Dirt road, pines, North Carolina: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939
Washington, November 11, 1934
My dear Mr. Hopkins:
I came in today from Gastonia, and was as flat and grim as is to be expected. Miss Hickok very generously listened to what was on my mind; and suggested that I make out a supplementary report which would deal in greater detail with more matters than I included in my first report. I don't want to repeat: but my sources are the same as those cited for the report on South Carolina. This letter (or whatever) will deal with North Carolina as well.
I got a notice from your office asking about "protest groups." All during this trip I have been thinking to myself about that curious phrase "red menace", and wondering where said menace hid itself. Every house I visited--mill worker or unemployed--had a picture of the President. These ranged from newspaper clippings (in destitute homes) to large colored prints, framed in gilt cardboard. The portrait holds the place of honour over the mantel; I can only compare this to the Italian peasant's Madonna. And the feeling of these people for the president is one of the most remarkable emotional phenomena I have ever met. He is at once God and their intimate friend; he knows them all by name, knows their little town and mill, their little lives and problems. And, though everything else fails, he is there, and will not let them down.
I have been seeing people who, according to almost any standard, have practically nothing in life and practically nothing to look forward to or hope for. But there is hope; confidence, something intangible and real: "the president isn't going to forget us."
Let me cite cases: I went to see a woman with five children who was living on relief ($3.40 a week.) Her picture of the President was as a small one, and she told me her oldest daughter had been married some months ago and had cried for the big, coloured picture as a wedding present. The children have no shoes and that woman is terrified of the coming cold as if it were a definite physical entity. There is practically no furniture left in the home, and you can imagine what and how they eat. But she said, suddenly brightening, "I'd give my heart to see the President. I know he means to do everything he can for us; but they make it hard for him; they won't let him." I note this case as something special; because here the faith was coupled with a feeling (entirely sympathetic) that the President was not entirely omnipotent.
I have been seeing mill workers; and in every mill when possible, the local Union president. There has been widespread discrimination in the south; and many mills haven't re-opened since the strike. Those open often run on such curtailment that workers are getting from 2 to 3 days work a week. The price of food has risen (especially the kind of food they eat: fat-back bacon, flour, meal, sorghum) as high as 100%. It is getting cold; and they have no clothes. The Union presidents are almost all out of work, since the strike. In many mill villages, evictions have been served; more threatened. These men are in a terrible fix. (Lord, how barren the language seems: these men are faced by hunger and cold, by the prospect of becoming dependent beggars--in their own eyes: by the threat of homelessness, and their families dispersed. What more can a man face, I don't know.) You would expect to find them maddened with fear; with hostility. I expected and waited for "lawless" talk; threats; or at least, blank despair. And I didn't find it. I found a kind of contained and quiet misery; fear for their families and fear that their children wouldn't be able to go to school. ("All we want is work and the chance to care for our families like a man should.") But what is keeping them sane, keeping them going on and hoping, is their belief in the President.
What the rights and wrongs of this are, I don't know. But the fact remains that they believe the President promised them they would get their jobs back, after the strike, regardless of whether they were union or non-union men. This is their credo. Therefore, since the President promised it, it will happen; it must. They simply wait for the Labor Councilations Board, confidently; knowing that this Board is the President's, and that it will obviously do the just thing. They know that the President will see that they have work and proper wages; and that the stretch-out will be abandoned. They don't waver in this faith; they don't question it. They merely hope the President will send "his men" (The Labor Councilators) quickly; because it is hard to wait.
These are the things they say to me; "We trust in the Supreme Being and Franklin Roosevelt."--"You heard him talk over the radio, ain't you? He's the only president who ever said anything about the forgotten man. We know he's going to stand by us."--"He's a man of his word and he promised us; we aren't worrying as long as we got him"--"The president won't let these awful conditions go on."--"The president wanted the Code. The president knows why we struck."--"The president said no man was going to go hungry and cold; he'll get us our jobs."--
They asked me about the President; have I ever seen him. The women say: "He's got such good eyes; he must be a kind man." Like children; a feeling that is half love and half reverent faith.
I am going on and on about this because I think it has vast importance. These people will be slow to give up hope; terribly slow to doubt the president. But if they don't get their jobs; then what? If the winter comes on and they find themselves on our below-subsistence relief; then what? I think they might strike again; hopelessly and apathetically. In very few places, there might be some violence speedily crushed. But if they lose this hope, there isn't much left for them as a group. And I feel [that if] this class (whatever marvelous stock they are, too) loses its courage or morale or whatever you want to call it, there will be an even worse social problem than there now is. And I think that with time, adding disillusionment and suffering, they might actually go against their own grain and turn into desperate people. As it is, between them and fear, stands the President. But only the President.
To go on with the mills. The stretch-out is the constant cry of the workers. This is a very complex problem; needless to say every mill owner angrily denies that there is a stretch-out and some of them ask you what the word means. One owner (who seemed a very good guy in many ways) literally said to me "I just don't know what you're talking about; never heard of that word; it doesn't mean anything to me." But I saw, by intention, some of his workers; a couple of them had quit his mill after the strike. (They were union people; and also felt that as union people they would be highly unwelcome there, when the mills re-opened). They told me that during the summer 2 to 3 women a day fainted in the mill; and a man of 33 died, between his looms, of heart failure. Other cases: "When you get out, you're just trembling all over, and you can't hardly get rested for the next day.". . ."We don't know how long we can keep it up; it's killing the women and the men are all afraid they will lose their jobs because they can't do the work." I went to see one man in his home, and said, "How are you?" "Tired," he said, "tired and weary--like all the others; like all of us working here." That sounds like something out of Dickens; but it was pretty grim, seeing the man. Their faces are proof of this statement; faces and bodies. The people who seem most physically hit by this are the young girls; who are really in awful shape. I have watched them in some mills where the naked eye can tell that the work load is inhuman. They have no rest for 8 hours; in one mill they told me they couldn't get time to cross the room to the drinking fountain for water. They eat standing up, keeping their eyes on the machines. In another mill I found three women lying on the cement floor of the toilet, resting...
Martha Gellhorn: excerpt from a report to Federal Emergency Relief Administration Director Harry Hopkins, from Gaston County, North Carolina, November 11, 1934 (Hopkins Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library). Gellhorn was one of a group of reporters assigned by Hopkins in late 1933 to investigate social and economic conditions around America in the grip of the Depression. She had traveled on fact-finding missions to the impoverished textile mill areas of the Carolinas, where in the past oppressive working conditions had given rise to strikes. ("I don't want the social-worker angle," Hopkins had advised another of the reporters, Lorena Hickok. "I just want your own reactions, as an ordinary citizen.")
Siler City, North Carolina: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939
Grocery store window, Mebane, North Carolina: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939
Photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress