THORNBURGH: They weren't thinking about that at all. Management wasn't thinking about that and maybe the people weren't. If they had been thinking about it, what could they do? They had no jobs to offer them. They had to go where there was jobs. And of course at one time, and I don't know whether it's like that or not now, but at one time, there were 58 mills in Gastonia, North Carolina, and that was, that was a place to go to find a job. So they had to, they had to leave town. If I hadn't found a job at TVA, I would have had to leave town, I couldn't get a job here, because it's not only where you were blacklisted, but you were blacklisted all over. Who was going to hire a woman like me, that had been accused of being a communist, a troublemaker, a rioter, causing upheavals 12:00and all that kind of stuff? Who's going to hire me? Nobody but TVA.

HELFAND: You told me before that this was your home and you didn't want to leave your home.

THORNBURGH: That's right, that's right.

HELFAND: Can you talk about that?

THORNBURGH: My family was here. Knoxville is, since I lived in the country, Knoxville has always been my home.

HELFAND: What do you mean, since you lived in the country?

THORNBURGH: Well, I was born out in Strawberry Plains and I moved here in 1924, and Knoxville, I've always considered Knoxville my home. My whole family lives here and this is where I wanted to stay. I thought this, this is my town, as much as it is management's, so why can't I stay here in my own town?

HELFAND: Is this a town where you wanted to see something different and you wanted to make changes?

THORNBURGH: Yes, and I was egotistical enough at that time to think that I could make some changes. I'm not that egotistical now.

HELFAND: Is that why you didn't leave?


THORNBURGH: That's right, I lived here, sure, it's my home, I don't want to be run off.

HELFAND: And you weren't, Lucille, were you?

THORNBURGH: No, no I left on my own accord, later.

[break in video]

HELFAND: OK. You know, I mean was that -- did your union, did your local union start from the beginning of the NRA, Section 7A? Did you -- I mean, they were frequent up until the time of the strike? I mean, we met every Saturday for a year and a half?

THORNBURGH: Wait, wait just a minute. What did you say the date of the -- sure that date is right. And then the general textile strike was called in June of next year. That old scrapbook shows that but I, I don't know. Did you bring that old scrapbook?

HELFAND: Mm-hmm.

THORNBURGH: Well anyway, I believe it started in June. We 14:00don't have to have those specific dates, do we, or do we?

HELFAND: The strike?


HELFAND: The strike started in September of '34.

THORNBURGH: Well, all right.

HELFAND: But we don't have to go all the way -- we could, we could do it chunk by chunk.

THORNBURGH: OK, what do you want to know first?

HELFAND: I want to talk about the meetings, OK? So, your meeting --

[break in video]

THORNBURGH: We held our --

HELFAND: One second. OK.

THORNBURGH: From the time we were organized, we held a meeting every Saturday. We met in the Moose Hall on Gay Street every Saturday morning at ten o'clock. We didn't advertise the meetings at all, we just had everybody, everybody knew. We told everybody in the mill and after the first two or three meetings, they knew that we were meeting every Saturday. Sometimes people have asked me, well what did you talk about every Saturday? Well, what we started out talking about 15:00every Saturday was, was just complaining about our conditions and about the wages. It was just a real sad session of complaints of talking about that. And then, when we got into writing our contract, then everybody was interested. Everybody wanted to know what's going into this contract. Are we going to get more money? Are we going to get -- what's going to happen? Are we going to get a lunch hour and how are we going to word it, and all those things. So the contract was one thing that kept -- well, that was the major thing that kept us meeting, up until we were called out on strike, to be sure we had the contract right and who should be on the contract committee. One person would think, well I don't know anything about it, let's get somebody else. So, the contract committee was meeting, sometimes we'd meet two or three times a week, to try to get this contract right. I don't know why now, we didn't have some other union contract to go by, but we didn't have. We had to make up our contract and we 16:00were getting ready to present it to management at the time we were called out on strike.

HELFAND: Did you open your meetings with a special ceremony or a prayer or a song?

THORNBURGH: We, we -- at these meetings that we held every Saturday, they were opened with prayer. Naturally it would have been, because our president was this itinerant preacher, and our meetings were always opened with prayer and closed with prayer. Now, whatever went on between those two prayers was not always very spiritual, but we had the prayer at the closing.

HELFAND: Do you remember what that prayer sounded like?

THORNBURGH: No. Mostly what I remember about it, it was very long.

HELFAND: Would they, would they invoke Jesus and God?

THORNBURGH: Oh yes, oh definitely, because our president was this fundamentalist 17:00preacher. So yes, he certainly did, he prayed to God to help us get our contract signed, I remember him saying that. And maybe he was right, he said later, God would have helped us to get it signed if we hadn't been called out on strike. So maybe he was right.

HELFAND: If these meetings had been, um, if these meetings had been public, would it have changed things? Would management have come, would there have been spies?

THORNBURGH: I, -- yes. I, I don't know, I don't know why management didn't, because they had some spies. We knew who they were, so we wouldn't have let them in the meeting. But actually, other than the complaining all the time and 18:00drawing up the contract, see we weren't talking anything violent or destroying the mill or anything like that, so maybe they just weren't interested in what we were doing. I imagine they were thinking well, let them draw up all the contract they want to, we're not going to sign it. That's probably what they were thinking, but we were working on the contract.

HELFAND: What did this do for -- had you ever socialized with people before? The mill is a very noisy place. So all of a sudden you had this meeting and this time to be with each other in a different way. Could you talk about that?

THORNBURGH: Well, in the, in the mills, in a way, I've thought about that later, we were, we were segregated in a way. Now, my friends were the winding machine operators and the spinning department people, they went with themselves, and the 19:00weavers, who were the elite of the mill, they went by themselves. But when we organized and got in that union hall together, we were all one. It was something that really brought us together. There were people working in what we called the loom room, where they actually made the cloth and where they were doing the weaving, there were actually people in there that I didn't know until we organized. Then I got to knowing those people and it was the same way all over, with the card room, the spinning room, the winding room. All, then we'd all, we were all together then, but before that, we were just in little groups. We didn't have time. There was no time for any socializing, you know we didn't have a -- we didn't have a lunch hour, that you'd go out to lunch together, and you just stood, I stood there at my machine all night, working. I had no time to talk to the people next to me, but the ones that I did know, that I walked home with, they were people in the winding room, and I didn't know the other 20:00people. So the union really brought us together there.

HELFAND: And was -- so, that's really, it's interesting. You know, given this, this -- what, what was going on for people sort of emotionally in this period of time? They're starting to have a new social life, they start to have rights as union activists. They're learning what a union is, they don't really know what a union is. They're bucking the system a little bit. This was a really rich period of time wasn't it?

THORNBURGH: Well, it was in a way and the way we got acquainted with each other too, after we were organized, we would have little parties. I remember one that we had up at the Moose Hall, we'd have things like pie suppers and little dances and things like that, to get the group together, because we always, being this 21:00part of the country, where country music abounds, we always had somebody that could play. There was a piano in the hall and we always had somebody that could play the fiddle and the guitar, so we didn't have to go out of our own ranks to get music. So we did begin associating with each other, more so than we ever had before, because we didn't know each other.

HELFAND: And what happens when people start to socialize and they start to get political together? It must be, they're becoming, you know they're becoming textile workers, individuals. You could rephrase what I'm saying, but help me to imagine this.

THORNBURGH: Now, how did you say that? You mean like it changed their social life?

HELFAND: Yeah, I mean it just, I imagine that it wasn't just -- it wasn't just hours, wages and working conditions, it was becoming a community of sorts, I mean it seemed. And you were educating each other. It was, it was different, something was different.


THORNBURGH: Well, it was. It was, it was -- the whole attitudes changed after we started organizing, because then, everything that we talked about, what time we did have outside the meetings after we were working eight hours and walking home together and all, but our conversation was always the same. We talked about the union, of getting the union, and about what management was doing wrong, how we were going to write more letters, what are we going to put in the contract. But still, it was socializing, but we would get together and that was our only topic.

HELFAND: Did you make friends in a way that you hadn't made friends before?

THORNBURGH: Oh yes, absolutely, you make friends, I made friends. I made friends with people in the weave shop and in the card room, that I didn't even know before. I had no way of knowing them. I couldn't leave my job, my machine, to go over and socialize with somebody, you didn't leave your machine. 23:00So there was, there was no social life in the mill. We had that social life later, and the union certainly contributed to that.

HELFAND: Now, you couldn't have organized 603 people overnight.


HELFAND: I mean, there had to be a process to it, right? Can we chip that away a little bit, because that success, Lucille, 603 people is pure success.

THORNBURGH: Yeah. Well, our organizing campaign, -- are you doing it?

M: Yes.

THORNBURGH: Oh, I'm sorry. Our organizing campaign actually started with we seven who signed up to get the charter. We had to have that seven. Well, we became the organizing committee and again, we worked in our own little area. I talked to the winding machine people, our member on the committee that was from 24:00the spinning room, she talked to the people in the spinning room, the man from the card room talked in the card room. So that's the way we got them all together, was that seven spreading out over the mill, and we'd tell one, and of course I couldn't take the time, you know, to tell all of them. I would tell one, you tell somebody else, so that's the way we got it going. I tell you and you tell her and she tells somebody else, and that's how we got it going.

HELFAND: Could you talk in the mill, near your machine?

THORNBURGH: No, no you could not, because you couldn't hear.

HELFAND: OK, and repeat what I said and then tell me how you actually did it.

THORNBURGH: Now wait a minute.

M: No, you couldn't talk near your machine.

HELFAND: No, you couldn't, you couldn't, it was too noisy.

THORNBURGH: OK. No, we couldn't talk in the mill because it was too noisy, so what we would do, we would talk in the restroom or on the way home, but we would 25:00talk to somebody that was in our department there, and I would tell one person and she'd tell another, and that's the way we spread the word around. Now, in the weave shop, it was simpler, because the looms in there were not as noisy as it was in the winding and spinning room, and they could talk to each other on the job, so that made it easier for them. And the weavers were the leaders, because some of them had come from North Carolina, where they knew more about unions than we did.

HELFAND: Could we stop?

[break in video]

M: OK.

THORNBURGH: In the mill, it was so noisy that I couldn't talk to people next to me about the union, so we had to do this in the restrooms. I couldn't talk to them directly because they couldn't hear me over the noise of the machine, so we 26:00had to talk about it in the restroom and outside and walking home. Now they could do more of this talking about their union and inviting people to the union meetings in the weave shop, because the looms were not as noisy as the spinning frames and the winding machines.

HELFAND: Do you remember walking home at night, having people on either side of you and actually conducting a little organizing meeting on the side of the road or near someone's house or under a street lamp or in the dark?

THORNBURGH: Oh, -- is he ready?

M: Yeah.


THORNBURGH: When we were drawing up our contract, we would meet at someone's home. Sometimes it was my home, sometimes it was another person's home, and we would, we would talk walking home. Everybody walked that I knew of, that worked in the mill. We all lived around in the village, where we -- in the, in the 27:00area, where we could walk home, and we would talk about this walking home, and then we would meet at somebody's house and talk about it. That's where we, we had to do it. You couldn't do it, you couldn't do anything in the mill, it was too noisy.

HELFAND: Did you ever have -- do you remember walking home and actually sort of nagging someone, or sort of having to really talk them into it, or them putting up a fuss?

THORNBURGH: Oh, we had people that would put up a fuss. They -- but I realized then, what it was. They, they were afraid, they were afraid of losing their job. They were afraid that if the boss found out that they were going to union meetings, or even talking to me, because they knew from the very start, that I was one of the organizers, that they had to be careful. But I think we did a reasonably good job of getting that fear from those people. After they would come to a few meetings and see that they were not alone, that they were backed 28:00up by everybody else in the mill, then I think they got over a lot of that fear, but at first it was there.

HELFAND: Now, what was the relationship between the national UTWA and this local in Knoxville, Tennessee.

THORNBURGH: The, the -- you're talking about the international.

HELFAND: Yeah, yeah.

THORNBURGH: I don't know that you're --

HELFAND: I'm trying to understand how this worked.

THORNBURGH: All right. The United Textile Workers was the national union. I think they called it at one time, the international union. It was not international, it was the United Textile Workers Union, but it was the national union, and all of the local unions were affiliated with this national union. Part of our dues, our dues was a dollar a month, that's what we started off getting, was this dollar a month. Well, 25 cents of that went to the 29:00international union, and that was something that had to be explained to our members. They could not understand, we're paying dues here and those people are in Washington, why do we send them any dues at all? But of course to have the international union, you have to pay per capita tax to it. So they finally understood that, but it did have to be explained as to why you had to have. And then we pointed out to them that when we belong to the national textile workers union, we became a part of every other textile, organized textile worker in the country, and that's where we got our strength of course. One little local union down here in Knoxville would have been nothing, but when you have an international union that has all these local unions affiliated with it, then you have a powerful organization.

HELFAND: Now, did you correspond with the national union, I mean?


HELFAND: So tell me, how did that work?


THORNBURGH: Ah, we, we got -- we had correspondence from the international union. We finally had them to help with drawing up our contract. We sent complaints to them and they told us what to do, advised us all the time on what to do. Oh, you have to have that international union to have strength enough to do anything.

HELFAND: Did you feel like they -- I understand that there were only, I don't know, ten, fifteen paid organizers, that the UTWA kind of paid to be -- to come down here and work in the South. Or that they hired local southerners. So for the most part, this mass movement of organization, was it due to them or was it due to all of -- to local organizers like you?

THORNBURGH: Well, one, one group, as soon as we were organized and had our charter and was paying dues to the international union, we also affiliated with the Knoxville Center Labor Council, and there we met all these -- well, there 31:00wasn't large groups then. At that time, there was the railroad workers, the painters union, typographical, and some of these old, established unions. But at the same time we were organizing here in Knoxville, other places in Knoxville were organizing. See, the construction workers, they were organizing. We hadn't had a common laborers union here until that time, but they organized. The painters, all the construction trades. Well, when we affiliated with the central labor council here, they helped us. They helped us to organize our own people and that council too, I've always thought that that was a good thing, I wish they had it today. They had an organizing committee that went out every night, visiting people in their homes, and they even had one that I thought was 32:00very good. They didn't know who they were going to run into. They would just go to a home and knock on the door and ask where the people worked. Wherever they were working, they told them that they ought to join the union. And this was all free, this was just an organizing committee, there was no paid organizers to it at all. I went out a lot of nights, but I found out later, when my sister was doing organizing later, she said you couldn't do that today; people are glued to their television or they have something else to do. But they were glad to see us, you know there wasn't anything else going on, the Depression days, they were at home, and we'd go visit them, they were glad to see us. Oh, once in a while we'd get run off, but nobody paid any attention to that.

HELFAND: With all this going, I mean so you, the textile workers in Knoxville, were really part of something that was both locally and --

THORNBURGH: That's right, that is right, that is right. We were told, by our 33:00international union, to join the central labor council here, to become affiliated with the other unions, which we did, and that was a big help. That was one of the smartest things we ever did.


THORNBURGH: Now how many more, she got.

[break in video]

HELFAND: Your organizing here sounds very different than the way they might have organized in a mill village.

THORNBURGH: Yeah, I don't, I don't know how they did that. They, when they had a mill village, they could just go from one to the other.

HELFAND: I'm just saying that it was -- they didn't have -- the fact that you had all these other industries here --


HELFAND: -- changed the nature of your organizing.

THORNBURGH: Sure it did.

HELFAND: That was a big deal, that was a big deal.

[break in video]

HELFAND: Black workers, colored workers, were working at your plant at the time, and when I say in your mill, I don't mean necessarily in the mill. I mean they could have been working in the mill as a janitor, they could have been in the 34:00opening room or the picking room. I know that they had dirty jobs, so if you could maybe just talk about, you know, the black workers in the textile industry at the time.

THORNBURGH: Oh, that's very simple, there's one.

HELFAND: Can you say that again?

THORNBURGH: I said that would be very simple, we had one black worker. She was the maid, that's all we had.

HELFAND: What was her name?

THORNBURGH: I don't remember. We had, we had two. We first had a woman and then we had her daughter. I don't remember what her name was but we knew her, but she, she was the maid there. See, we had segregation then. There wasn't a black worker in any mill in Knoxville. The Standard Knitting Mill, Brookside, none of those, there wasn't any blacks in the mill. They didn't work together at all.


HELFAND: Could they work on the outside, in the opening room, in the picking room, in the yard?

THORNBURGH: No, no, no. There was no blacks except one maid, ah, was the only one that I ever heard of, and there was none at the other mills. No they didn't, they didn't work in the mills at all.

HELFAND: In Knoxville.

THORNBURGH: It was, it was years later, the only thing that black women could do around here at all was to be maids, maids, and the men were janitors, until George Dempster became mayor here, and he opened the door for young women here to go into the nursing profession. The old Knoxville General Hospital was where they trained nurses, and he was the first mayor, and oh, that was well up in '40.

HELFAND: Did you organize this one black woman who worked for you?

THORNBURGH: She joined. She never did come to meetings, but she joined.

HELFAND: She signed the card.


THORNBURGH: Yeah, yeah, she would have, she would have probably come to meetings if somebody had invited her. I guess they just didn't, you know, just didn't bother. I don't know whether she would have come or not, because everything was segregated, and she would have probably felt terribly isolated in a meeting of all white people.

HELFAND: Do you have any idea what the UTWA's policy was on black workers who worked, whether they worked in the mill or they work as yard people or sweepers or openers or pickers, it was a small minority of black workers working in the textile industry.

THORNBURGH: Oh, I know. I think maybe in North Carolina and possibly Georgia. I know there were no black workers in Knoxville, at any of the mills here, not even in the woolen mill, or any of the cotton mill, knitting mill, or any of these. There were no black workers here. However, there was nothing in the United Textile Workers, our international union, there was nothing in there that 37:00would have barred them from, from working or from being in there. I guess that was management's idea, or maybe it was just the law. I don't know what it was, it was segregation though at that time, and they just, they just didn't work -- blacks and whites just did not work together. You know, the construction unions here, until oh, way in the '40s and I know at least in the '40s, and TVA was partly responsible for that, for bringing blacks in here from other places, and of course the unions here wanted to get all the members they could, so they would take them in, but that's the first time that they, that the construction workers didn't have -- when they had so far as I know, on the carpenters union here, there's still the black local and the white local.




HELFAND: Do -- can we stop?

[break in video]

THORNBURGH: The carpenters had a white local and a black local.


THORNBURGH: Then. And I don't know what they have now, I'm sure they don't have them segregated today, but ah, there were no -- there were no black locals here.

HELFAND: And did you ever hear tell of white -- if there was a small -- if there was a group of black workers that were working in the mills? Did you ever hear tell of white workers trying to work with them or organize them or?

THORNBURGH: No, I didn't have any experience with that at all, because there was no black workers in the mills here. We didn't have any.

HELFAND: How was it that you got to be secretary?

THORNBURGH: Nobody else wanted it.

HELFAND: Tell me that.

THORNBURGH: No, when we were -- I forgot to look at her. When we were electing 39:00our officers at that initial union meeting, somebody nominated me for secretary because you must remember now, this was 1934. It wouldn't do for a woman to be president of a local union, that just wouldn't do. She can be a secretary or a treasurer but she can't be a president. So, they nominated somebody else for president and vice president, and then I was nominated for secretary, because I'd been active and they all knew me. I was better known than any of them.

HELFAND: Lucille, it was 1933 when you organized, so.

THORNBURGH: What did I say?

HELFAND: You said 1934.



THORNBURGH: That's when we were meeting.

HELFAND: And all -- so, would you mind telling me that story again and, and end it by telling me if you were proud of that, happy, were you glad to have that job?


THORNBURGH: No I wasn't, but I'll tell you all about it.

HELFAND: No, tell me the truth.

THORNBURGH: OK, then, we'll start back with --

HELFAND: It was 1933, when we first started organizing.

THORNBURGH: When we first started organizing in 1933, at our initial meeting there, of course we elected officers, and I guess I was the best known all over the mill, and even one of the women there suggested that I be president, but we both knew better. A woman president of a union? Nobody ever heard of that. So I couldn't be president, so we elected Preacher Camel for president, and a man vice president, and then I was elected secretary. I was nominated by one of the women there and I had no opposition, but I think the reason that I was nominated, they probably thought that I was the only one that would take it, because I had been so active in the organizing and all. But that's how I became 41:00the, the secretary, and a secretarial job is one I never have liked. I don't like that taking minutes, because I'm not good at it. I listen to what's going on, instead of taking notes, and then I forget what happened. So but I did, I was their first secretary.

HELFAND: Did you feel proud of yourself?

THORNBURGH: Not really. I would have preferred that some other woman take that job, to get them more active. I would have preferred that, but I had no opposition.


THORNBURGH: Now are we getting near the end?

HELFAND: We are getting there, we are getting there.


HELFAND: We are getting there.

THORNBURGH: I'll bet you hope so.

[break in video]

HELFAND: Why the workers were reacting to their bosses actually in the plant? Were they holding themselves differently or working differently?


THORNBURGH: I don't know whether it was actually showing or not, but they felt it, they felt it, and ah, believe it or not, some of the lower bosses that we called straw bosses, they were on our side, but they were afraid to say anything. So, we, we really got along all right with those bosses. Not to top management, you know, we didn't see them, and we knew what their attitude was toward us. But the straw bosses, the unit bosses, many of them were on our side, and particularly in the weave room. They were, they were on our side, but they didn't let the superintendent or the top management know about that.

HELFAND: So did you start to see a real difference in the day to day life of your mill over this period of organizing, at least in terms of the attitudes of 43:00the workers, even on their jobs and the way they were reacting to --

THORNBURGH: Oh yes, yeah, we could definitely see a change in their attitude there.

HELFAND: Say we could see a change in our relationship to the mill bosses, or the way that our brothers and sisters or our workers were reacting to the mill bosses being on the job.

THORNBURGH: Oh, ah, there was a difference. There was a difference. It seemed that there was more freedom. For instance, after we were organized and we found out that we were all together and all working toward the same cause, there wasn't that fear of the bosses. If a boss saw you dropping too many cones or 44:00you weren't getting production or something like that, you could be fired. And I think that feeling of confidence, I think the relationship between the straw bosses, the lower bosses there, and the employees, I think that improved, because that ah, sense of being fired, if I do this or I do the next thing, that seems to have left them, and there was a little more of a jovial feeling around all through the departments.

HELFAND: What about --

M: Cut real quick.

[break in video]

THORNBURGH: No, you're on a roll, I say.

HELFAND: They call it sexual -- I could ask that question while you get organized.

M: Yeah ask away.

HELFAND: They call it sexual harassment now, Lucille, but I heard tell that a lot of women were taken advantage of in these textile mills, that the bosses --


THORNBURGH: You know, I've heard about that too, but I certainly don't have any first hand knowledge of that, not at Cherokee. Now it could have been happening.

HELFAND: Call it what it is, I mean that the bosses were taking advantage of the girls.

THORNBURGH: Yeah, but I don't --

HELFAND: Could you repeat my sentence.

THORNBURGH: What did you say?

HELFAND: That term, that idea, that maybe I heard that bosses were taking advantage.

THORNBURGH: Oh, OK, you ready?


THORNBURGH: I heard that the bosses were taking advantage of the women workers there, but I did not see that at Cherokee. I had heard that it happened at other mills, but so far as I know, it didn't happen, it didn't happen at Cherokee. For one thing, I think the reason that we didn't have that, we had so many men and their wives were both working there. That might have been one of 46:00the reasons that we didn't have any, because I don't remember any of that ever happening at Cherokee.

HELFAND: I was just wondering, because I wondered.

THORNBURGH: I've, I've heard it.

HELFAND: If there was never any way for women to counter. There was advances and all of a sudden it seemed like maybe the union was a way for women to deal with the sexual harassment.

THORNBURGH: We did not have that at Cherokee.

HELFAND: Now, did you realize, as you were organizing, you were getting, you know that, this year and a half, prior to the strike, maybe you could help us get to the period before the strike, what people were starting. Not your mill, I understand, you guys were getting close to a contract.


HELFAND: But in other mills, they were actually losing members. People were being fired for joining the union, right, left, and center, at a lot of other mills. The stretch-out was getting worse and those compliance boards weren't doing anything about it. From what we understand, there was a real -- there was 47:00a rise in frustration that all of this organization wasn't starting to yield anything yet and management was getting away with bloody murder.

THORNBURGH: OK, go ahead. You ready?

M: Yeah.

THORNBURGH: OK. Before we started organizing at Cherokee, we had heard about these im -- wait a minute, start over. (coughs)

[break in video]

THORNBURGH: No, no, we shouldn't.

HELFAND: Let's start with that then.

THORNBURGH: OK. While, while we were in the organizing process, some of our members did get a little concerned, because they had heard of the places other than Knoxville, in the Carolinas and in Alabama and Georgia, where people were being fired because they had started to organize a union or had organized one. That made them a little fearful of that. They didn't know whether to join or 48:00not. So we had to overcome that and the way we did overcome it was, was by pointing out that people, since the NRA and Section 7A, that people all over the country were organizing and that they wouldn't be fired for this. And those people, our people too, could not understand why, with all these new regulations in the textile code, how these people could be dismissed like that. And it was confusing and it was hurtful, but we were able to overcome it.

HELFAND: When you say these people, you're saying that in these -- the cotton mill people in these other communities were getting dismissed, not in your community.

THORNBURGH: Right, right.

HELFAND: But that was driving people nuts. That's when they started writing letters even more.

THORNBURGH: Sure it did and that did, in a way, it affected our organizing, until we got it explained to them, you know, well, we won't let it happen here. 49:00It was happening other places, that people were getting fired for even attempting to organize, in spite of all the codes and all of the rules that we had. And it was, it was frightening, and I think that's when people started writing letters, wanting to know well, what the heck is going on here. We have a rule, we have legislation that says that we can organize, but we tried, we get fired.

HELFAND: How did you hear about this, about Georgia and Alabama, North and South Carolina?

THORNBURGH: There, there is more, let's see what would you call it, immigration, among textile workers, particularly among --

HELFAND: Start the sentence like that.

THORNBURGH: OK. There's a lot of changes in jobs in textile workers, particularly in weaving, because weaving in the highly skilled job. And we 50:00would hear it from a new weaver that would come in from somewhere, and he would say well, down at so and so, they tried to organize a union down there and they all got fired, you know. And then we'd hear it and then there is a community of textile workers. I know families here who had friends and family working in Gastonia, North Carolina, and so that's the way the word got around, and we'd hear about those people. It was not in the newspapers.

HELFAND: Because it was against the law.

THORNBURGH: Sure it was.

HELFAND: They weren't supposed to be doing that.

THORNBURGH: That's right, but they did.

HELFAND: OK, just repeat what I just said about it was against the law, they weren't supposed to be doing that, with some indignation.

THORNBURGH: These, these people knew about that law and they knew that that law was being violated, and that's why they were writing all their letters, to want to know what's going on here? We have the right to organize, still we're getting fired.


HELFAND: So, you guys are in this unique situation. You have 603 people in your plant organized, and these other little locals, they start to get themselves going and --

THORNBURGH: They get, they get fired.

HELFAND: OK, so help me get to this like rising, escalation story. Help me sort of bring it to this point where we have to then go to the national union and say hello? Help us do something, we have to bring this to the public.

THORNBURGH: Possibly, and I think one of the reasons that the nationwide textile strike was called, was because the laws that were in existence at that time were not being honored, and they had to do something. The laws were there but if management wasn't adhering to the laws, what recourse did the people have? Now, 52:00I ask you a question.

HELFAND: So what did the textile workers do?

THORNBURGH: We went on strike. I don't know what the others did, they did too.

HELFAND: So, was it the southern workers who basically brought it to the attention of the national union and say hello, we are having some trouble here and we have to deal with it.

THORNBURGH: I think the southern workers were the ones that brought it to the attention, because see, some of those places in New England, in the northern states, they had been organized, and they probably weren't being treated like the southern workers were. But the southern workers, I think Washington and maybe some other places, I think they misjudged the southern workers. They didn't know that they were shrewd enough to know that they had laws here and 53:00that those laws were being violated. But they did, they were on to that. That was something that affected them personally and they knew about it.

HELFAND: And were they shrewd enough to know that you were going to be able to organize hundreds of locals in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee? Thousands.

THORNBURGH: Yeah. You want that on there?


THORNBURGH: They were also shrewd enough to know.

HELFAND: No, they weren't shrewd enough though, they didn't --

THORNBURGH: I said that, they weren't -- how did you say it? You --

HELFAND: By the end, by 1934, we had hundreds and hundreds of locals, even though there was this discrimination going on.

THORNBURGH: I think our international union even, and possibly a lot of the general public, was surprised, when they found out how we southern cotton mill 54:00workers were organizing. We did keep organizing, and I think that we did that and I think that we showed some courage there, to continue our organizing, when actually the laws and the federal legislation that had been passed to protect us, was not doing its job. How's that?

HELFAND: What do you think management thought? Were they amazed?

THORNBURGH: I don't know what management, management probably was. Yeah, I think, I think management was the most surprised of all people, that southern workers would organize. They had always had that attitude, this is my plant, these are my bosses, these are my hands, and I think they were the most surprised group that there was anywhere, because they felt they had everything in hand and then we showed them, by uniting, that we had some strengths too. We didn't have any strength at all, you know, everybody knows that, and the 55:00strength of -- there's no strength in one, but when you're united, you do have strength.

HELFAND: When you think of that 60 years later, when you think and you see all those faces of all those workers who had all that hope, how do you feel?

THORNBURGH: Well, I feel, I feel good about those workers that had hope at that time, because I think, I think ah, most of us, it did turn out well. Some, maybe it was bad, but I think generally it was. I don't think our strike, even though the strike was lost, I don't think I agree with our union representatives. No organizing is ever wasted, because when you're organizing a person, you're certainly educating them to a certain extent, and even if you 56:00lose your strike, it's not a time wasted. I don't think our time was wasted in organizing these people, even though if later, they've gone on to something else or forgotten about it, our time wasn't wasted.

HELFAND: What if nobody knows about it now? What if they're afraid to tell their children about what they tried to do about 60 years ago?

THORNBURGH: Oh, I don't think that would happen now, do you?


THORNBURGH: Do you? Yeah, it might at that, it might at that. And there are people too that ah, that will not even talk about that strike, I think you run into that. They say it was a sad time in their lives, they don't want to remember it at all. And of course you have those people too, who were ashamed of the fact that they worked in a mill and they were on strike.